“I convey our deep sense of gratitude to the members of the SCO for accepting India as a full member,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Ufa, Russia, in July 2015.
One year later, that membership is still proving elusive.
Although the required documents for the accession of India (and Pakistan) to the SCO were completed last month in time for ratification at the Tashkent summit on June 23–24, there appears to be an unexplained hitch to India getting full membership this year.
SCO secretary-general Rashid Alimov announced on June 14 that India will only inch a step closer to membership at the Tashkent summit, but did not disclose a concrete timeframe for its full entry.
Clearly, there has been a change of mind, making India’s path to membership to the Eurasian body more thorny.
Alimov said that candidates must adopt all required documents in accordance with SCO procedures and that it will have to sign a ‘memorandum on the commitments’ of applicant states in Tashkent. The caveat here is that India and Pakistan must sign the relevant mandatory conventions and draft documents – supposedly 28 of them – that exist within the SCO framework. According to Alimov, this will take time.
The condition set by the SCO is that the key document, which relates to ‘good neighbourhood’, must be agreed upon by India before it can expect full membership, which Alimov believes will take anywhere between six months to a year. In other words, the onus is on India and Pakistan to adhere to the SCO’s expectations – the organisation appears to be demanding the equivalent of a ‘peace treaty’ between the neighbouring countries before they enter the SCO as full members.
After the Ufa summit last year, Modi and the Indian delegation assumed India’s entry into the SCO was a done deal. But against the backdrop of growing big power rivalries from Eurasia to the ‘Indo-Pacific’, the China-led Eurasian grouping – which is intended both as a counterweight to the US-led global order and a key link in Beijing’s new plans for connectivity– appears unsure of India’s full commitment to the SCO’s raison d’etre and charter.
The failure to set criteria, rules, procedures and a timeline has delayed India’s entry into the regional grouping. Russia traditionally pushed India’s case for full membership, but China wanted Pakistan’s entry as well. Only Mongolia was welcomed as a member but was hesitant to join. UN sanctions obstructed Iran’s entry.
Over the past few years, the insistence on paperwork appeared to be merely a pretext for China to keep the SCO as its exclusive domain, one in which the inclusion of India was not a priority – or even a requirement. Though delaying India’s entry meant doing the same for Pakistan and Iran, Beijing had other windows of opportunity to deal with Islamabad and Tehran.
The SCO cited a number of reasons to delay expansion, especially its misgivings about getting mired in South Asian conflicts, with the failure of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation often used as an alibi. Even Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, said during the Ufa summit that the inclusion of India and Pakistan into the grouping would change the very character of the SCO.
Despite its high visibility, the SCO’s progress has actually remained spotty – both in its efficacy and profile. For years, the group’s achievements were seen as an index of China’s bilateral initiatives and its outside image was that of a ‘club of autocrats’ kept afloat by Chinese funding. But things seemed to change in September 2013 when Chinese president Xi Jinping unveiled the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative – a plan to integrate Eurasia via economic and infrastructure connectivity.
Since then, the need to push China’s connectivity and market integration has spurred renewed interest in the SCO’s expansion. Thus, India featured high in Xi’s calculus.
Sino-Russian ties got a boost under Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi with greater synergy between Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and China’s OBOR schemes. The Ukraine crisis and the ensuing fallout with the West probably forced Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to seek diversification in ties beyond their immediate neighbourhood.
Security concerns in the region also pushed the idea of expanding the SCO. Challenges from the US drawdown from Afghanistan since 2014, ISIS’s increasing footprints and the spate of terrorist incidents in China’s Xinjiang province were compelling factors.
Russia still views the SCO’s utility in ideological terms as a counterpoise to the West. But the grouping’s key driver, China, treats it as a vehicle for expanding its geopolitical and geo-economic interests.
Roping India into the SCO was needed to provide fresh vitality, greater voice and prestige to the grouping, which had hitherto remained China-centric. The fact that India-Pakistan tensions were seen by SCO members as an obstacle provides a clue to rapidly confected joint statement issued by the two countries in Ufa last year. With UN sanctions being eased, Iran is next in line to be roped in. The SCO’s organisational texture has evolved with the inclusion of other non–Eurasians states; Belarus has observer status, while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal, Turkey and Sri Lanka are dialogue partners.
India’s SCO membership prospects are closely linked to ongoing global rebalancing games and are not unrelated to the deepening of Indo-US military ties, New Delhi’s position on the South China Sea and the country’s bid to join the coveted NSG club.
The SCO is mainly welded on Sino–Russian entente – underscored more firmly by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tashkent in May.
India’s cesire to join the Eurasian group comes at a time when New Delhi is more decidedly aligning itself with the US’s strategic vision of pivoting to the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region – now no longer a euphemism for a China containment strategy.
Indo–US ties have deepened further since the Ufa summit last year. Any ambiguity that may have existed so far in the Chinese mind stands removed after Modi’s recent visit to Washington. Given the range of military and technological cooperation agreements signed, bilateral ties will only grow to unprecedented levels.
The US decision to push for virtual ‘ally’ status for India and India’s willingness to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) may force a rethink within the SCO on the pace of its engagement with New Delhi. On their part, however, the Indians can always argue that the country’s growing ties with the US are not meant to target others. In fact, Pakistan’s status as a ‘major non-NATO ally’ never came in the way of Sino-Pakistan military ties. Similarly, New Delhi’s closer ties with Washington ought not to prevent it from boosting ties with Russia and China, for which India already has multiple avenues for engagement, such as BRICS and the EAEU.
However, what is now clear is that the Indo-US entente is likely to grow beyond the military sphere to committing themselves to promoting shared values and interests in the Asian region This could contradict the SCO’s aspiration of becoming a counterpoise to Western dominance.
India’s objective lies not in playing the interests of the US and China against each other but in building strong relations with both powers, as well as Russia. Once Iran joins the SCO, perhaps India will be in a better position to play a balancing role.
The SCO is likely to face many conflicting interests, from regional and global issues to combating international terrorism, and India’s position may sometimes be at odds with that of other members.
China by its own assertion stands committed to fight against the “three evils” – terrorism, separatism and religious extremism – through the SCO. It has promised not to make use of internal conflict as a tool to sabotage the security of others and opposes applying double standards on terrorism. However, in practice Beijing’s double-speak on terrorism has been quite evident.
It has used the SCO to fight only those cases of terror that fit with its own definition of terrorism. On the one hand, China describes Uyghur activism in Xinjiang as an act of terror and wants others to support its fight against the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. But on the other hand, it refuses to oppose some terrorist groups that attack other countries.
Beijing has been using Pakistan and its instruments of terror to expand its own geopolitical interests. Such double-speak on terrorism may have prompted India to up the ante by allowing a group of Uyghur political activists to participate in a gathering in India. This Indian attempt at needling China came in the wake of China’s move to block India’s bid to get Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maood Azhar and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi banned by the UN.
The issue surrounding the granting of a visa to Uyghur leader Dolkun Isa was a clear message to Beijing that India too can play around with the definition of terrorism and it can also hit China where it hurts.
China is also serious about using the SCO to garner support for its case on the South China Sea dispute. In Tashkent, SCO foreign ministers sided with the Chinese stance. China will expect India to be in consonance with the SCO’s position, no matter how difficult that may be. Not doing so would surely be dubbed as an unconstructive role on India’s part.
Fifty years ago, Soviet mediation produced an agreement between India and Pakistan at Tashkent. However, the resulting peace under the famous Tashkent Declaration did not last long. Today, Russia and others still contemplate SCO making a pivoting point to beget a gradual thawing of Indo–Pak tension.
The SCO does facilitate large-scale diplomatic and security interactions at different levels. It also , provides a rare opportunity for the militaries of member states to engage in joint military drills where they coordinate on operational details and share intelligence. However, there is little prospect of the SCO breaking the Sino-Pak strategic nexus. As long as New Delhi and Islamabad do not resume their dialogue, Pakistan is likely to carry its anti-India rhetoric to the platform while China will continue to use Pakistan to blunt India’s influence in Eurasia should it join the club.
To be sure, the SCO will inherently remain a fragile regional grouping. Russia and China are important, but the positions of the Central Asian states fluctuate regularly in line with their interests. India needs to build its own leverages with these countries to be an effective member of the SCO. But more importantly, India will do well if it is able to avoid becoming a focal point of criticism.
Does SCO membership actually hold any direct potential gains for India?
For India, the SCO has been about increasing its political, economic and security stakes in Central Asia. This is why New Delhi keenly pursued formal entry despite critics at home challenging the wisdom of joining a Chinese-led body as a junior member with lesser political voice.
Entry to the SCO would create new opportunities for India to reconnect with Eurasia after a century of disruption. And it shares security concerns with the region, especially to related to combating terrorism and containing threats posed by ISIS and the Taliban.
India could benefit by tapping into the SCO’s existing regional anti-terrorist structure that shares key information and intelligence on the movement of terrorists and drug–trafficking. Participation in the SCO’s counter-terror exercises could benefit our armed forces.
India also stands to gain information on drug control, cyber security threats, public information, mass media, educational, environmental, disaster management and water related issues of Eurasia – an area that we know little about.
SCO membership will also provide India an avenue to secure its energy interests and invest in oilfields with an eye of getting its way on the pipeline routes.
It can bring mutually beneficial partnerships. India could bring to the SCO table its techno–economic expertise, markets and financial commitment.
India’s experience in dealing with multi–cultural settings is an attraction among sections in Central Asia and the countries are appreciative of Indian efforts towards the civilian reconstruction process in Afghanistan.
On the connectivity front, OBOR and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have certainly put India in a quandary. Rhetoric aside, a set of projects envisaged under OBOR/CPEC could transform the region north of India into new economic hub and a zone of joint projects, which would definitely have an impact on India.
Russia and Central Asia have reconciled their own transport connectivity plans with that of OBOR to transform the region into a major hub of the transcontinental transportation network. Afghanistan too supports the CPEC.
Iran is perhaps the only country that is not fully convinced that OBOR is a transparent initiative. Chinese port projects in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Djibouti and Oman are certainly driven by geopolitical motives, something that concerns both Iran and India.
By joining the SCO, India can think more sharply on how to respond to OBOR and find ways to join both the Russian and Chinese built transport network. In fact, India should be consulting Iran, Russia and the Caucasus states to coordinate on the various connectivity projects.
By committing investment to develop the Chabahar port, India has indicated its seriousness to boost regional connectivity. In fact, the Chabahar announcement and the inauguration of the Salma Dam in Afghanistan also signalled India’s strong commitment to the regional integration process.
Hopefully, the Chabahar port will not only provide India access to Central Asian, Caspian, Iranian and Western Siberian gas fields but will also pave the way for India to tap the vast deposits of high value rare earth minerals in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
To exploit the opportunities under the SCO process, India cannot take any position other than a cooperative one. India should certainly join the SCO with a fresh mind without any ambiguity. At the same time, it should be mindful of the geopolitical calculations underpinning these connectivity projects.
P. Stobdan served as Ambassador in Central Asia and is currently a Senior Fellow at IDSA, New Delhi.
The article was originally published in The Wire