Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is attending a slew of Russian hosted high profile meetings including those of the SCO and BRIC in Yekaterinburg which would be viewed keenly by most international watchers. The SCO, keenly nurtured by Russia and China as an exclusive nucleus, had hitherto excluded those with observer status from its core deliberations. The forum became popular as an embryonic counterpoise to the United States after 2005 when it bluntly issued a quit notice to the US from Central Asia and decided to salvage an assortment of autocrats being ostracized by the West. Since then, even Iran has been seeking shelter under the SCO auspices.
Why has Russia changed the summit format this time around to include Iran, India, Pakistan and Mongolia in the core deliberations? While it reflects the changing international realignment, the spin now emerging clearly indicates that Russia is counter-strategizing to deal with global issues or at the least it is unwilling to concede the challenges being posed by NATO. The rift with the trans-Atlantic alliance continues as Moscow has rejected the idea of exerting pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme in exchange for the US abandoning its planned missile defense system in Eastern Europe. For its part, NATO has not abandoned its quest to bring Ukraine and Georgia within its fold. The standoff over Georgia also continues.
It is also clear that Russia’s showdown with Georgia has changed the rules of the game. Moscow had lost diplomatic face not only in Europe but also in Asia. Many of Russia’s friends including SCO members were incensed by its adventurism towards former-republics, including the way in which it had been using gas as an instrument for arm-twisting. China and the Central Asian states were wary of Russia’s action and as such they did not endorse Moscow’s call for recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossestia during the last SCO summit in Dushanbe. The adroit Chinese were certainly not keen to pick a fight at the risk of ruining relations with the West. Moscow has also perhaps realized that it is fast losing influence in the Eurasian space, especially given that the global meltdown has made Central Asian states more dependent on China. The former Soviet republics are relying more on Chinese driven institutions than moribund organization led by Russia. Unlike Russia, China has showed no inclination for prematurely confronting the West. Instead, it was cautious about admitting Iran into the SCO as a full member and may have moderated Central Asian behavior to the chagrin of Moscow.
It is against the backdrop of this trend of Russia losing economic, political and cultural attractiveness vis-à-vis China that we should see Moscow’s attempt to bring India fully into the Eurasian space. Another reliable partner is Russia’s old trusted ally - Mongolia. India’s inclusion is also linked to the global financial crisis. Both Russia and China have been attempting to evolve a fresh financial architecture, including a proposal for a new global currency to replace the dollar as a way to preempt another financial meltdown. Russia hopes that Brazil, India and China would join hands as part of the BRIC forum to push the idea further.
The SCO meeting would be significant especially since it is being held against the backdrop of the new American Af-Pak Plan and Obama’s attempt to muster the support of regional powers to make his Afghan policy a success. The SCO, under Russia’s presidency, has been talking about Afghanistan more seriously than before mainly because the focus of geopolitics has shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan – Russia’s traditional backyard. In fact, the high profile March 2009 Conference in Moscow clearly set the stage for the SCO to play a stepped-up role, when it announced a roadmap to deal with increasing security concerns emanating from Afghanistan. It called for comprehensive cooperation against terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime. The Russians suspect that the global economic downturn may have had an impact on the Taliban as well and thus strengthen the drugs trade. But SCO efforts are being hampered by the NATO presence in Afghanistan. The Russians claim that Afghan opium production increased 44 times after NATO and US troops were deployed in the region and since the withdrawal of Russian border guards from Tajik-Afghan border in 2005.
Moscow has shown willingness to provide transit routes for NATO shipment across Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan. But this is being downplayed by the US which prefers to rely upon Pakistani supply routes. Attempts would be made by the SCO to bring Afghanistan within its fold this time. As the US intends to deal with and not confront the Taliban, Moscow fears that there will be a power vacuum in Afghanistan upsetting the existing balance. Some SCO declarations may come as music to Indian ears, since they would be a contrast to the NATO’s military approach and are likely to insist upon Pakistan stopping terrorism emanating from its soil. For New Delhi, the SCO may provide a useful platform to counter the negative fallout for Indian interests emerging from the Af-Pak plan. India had earlier pushed for a policy that integrates development projects in Afghanistan with security initiatives and has also insisted that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Taliban.
It is also likely that Russia is once again trying to use its leverage to soften India with regard to ongoing tension with Pakistan. Putin made a failed attempt earlier to bring together Vajpayee and Musharraf at a similar summit held in Almaty in 2002. Vajpayee did not relent.
The SCO carries a range of ambitious goals under its charter as letter of intent, including the development of an energy club, an inter-bank consortium, and cultural centres to set up an SCO university. But all in all, its strength is slightly exaggerated. The grouping suffers from nebulous internal contradictions. Everyone plays a game under the SCO template. There are internal discords and competing interests. Behind the SCO façade both China and Russia are competing for energy deals with Central Asian states. And like in Africa, Chinese firms are buying resource mines by befriending the region’s corrupt regimes, and in the process is fuelling corruption and undermining a host of environmental and labour standards.
The importance of India is occasionally aired by the SCO members, but in reality Russians and Central Asians only pay lip service while China effectively scuttles anything positive involving India in the Eurasian space. Decades of Indian efforts for an energy deal with Central Asian states remain frustrated. Except on security issues there is little that India can achieve in the SCO. The danger is that though the SCO is not a military block, it is increasingly getting securitized due to stepped-up co-operation to fight terrorism through intelligence consultations and large-scale military exercises. Many have dubbed it as an Asian NATO.
There is nothing wrong in Manmohan Singh attending the Yekaterinburg meeting even if it is a low diplomatic parade. It is also alright if the Prime Minister wants to dispel the myth that he only cares for Washington. In any event, India stands to gain by being courted by other centres of power rather than placing all its eggs in the American basket.