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Shanghai Cooperation Organization and India

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • July 14, 2014

    Undoubtedly, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is one of the remarkable regional developments in the Eurasian space in the post-Cold War era. Particularly, the SCO annual summits with the participation of high profile Russian and Chinese Presidents draw huge global media attention. The SCO declarations have profound diplomatic impact for international balance of power. Recently, the Secretary General of the SCO, Dmitry Mezentsev has concluded that SCO has attained the stage of maturity in 2013 (Bishkek Summit) when the member states reconciled all their differing positions for strengthening the organization. A clear strategy seems to have been prepared for the organization until 2025. Moreover, the recently held Beijing meet had laid emphasis on the need to engage the Observer states on issues that previously had not included in the format of interaction "6 +2". This makes the status of Observer states more clear.

    The atmosphere for cooperation among regional countries in multifaceted area is more visible now than before. The “Good neighbourliness” Document: 2013-2017, which envisaged a series of mechanisms for the implementations of SCO projects such as Transport, Communication, Intellectual Property, Business Council, Inter-State Banking, University Networking, Educational projects, Regional Security (Afghanistan), Military Cooperation, Inter-State Border Disputes, Enhancing Friendship and Prosperity, Enhancing Global Prestige of SCO etc are positive steps in the right direction. In fact, these mechanisms are not only going to strengthen the SCO but also beneficial for the whole region.

    Over the years, the scope of SCO has widened to include the interests of countries beyond the Eurasian space. Countries like Belarus, Turkey and Sri Lanka are now dialogue partners. To be sure, political and not regional consideration may have underscored to include them. Again and to be sure, such decisions and improvements in the organizational texture have made the SCO internationally more attractive. But, it is also true that there are little achievements for the SCO to show on the ground in terms of implementing regional economic schemes. In fact, member states are themselves critical of the lack of progress at all level.

    There is no denying that the Eurasian economic dynamism has picked up over the decades. But it is more a product of inter-state initiatives and agreements than through collective regional efforts. For example, China has successfully implemented a series of transportation and infrastructure projects initially with Kazakhstan. China is now actively engaging Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in enhancing infrastructure projects. Similarly, Russian has made many initiatives on the regional front. But essentially they are again bilateral achievements in nature.

    While the need for accelerating regional integration and cooperation keeps the spirit of SCO going, a serious apprehension is growing regarding rising undercurrents of competition than cooperation between the two key players Russia and China in Eurasia – both are leveraging the SCO as a tool to strengthen their position in Central Asia. As the issues shifts away from regional security to economic cooperation, some impending questions seem arising from the critical areas of financing and investments aspects - considered as prospects with large ramifications across the region. Serious contradictions if not clash of interests seemed on the rise between the Russian supported Eurasian Economic Union and Chinese proposal for an Economic Belt along the ancient Silk Route. Russian mistrust about Chinese projects seems growing. The view in Russia is that President Xi Jinping had never mentioned India, Pakistan and Iran in his Silk Route pronouncement in 2013 - as if they are a separate problem. The Russians doubt whether the Silk Route idea intends to target the post-Soviet space only.

    As the US Air Force has finally vacated its Manas Transit Centre based in Kyrgyzstan on June 3 2014, the region is getting less rhetorical against the West. Unlike in the past, when the SCO accused the West for working against Russia's traditional and China's growing influence in Central Asia, the emerging perception is that the US is focusing less on the “Central Asia and the Caucasus” issue and instead but lays more emphasis on “Central and South Asia”. The SCO finds that the US interests in Eurasia are only terrorism specific - centring around Afghanistan. The SCO in the past commonly perceived the Western promoted human rights and democracy issues intrusion and threat to the sovereignty of the states. But, a growing view now is that democracy is less threatening than the Chinese projects that may seriously undercut Russia’s long term interests in its traditional Asian backyard.

    The Afghan situation and its fall out after the US drawdown, in fact, causes unease more among the SCO member states including China and Russia. The SCO has no clear idea as to how the organization would deal with the challenges if the chaos there flares up to engulf the region. Even the Russian leaders have expressed concerns about NATO’s hasty withdrawal leaving behind a colossal regional security issues that would threaten Russia’s interests. Recently, the Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov has said that ISAF “has been too hasty about making the final decision to pull out.”

    The SCO region, including Western China and Western Mongolia, has about hundred million Muslim population that too of Sunni Salafi variant. The Taliban and Al-Qaida affiliate, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) are aggressively pursuing their agenda beyond Afghanistan into Central Asia. Interestingly, Xinjiang is becoming more volatile with the introduction of Jihadi elements “suicide bombers” never faced by the Chinese authorities before. To be sure, the US withdrawal will speed up the spread of terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and instability throughout Central Asia.

    One must also never overlook the fact that the Central Asian states, despite the SCO bindings showed their strong inclinations for cooperating with the West on a broad set of issues. To that extent, SCO solidarity is likely to remain fragile. Besides, there seems to be a growing political unease among the member states after the recent events in Ukraine. Russia’s new geopolitical activism is causing a sense of insecurity if not a fear or threat to their sovereignty. Russia wants to preserve its traditional influence in Central Asia on the lines of the Eurasian integration idea for the former Soviet republics; as evident from Russian approach to the events in Georgia and Ukraine. Central Asia is much closer to Russia than any other states in terms of politics, culture and values. It is difficult to imagine how Russia will allow its influence to dwindle from Central Asia.

    Similarly, China’s growing influence including the cultural influence through the promotion of Chinese language will eventually bounce back. China’s economic assertion through the “Silk Route” formulation seemed to be causing some unease among regional experts. So long as Russia was unable to come out from the post-Soviet structural difficulties and the fact that Moscow was pre-occupied with the West in Eastern Europe, China was able to find some space to expand its influence in Eurasia. In fact, the Chinese underlined the point that they have mended most of the post-Soviet difficulties faced by the states. A view now emerging is that China poses both threat and source of development for Central Asia. The growing contradiction between China and Russia is a sensitive matter and it may eventually impede SCO’s growth. The eventual clash of interests between the two Russia and China could presage problem for the organization.

    Already, some members push the idea of creating a uniform financial term, while others favour the Chinese idea of establishing the SCO Development Bank. While the economic projects were not affecting the sovereignty issue, but the idea of “Chinese language integration” is a matter of serious concern to the Russians and others. But, of course, the Tajiks and Kyrgyz would consider China as a factor of stability for the immediate financial benefits they gain from Beijing. Kyrgyzstan, in fact, might seek a relationship with China beyond the economic and trade to expand the cultural including the promotion of Chinese language along the Silk Route. China sponsors hundreds of scholarship to Kyrgyz nationals every year. Besides, China has already opened secondary schools in Kyrgyzstan with Chinese language medium. Similarly, Tajiks appreciate China’s contribution for stabilizing Tajik economy and building infrastructure.

    On the other hand, Uzbekistan, however, remains bit sceptical about SCO’s achievements. Tashkent takes strong interest in the SCO albeit with an aim to pursue its own agenda. The Uzbeks want the regional body to adopt a more practical approach and lay emphasis on undertaking transport and infrastructure projects. For Tashkent, the completion of China - Kyrgyzstan - Uzbekistan railway and road construction is critical. The Uzbeks appear less enthusiastic about SCO activities focusing only on exploiting the region’s hydrocarbon resources; instead, they wish to lay more emphasis on boosting technological capabilities, job availability and growth of social sector. To be sure, for Tashkent, the internal issues of the region such as the impact of climate change, illegal migration, threat from Afghanistan, water disputes, nuclear security aspects are more important.

    The SCO has been keen to bring in Mongolia as member of the organization. But Ulaanbaatar’s reluctance to join the regional outfit has puzzled the SCO members. Mongolia has been vocal about SCO’s ineffectiveness of the SCO. It sees the SCO making no progress on any front. Instead, Mongolia sees the member-states pursuing different interests; some are locked in political and regional rivalries - pursuing their hidden agendas, others have serious inter-state disputes over border, water and resources. For Mongolia, the regional security situation i.e., Afghanistan, is mostly dealt by the West and international organizations and not by the SCO. Mongolia has a serious existential identity problem of being associated with the former Soviet republics. Mongolia sees Eurasia as a Muslim populated problematic region and as such prefers to refrain from getting involved in regional issues. It wishes to evolve an identity as a nation more associated with the East Asian dynamics. Nevertheless, Mongolia is still observing the SCO process and its interests in SCO are unlikely to be drawn except in few specific infrastructure projects such as railway and road infrastructure projects. It will remain non-committal to the political aspects of the SCO. Mongolia’s commitment to its relations with the US, Japan and India could be one of the reasons for staying away from the Chinese-led SCO grouping.

    Afghanistan, as an Observer, has not shown much interest in the SCO. Obviously, its internal situation and preparation for change of regime may have kept Kabul less enthusiastic about developments in its northern neighbours. However, given the current situation of American hold over the country, Afghanistan like Mongolia would be reluctant to join the SCO. It sees the SCO a forum for high voltage politics. This is perhaps based on the understanding that US-China-Russia competitions are unlikely change and Afghanistan would stay away from such competition. Engaging in soft areas like the Silk Route projects would be another matter. On the security front, the Afghans increasingly articulate the point that source of trouble for Afghanistan emanates less from internal sources but more from external sources mainly from the FATA (Pakistan), Ferghana (Central Asia), and Chechnya (Russia).

    Among the SCO Partners, Belarusian interest in the SCO is merely to supplement the Russian-led Customs Union. But Sri Lanka’s Partner status draws curious attention. Surely, this must be a Chinese prompting. The idea of Colombo is to take diplomatic shelter under bigger organization. The country has experienced isolation in the recent past over issue relating its long and difficult civil war that was fought without outside organizational backing.

    Turkey, recently drawn into the SCO as a Partner, probably with Kyrgyz support, would be keen to replicate its policy of playing the balancing role like the one it pursues with the Europe, Asia and the Islamic world. Essentially, Turkey would like to play on the three principles: mutual security, mutual economic opportunity and mutual respect for cultures (universal culture). To be sure, Turkey with its historical, linguistic and religious affinity with the populations of Central Asia occupies an important position in the region. Turkey has also invested in infrastructure, education and health as well as developed cultural and other links with Central Asia. Turkey has the potential to add value to the SCO but China will remain sceptical about Ankara’s role especially relating to its affinity with China’s Uighur population. The role of Turkey in SCO could prove to be an interesting space to watch.

    The Expansion Issue

    In the past, the members have been advocating the idea of SCO as an open organization, but in practice, they remained cautious about expanding the organization to even include the observer states. The need for preparing a draft document and rule procedures for expansion has been under discussion since 2010, but the issue remained unimplemented due to serious differences and apprehension among members. In the recent years, the process of new membership to the SCO was made more difficult due to the inclusion of new clause that required all heads of the member states to sign the membership document. In 2010, Iran was about to be made a member but the UN Sanction on Iran prevented China and Russia from signing the document. To be a member, the state, among other things, has to be located in Eurasia; it must have an observer or partnership status within the SCO; it must maintain diplomatic relations and active economic and humanitarian ties with all existing SCO members; it should not be subject to UN sanctions or in a state of armed conflict with another country.

    At the political level, Russia has been pushing for India’s membership, but China was less enthusiastic and instead Beijing pushed for Pakistan’s entry into the grouping. Of course, the differences still persist as some of the Central Asian states would wish to pursue the organization’s goals within the Central Asian framework. Some would articulate the spatial factor for Pakistan and Iran having greater chance to be SCO members. There are also those members who wish to differentiate between expansion and cooperation. Many SCO experts argued to cite the example European Union (EU) expansion, which was a gradual process and took a long time to accept other members.

    Moreover, the experts have been citing the technical issue of Russian and Chinese being the only official languages of the SCO – therefore a reason to keep the English speaking countries from entering the grouping. At the expert level, the SCO had been also cautious about the intentions and behaviors of the observers-states. The expansion, according to them could go against the interest of the organization. Reference had been frequently made to the Indo-Pak problem that could potentially drag the SCO into geopolitical controversy. For quite long, the experts have not shown eagerness for expansion and neither the criteria not a timetable for expansion was pushed seriously. Moreover, by citing the technical reasons of “official language” the SCO experts have been taking a cautious if not an isolationist position on the expansion issue. By in large, no SCO members want to prevent Mongolia’s entry except the Mongols themselves. While India has not applied formally for membership; Iran cannot be accepted as long as sanctions are not lifted. Many remain doubtful about Pakistan’s ability to control more than half of its own territory.

    New Imperatives

    Although there is an increasing urge among the member states to strengthen the SCO, a lack of clarity as to how the SCO can be made more than a paper tiger is visible. Any substantive progress in the SCO remained elusive because the member states, especially both China and Russia, envisage stability of the region by seeking regime security and not change. The internal differences and cold relations between the regional states also adversely impacted the SCO’s growth. Conflict over water resources and land border continue to underscore the gravity of internal differences. The Uzbeks are especially concerned about any mega hydro-projects being undertaken under the SCO auspices. Therefore, the point really is that, so far, only the financial incentives seemed to have kept the SCO afloat.

    However, in the changed context, what would worry them is not just the fall out of the US drawdown from Afghanistan but also the unseen consequences of evolving situation in West Asia, the sectarian strife and the fear of the spread of ISIS activities beyond West Asian into Eurasia. Some Central Asian states appear disappointed with ineffectiveness of the SCO efforts to deal with Afghan fallouts especially the flow of drug trafficking. Of course, the events in Ukraine have had a ripple effect in Central Asia. They are worried about Russia’s tendency for new imperialism and fear the loss of their sovereignty. That is why more and more questions are raised whether the organization could grow without considering the involvement of India, Iran and others in practical areas of cooperation. As the situation on the Afghan front remains uncertain, the SCO, much as it wants, would find it difficult to ignore the South Asian countries. So far, the SCO in general also contextualized the expansion issue from the standpoint of antagonistic or favourable relationship: Iran-US antagonistic relationship and Indian-Afghan favourable relationship with the US. However, in the changed geopolitics, the SCO should fear that Iran would soon slip out of the Chinese and Russian hands and India might pursue its own regional course.

    Nonetheless, the expansion issue is still being debated, but more positive views are coming to fore in favour of the inclusion of the Observers states that could also provide a greater voice to the SCO. To be sure, the statuary documents, including the procedures for expansion seemed finalized and they are expected receive approval in the next SCO Summit in Dushanbe in September this year.

    India’s Position & Interests

    Despite all the limitations, India had expressed its intention to be a part of the SCO process since 2005 at the Astana Summit. Since then India has been enthusiastically participating in all SCO activities as an Observer, for it sincerely believed that there are many stakes especially in the security and economic spheres of the Eurasian space. However, there have been several issues relating its full membership into SCO that require elaboration.

    First, it was very apparent that China being the SCO’s ultimate boss had strongly opposed to India’s entry. Even if the membership comes through, it would come with a great deal of prescribed terms and conditions. The Chinese argument has been that India and China has several other mechanisms for cooperation; thus India need not be a part of SCO. China treated the forum to pursue its exclusive goals.

    Second, the SCO has been avoiding the expansion because of the persistent tension between India and Pakistan and the risk of SCO getting mired into South Asian conflict. The view in the past has been that South Asian countries are incompatible to the goals of SCO despite the geographical proximity of South Asia to Central Asia. The failure of the SAARC to take off as a regional grouping also became a negative factor for India’s membership.

    Third, India has been perceived as a country which is politically and intellectually more inclined towards the West as well as to the East rather than towards Eurasia. Of course this perception still persists and India needs to do lot more on this front if the seriousness to engage with the Eurasian region is to be sustained.

    Fourth, many commentators were and still of the view that a high profile country like India needs to chart its own regional economic course and need not seek membership into an organization where it will have lesser political voice and status.

    Notwithstanding the above points, India has taken a broader view to seriously engage with Eurasian region under the SCO auspices particularly with the motive of enhancing common political stability and economic prosperity for the whole region. Besides, there are direct potential gains for India from full membership of the SCO which include:

    First, for India, the membership is necessary to protect its own interests in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the withdrawal. Although, both SCO and CSTO are unlikely to play more than a “defensive” role, India could provide a value addition in terms of generating positive political environment for the Afghan peace. A power vacuum in Afghanistan is unlikely; however, negative forces inimical to India might pursue their interest through the SCO mechanism.

    Second, Russia and Pakistan are increasingly building bridges, the contours of which are not clear yet, will affect India’s interests in Central Asia. Pakistan could gain more political acceptance in the Eurasian and it may use the forum as a smokescreen to cover up its support for anti-India activities. The US is likely to have its control whoever comes to power next in Afghanistan. India needs to see whether Kabul will be able to overcome American suspicions about the SCO and permit it to seek membership. Afghanistan so far remains cautious about aligning itself with SCO along with Mongolia.

    Third, to an extent the SCO has been successful in containing the spread of extremism and terrorism in Central Asia primarily because of China’s constant interests and engagement with these states. The region may become the next hotbed of sectarian conflict. It is the next emerging Muslim region. The existing SCO states constitute almost 100 million Muslim populations that too of Sunni/Salafi variant with affiliation to Saudi Arab and Pakistan. Importantly, Chechnya, Ferghana and Xinjiang are likely to become the arc of future instability. The RCTS will play a vital role in observing trends in radical political Islam spreading in the Ferghana Valley and across the Amu Darya into Afghanistan and Pakistan. India needs to understand the emerging trends in the region and this can only be achieved by being in the SCO. India could gain from engagement with the RATS such as information on counter-terrorism efforts, regional and international security etc. It seems RATS assists its members sharing information during conference preparations, summit meetings, VIP visits, public meetings, sports events, etc.

    Fourth, the SCO membership could give India a new way to build promising bridges with Central Asia, while maintaining its emphasis on reaching out to this region through direct bilateral channels. The forum could especially give India more leeway in pursuing its energy interests. India has invested hugely in developing the Iranian Chabahar Port that could provide access to Central Asian countries.

    Fifth, if India becomes a member along with Pakistan, the possibility of connectivity and energy corridor projects may get through easily under the SCO schemes. The CASA, TAPI, IPI and others projects might finally see the light at the end.

    Sixth, India could provide value addition to the SCO’s growth while contributing in Information Technology (IT) and banking sector.

    Seventh, India brings decades of experience in dealing with social issues especially in the multiethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural settings that could be shared the SCO member states which are confronted with lots of social and religious challenges.

    Eighth, India could gain from SCO’s public information and mass media mechanisms for enhancing greater presence in the Eurasian space.

    Ninth, India could gain access in the soft-political areas of the Eurasian region, such as our participation in educational, environmental protection, disaster management and rescue operations, climate change debate, water related issues and people-to-people level contact (through institutional means).

    Tenth, participation in other non-conventional security areas such as food security measures, drug-trafficking control, information and cyber security, etc could be of advantage for India.

    Finally, India’s participation in the SCO’s military and counter-terror exercises could prove to be beneficial for our armed forces to understand and interact with other militaries, thereby instilling greater confidence at the regional level.

    However, SCO is more likely to assume a characteristic of a hard-security forum in the face of ongoing standoff between the West and Russia as well as growing undercurrent of competition between Russia and China. India may get caught in the high politics of increasing clash of interests among major powers. There is every possibility that the West might seek to steer regime change “Arab Spring”, “Colour Revolution” in Central Asia in the next 5 to 10 years.

    Notwithstanding, reluctance on the part of some members over widening the SCO, Russia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan might firmly back India's inclusion into SCO this time. While so far, their approach especially that of China has been more “process-bound”, but the members states seemed to have finally agreed to finalize the legal procedure for admitting new members.

    In the changed political atmospherics, both China and Russia are more likely to push for early expansion. Chinese president Xi Jinping recently said that improving India-China relations would be his "historic mission”. Xi has articulated China’s new “Asian security concept” at the CICA Summit and believed that China would “pro-actively” seek to build a regional framework. India would figure high in China’s calculus.

    China’s push comes in the face of its increased tensions with Vietnam and with US allies the Philippines and Japan over its more assertive claims to maritime territory. China’s restive Xinjiang province is getting more and more critical. China is concerned and it may seek broader regional cooperation to deal with spread of terrorism. India and China might see the benefits of cooperating in the development and stability of Afghanistan. Both have common interests in this. Both Indian and Chinese companies are showing deep interests in developing the mining and petroleum sectors of Afghanistan.

    India and China also might stand to benefit from cooperating and jointly investing in Central Asian key economic sectors including in energy exploration. A proposal for an India-China oil consortium in Central Asia is already underway. Already India's GAIL Company has invested in Chinese gas pipeline projects in Kazakhstan.

    Beijing might be assessing the benefits of building fresh bridges with India’s new leadership. It may try to reach out to India also with an aim to prevent new leadership teaming up with the US “Asia Pivot” strategy.

    India’s invitation to Pakistan’s Prime Minister to the swearing in ceremony of the new government has sent a positive signal to the region. Therefore, Indo-Pak factor that obstructed the expansion plan may become less relevant.

    Similarly, Russia’s attempt at rebalancing its strategic interests to Asia is clear in the face of its standoff with the US and EU on the Ukraine crisis. Strengthening of the CSTO and enlarging SCO was emphasised in the recently held Moscow Conference on International Security (May 23-24, 2014) organized by Russian Defence Ministry.

    The Kazakhstan is increasingly feeling squeezed by the recent economic and strategic closeness of Russia and China (post-Ukraine events) and wants a more diversified space to protect its energy interests. Also and importantly, after having evolved themselves as independent actors in the immediate region and on global level, states like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan would become uncomfortable getting bogged down by regional groupings like the SCO. They would rather refer to pursue a multi-vector approach in their foreign policies. Tajikistan would be eager to push India’s case during its presidency this year.

    Unlike Pakistan and Iran, India has so far not formally applied for membership of SCO. It would be prudent as also politically correct on India to wait for the procedures to be completed and then put in its formal application for membership. However, to capitalise on SCO, India must also have a clear pro-active policy. Otherwise, it may risk becoming a focal point of criticism by the Central Asia states as well like the way India is targeted by the SAARC members. So long as India was not a member the expectation from it was less. But once India is in, the regional countries are going to compare India with China.

    Author is a former Ambassador and currently a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi. The views are his personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India