By Vartika Aggarwal, Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) established in 2001, aims to improve and strengthen cooperation on trade and culture between member states in Central Asia, strengthen regional security and stability, and create a new order based on regional cooperation and mutual support. The SCO has Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as its permanent members. India has been an observer at SCO since 2005 and has generally participated at the ministerial-level at summits of the grouping which focuses mainly on security and economic cooperation in the Eurasian space. In June 2011, the SCO approved a ‘memorandum of obligation’ which enabled non-member countries to apply for SCO membership. The members of the SCO are often referred to as the ‘club of authoritarians’.
India’s principal benefit from joining the SCO will be geopolitical. It will help bring India closer to China by supporting the only multilateral security entity outside the United Nations that China has created, is a part of and refuses India entry into. However,the SCO plans to extend membership to India, which is the largest and one of the soundest democracies in the neighbourhood and for its part, India has been making conscious moves towards acquiring full membership.
SCO members need to take a two-track approach to make it a successful regional grouping. At the macro level, it must forge a common vision and mutual trust with similar groupings such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization. At a micro level, bilateral and regional issues between member states need to be addressed. For instance, tensions between India and Pakistan (who are both being offered full membership at the SCO) over the Kashmir issue needs to be resolved. Similarly, China and India should resolve to settle their border disputes.
The SCO membership is pivotal to India’s connect to Central Asian Policy and energy diplomacy goals. The feeble Indian footprint in energy-rich Central Asian Policy may be detrimental to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ plan and therefore, membership in SCO will help with this plan. Expanding the SCO membership will also benefit efforts to curtail terrorism, drug trafficking and extremism.
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 a 100 million Muslim population, that too of Sunni/Salafi variant, with affiliation to Saudi Arab and Pakistan. The RCTS will play a vital role in observing trends in radical political Islam and India needs to understand the emerging trends in the region and this can only be achieved by being in the SCO. India can gain from engagement with the RATS such as information on counter-terrorism efforts, regional and international security, etc. By being the member of SCO, India’s foreign policy dealing with counter terrorism and insurgency will get a flip. This will in return enhance strategic ties and intelligence exchanges, thereby promoting regional security.
India’s membership of the SCO is significant. With Russia and China taking the lead, the SCO could even prove a guarantor for projects such as the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) and IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India) pipelines that India has held off on security concerns. SCO consists of nations which are highly rich in hydrocarbons and India being an energy starved nation, will highly benefit from its membership. The energy co-cooperation among the countries will also increase.
India’s bid for UNSC seat will get a boost since the vote of SCO countries will be important. When the economic situation of the world is in doldrums, SCO will provide India a new platform that will promote and enhance the regional trade thus giving a boost to its economy. Participation in the trans-continental railway system will also be beneficial for us. India, with its fast emerging economy and a vast coastline, can open new access to sea trade for SCO countries and can play an important role in balancing the security, trade and political order that is now emerging between members of SCO on one side, and the US-led NATO/EU nations, on the other.
India, being a member of the SCO, can provide value addition to the SCO’s growth while contributing in the Information Technology (IT) and banking sector. It has decades of experience in dealing with social issues especially in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural settings that can be shared with the SCO member states which are confronted with lots of social and religious challenges. India can also gain from SCO’s public information and mass media mechanisms for enhancing greater presence in the Eurasian space. The main problem for India which arises is the physical impediment of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This reality complicates relations, but India has sought to overcome it by developing the Chahabar Port in Iran – an alternative route for Indian products from Central Asia.
An important parallel development which will take place after India will become the permanent member, is the establishment of the BRICS Bank that will be officially named as ‘New Development Bank’ (NDB), established with an initial capital fund of $100 billion. This is an initiative of China that aims to counter the influence of US dominated IMF and World Bank. With SCO members, China, Russia and now India, NDB is likely to emerge as a major financial body in future, and as membership increases, it will increasingly exert its influence on global economic policy and international trade. India will now be in a position to reclaim its international stature that it lost with NAM being rendered irrelevant.
Finally, the SCO is an important counter-balance to India’s perceived tilt towards the U.S. and its allies on security issues. In a politically polarised world, with the U.S. and Europe pitted against Russia and China and where all the powers are economically interlinked, India’s best hope to emerge a leader lies in its ability to bridge the two. Indian membership of the SCO will undoubtedly be trumpeted as a major change in geopolitics; it will only become a reality if India follows through with its offers to Central Asia.