On the face of it, China has so far been reluctant about India's admission as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO].
According to latest reports, however, this may be about to change. Beijing has had a profound rethink.
The reports quoting Indian officials in New Delhi and Russian pundits in Moscow speak about a decision having been taken at the SCO foreign ministers meeting last Thursday in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, that the grouping will formally invite India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia as members at its next summit in September.
To be sure, Russia would be immensely pleased and a sigh of relief is audible in Moscow. A Russian pundit estimated that India’s admission into the SCO, which has been a long-cherished goal for Moscow, will pave the way for the grouping to hold itself out as “a centre of power in world politics.”
Make no mistake, the tectonic plates of the geopolitics of a huge arc that comprises the Asia-Pacific, South and Central Asia and West Asia are dramatically shifting and that grating sound in the steppes will be heard far and wide – as far as North America.
What made China shift its stance? Several reasons could be attributed to the ‘new thinking’ in Beijing, which I will come to in a moment. First and foremost, however, China could be sensing that under Prime MInister Narendra Modi's leadership, India is all set to pursue a genuinely independent foreign policy.
The idea of ‘independent foreign policy’ has been a cliché in Indian politics. It has been bandied about cavalierly by many governments in India, including the last one. But the plain truth is that ever since India embarked on economic reforms a couple of decades ago, Delhi began gravitating toward the Western industrialized world – the US, in particular – as its main sources of investment and technology.
And that inevitably brought about subtle shifts in the country’s foreign-policy trajectory. This unsavory trend became much pronounced through the past decade under prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s leadership so much so that the Indian government wouldn’t even protest when it transpired, thanks to the disclosures by the ex-CIA employee Edward Snowden, that the US intelligence has extensively wired into the bowels of the Indian establishment and its political elites.
Indiaseemed to have succumbed to the charm of a new form of slavery – of the mind. Some among the political elites even recommended President George W. Bush for ‘Bharat Ratna’, India’s highest and most prestigious national award. Manmohan Singh himself claimed that Indians ‘loved’ Bush.
Unsurprisingly, China's hesitation hitherto stemmed from its unspoken worry that India might work as a ‘Trojan horse’ for the Americans within the SCO tent, which was of course unacceptable since the grouping has been of critical importance to Beijing in the pursuit of its regional policies as well as for safeguarding the country's own territorial integrity and national security.
It is from such a perspective that Modi's imprimatur that is already visible in India’s foreign policies needs to be judged. Clearly, India’s foreign-policy compass is being reset and the evidence is multiplying by the day.
To be sure, Modi has taken to the BRICS like fish to water, which surprised most Indian observers who were weaned on the belief that the interest groups most vociferously backing his candidature in the parliamentary poll in April would expect him to follow a ‘pro-American’ foreign policy driven by the craving to adopt a muscular approach to India’s problematic relationships with China and Pakistan.
On the contrary, Modi’s meetings on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have been remarkably warm and cordial and they underscored his conviction that India's long term interests are best served by forging closer strategic partnerships with these two world powers.
Again, most expectedly, instead of beating war drums, Modi has let loose peace doves into the South Asian skies, including above Pakistan.
And, least of all, his latest audacious decision to demand that without reasonable assurances regarding India's food security, Delhi cannot ratify the World Trade Organization's so-called trade facilitation agreement has been seen as an unhelpful act by the Barack Obama administration and it clearly annoys the Washington establishment.
What emerges out of all these is that Modi has a world vision that perfectly well understands the co-relation of forces internationally today and can fathom where it is that India's core interests would lie at such a juncture of great volatility.
Modi is a reclusive and enigmatic personality and has spoken hardly anything on world politics, but he’d seem to have thought through a great deal in the privacy of his mind. That much is a safe guess.
Suffice to say, Modi has supported the emergence of the BRICS development bank with great deliberation, while understanding fully well that such a move frontally challenges the dominance of the US dollar in the world economy and will seriously undermine the Bretton Woods system that provided a vital underpinning for the advancement and preservation of the United States' global hegemony for the past several decades.
If an ideological construct needs to be put on such trends as are available that might eventually go into a perceived ‘Modi Doctrine’ in India’s diplomatic history, its templates would probably consist of the following elements:
· Modi has a pronounced 'India-first' approach, which is a rooted belief as well. But he is not dogmatic in the least when it comes to the pursuit of India's 'enlightened national interests'.
· Modi is sensitive to the human condition too, as obvious from his trademark slogan, ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ (meaning, inclusive development).
· He will take help from whichever quarters India can source such help for the country's development at a critical juncture in its modern history, which is Modi's priority concern.
· Modi estimates that India needs a friendly external enviornment that is conducive to development and acts as a buffer for its national security. Therefore, he places great store for regional cooperation and is prepared to go the extra league to display his sense of priority.
· Modi visualizes that India's 'influence' in its region is co-related with the country’s development and comprehensive national power and is critically dependent on its capacity to carry the small neighbors along on his path of growth and prosperity that would make them genuine stakeholders – rather than by demanding respect or insisting on 'influence' on the basis of its preeminence in the region as a military and economic power and its strategic clout.
· He exudes confidence that India has inherent advantages as a regional power and it doesn't have to spend sleepless nights fretting and fuming with frustration about the diversified relationships – ‘string of pearls’ – that might be pursued by India’s neighbors.
· Modi believes in promoting India's commonality of interests with other emerging powers that have been denied their due role in the global political and economic architecture which was erected by the West out of the debris of World War II and has become archaic but is reluctant to change and transform.
The above elements are more or less visible already and their interplay presents an engaging sight. The doomsday predictions regarding the quintessential Modi have proved to be all baloney – that, for instance, a nasty confrontation between India and Pakistan was inevitable once Modi took over as prime minister, given the certainty that the Pakistani military would test his mettle through some provocative acts.
Or that, China would ‘test’ Modi’s grit by compelling him to respond to the sight of a PLA contingent pitching tents on Indian territory. Nothing of the sort has happened. Discerning analysts, on the contrary, are inclined to see some accommodative attitudes on China’s part toward India since Modi came to power, especially during the BRICS summit.
Similarly, it is China that Modi has engaged most intensively so far, while a large corpus of Indian pundits were emphatically underscoring that he would form an axis with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe to counter Beijing’s ‘assertiveness’ in Asia-Pacific.
Curiously, by the time Modi gets around to seeing President Barack Obama, he would have met Xi twice already.
Coming back to India’s impending membership of SCO, there are three salients that draw particular attention. First, the timing of the SCO decision to admit India; secondly, how India’s admission impacts SCO; and, third, what India can make out of its SCO membership. Each needs some elaboration.