During his visit to New Delhi last week, United States Secretary of State John Kerry was asked at a media interaction where India would stand in Washington’s scheme of things as regards its recent sanctions against Russia.
Kerry accepted that he was disappointed but appeared resigned to India’s stance. “We would obviously welcome India joining in with us with respect to that [sanctions]. But it is up to them. It is India’s choice.”
It does not need much ingenuity to figure out that the SCO is taking the decision to admit India at a defining moment in the post-cold war era politics.
The US is pursuing a dual containment policy toward Russia and China, the two prime movers of the SCO. The US, on the other hand, has been assiduously wooing India as a strategic ally.
From the American viewpoint, therefore, India’s SCO membership literally caps the trajectory of US-Indian strategic partnership. The message is clear: India is unavailable as a ‘counterweight’ against China or as a silent partner to ‘isolate’ Russia.
Indiabeing a major power in Asia, its policy of ‘non-alignment’ takes the wind out of the US’ rebalance strategy. India has also recognized that Russia’s interests in Ukraine are “legitimate”.
On a more fundamental plane, it needs to be noted that if the SCO has often been called ‘NATO of the East’, it was not without reason – although the grouping is far from a military alliance in the classic sense.
The heart of the matter is that the SCO has disallowed a security vacuum appearing in Central Asia, which the NATO could have used as an alibi to step in. Put differently, so long as the SCO is around, NATO’s eastward expansion beyond the Caucasus runs into formidable obstacles.
That is to say, SCO challenges the US strategy to project the NATO as the global security organization that bypasses the United Nations as the provider of security. This is precisely why the US has opposed the SCO and did all it could to debunk the grouping.
With the admission of India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia, SCO will be transforming into a regional grouping that all but matches NATO in political and strategic reach.
This development constitutes a major setback for the US’ regional strategies. For one thing, an expanded SCO provides ‘strategic depth’ for Russia and the US and European Union’s sanctions against Russia will be rendered even more toothless.
Besides, it significantly weakens the American hand in the negotiations vis-à-vis Iran; it weakens the US’ ‘pivot’ strategy in Asia; it diminishes the US’ capacity to dictate terms to Afghanistan (or Pakistan); and, it holds far-reaching potential to destroy the primacy of the US dollar – that is, if and when the integration within the SCO gains traction.
The stunning geopolitical reality cannot escape world attention – namely, that by the end of this year, the SCO will have as members 4 nuclear powers plus one ‘threshold power’.
To be sure, SCO will be stepping out of Central Asia and not only vetting its toes in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf but walking into the centre stage of world politics.
It is entirely conceivable that at some point sooner rather than later the SCO countries may contemplate having an ‘energy club’ and trading in their national currencies, creating banking institutions to fund intra-regional projects and moving toward preferential trade regimes. India is already showing interest to have a PTA with the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Needless to say, with India, Pakistan and Iran inside the SCO tent, the grouping becomes a lead player in Afghanistan.
The SCO’s surge severely cramps the ability of the US to manipulate the forces of radical Islam and terrorism as instruments of its regional policies in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
No doubt, from the Afghan perspective, NATO ceases to be the only show in town. This can only strengthen Afghanistan’s independence and enable that country to regain its national sovereignty. An enlarged SCO cannot but view with disquiet the US and NATO’s game plan to establish military bases in Afghanistan and to deploy the missile defence system in the Hindu Kush.
In sum, the induction of India, Pakistan and Iran would become a game changer for the SCO. For the first time in modern history, a collective security organization would be taking shape in a huge landmass on the planet inhabited by some 3 billion people. It would significantly boost the impetus toward multi-polarity in world politics by championing the pivotal role of the UN in upholding international law.
Exploring new frontiers
How can India make use of its SCO membership? There are five or six directions in which Indian diplomacy can hope to explore new frontiers.
Since its inception in the mid-1990s, the SCO provided a platform for Russia, China and Central Asian states to lay to rest the ghosts of the past, namely, the bitter legacy of the Soviet era animosities.
The SCO offered a new pattern of relationship based on equality and shared concerns and commonality of interests that, in turn, helped create trust and confidence leading to the resolution of their border disputes and the harmonization of their regional security objectives.
There is much food for thought here for India. A window of opportunity opens for Indian diplomats to work with China and Pakistan in a similar spirit as China did with its erstwhile Soviet-era adversaries.
Again, it is no small matter that the army chiefs or spy chiefs of India, China and Pakistan would get to meet and interact within the SCO tent on a regular basis within an institutionalized framework, exchange notes and begin seeking solutions to regional problems.
At the very least, the chances of an India-Pakistan turf war breaking out in Afghanistan would minimize, which would encourage Pakistan to craft a new course jettisoning its obsession with ‘strategic depth’.
It is even conceivable that the SCO membership could incrementally make Indians and Pakistanis comrades-in-arms in stabilizing Afghanistan.
Of course, such a turn of events would have positive fallouts on the overall climate of India-Pakistan relationship.
For India, of course, it is no small matter that regional security is not held hostage by the US’s unpredictable and capricious policies toward Afghanistan.
Finally, the Silk Road as such would get a massive fillip and within the SCO framework, India could aspire to gain greater access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. India’s energy security gets strengthened, too. The time may have come for the creation of an SCO energy club, which was an idea first mooted by Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago. New possibilities arise for trans-regional energy projects under the auspices of the SCO, such as the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.
In overall terms, the SCO membership makes the prevailing international situation highly favorable for India’s overall development and its rise as a global power.
The best thing about SCO is that it is not prescriptive and India can preserve its ‘strategic autonomy’. Nor is the SCO directed against any country in the world community. In short, the member states are entirely at liberty to pursue their foreign policies attuned to their respective national priorities.
That is to say, SCO membership does not stand in the way of India deepening and expanding its multi-faceted cooperation with the US. On the contrary, it might even enhance India’s capacity to negotiate a relationship with the US that is based on equal footing.
Suffice to say, SCO membership gives added raison d’etre and verve to India’s non-aligned policies. Through the six decades or so since the idea of non-alignment was born, the world has changed phenomenally and India too has transformed beyond recognition. But the idea of non-alignment as such continues to have great relevance for India.
The intellectual challenge today lies in reinterpreting the idea of non-alignment in tune with the spirit of our times, which is characterized by multipolarity in international politics, so as to meet India’s needs in the coming period as an emerging power.
That is also what Jawaharlal Nehru would have expected Prime Minister Modi to do as his worthy successor presiding over India’s tryst with destiny at a crucial juncture in world politics.
All things considered, therefore, India’s SCO membership would signify that the Modi government is charioting India toward a new world order where the country’s political and diplomatic options will multiply.