Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to make his country a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was a well-calculated move to pre-empt China’s rising influence and hegemony in Central Asia and other parts of the world. But the importance of this move goes beyond keeping Beijing and Islamabad in check.
Notwithstanding the fact that the China-Pakistan axis will not allow India to reap the full benefits of membership in the SCO, Modi has not lost hope that the organization’s gradual expansion will inevitably lead to wider participation and greater democratization of the grouping, thereby making it more accountable, responsible, responsive and transparent.
The grouping was originally constituted as the Shanghai Five in 1996 as an inter-governmental organization composed of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. When Uzbekistan joined the group in 2001, it renamed itself as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization while meeting in the Chinese commercial capital. India and Pakistan joined the organization a month ago, along with four observer nations and six dialogue partners.
The SCO was originally meant to spread Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia while also acting as a Eurasian counter to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The main aim was to get Central Asian countries, most of them concerned by the onslaught of radical Islamist terrorism, to work in united way for regional connectivity and progress.
While Russia has its own concerns about Muslim-dominated Chechnya and has suffered from terrorism for many years, Chinese worries are focused on the mounting Islamist threat in Xinjiang, causing grave danger to the country’s peace and security.
Though the SCO was initially formed as a confidence-building mechanism to demilitarize borders with increased military-strategic and counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence-sharing, its goals and agenda have considerably expanded to include intensified focus on regional economic initiatives such as the recently announced integration of the China-led Silk Road Economic Belt and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Thus the twin pillars on which the SCO stands are to further trade and economic connectivity in Central Asia and to fight against terrorism through cooperation and exchange of intelligence as well as military exercises.
As laid out in its charter, the organization functions as a forum to strengthen confidence and establish friendly and cordial relations among its member countries and promote cooperation in fields as diverse as politics, trade, economy, energy, transportation and education and technology.
The SCO has two permanent headquarters, the secretariat in Beijing and the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. One of the organization’s primary objectives is promoting cooperation on security-related issues, namely to combat the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism.
While some experts say the organization has emerged as an effective anti-US regional bulwark in Central Asia to advance China’s strategic-hegemonic goals, others are apprehensive of likely frictions among its members, which may preclude the prospects of a strong and unified SCO.
As a young organization, the SCO’s regional influence is gradually spreading. However, Richard Weitz, senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, writes that the SCO and its main organizational bodies are “chronically underfunded and have limited powers to take decisions independently of their member governments”.
Member states’ penchant for pursuing “micro-agendas” also undermines group cohesion and sows mistrust, says Matthew Crosston, professor and director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies Program at Bellevue University in the US state of Nebraska.
Nonetheless, the SCO’s reason for existence overcomes all the bickering at the very root level, as all of its members are suffering the same kinds of pain.
Since India is well aware of Beijing’s intentions to use the SCO to promote the Obor route that passes through the region, perhaps New Delhi has now realized that a boycott does not serve any purpose, as many European countries that see Obor as a move to project China’s clout in the world were present at the Beijing summit.
Apparently India’s strategy now is to work from within the system with a view to securing its own interests along with those of the region, while also counterbalancing Beijing and keeping Islamabad under pressure.
Much will depend on whether anything substantial can be achieved for India, says Nandan Unnikrishnan, an expert on Russia and Central Asia at the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think-tank. “How we use our entry into the SCO will depend on the deftness of Indian diplomacy. It will certainly raise India’s profile in Central Asia.”
As part of the SCO, there will in essence be greater interaction of Indian ministers and diplomats with their counterparts in the other member countries. They will be visiting the region frequently, and that will help strengthen social, cultural, economic and political ties.
The SCO has enlarged its mandate in recent years to include joint strategic-security and economic development programs wherein India, as a founder-member of the Non-Aligned Movement and also a prominent peace-loving power in South Asia, can contribute constructively.
While extending economic and technological assistance for development of infrastructure and associated social and cultural aspects in the countries of the region, India can work effectively toward stamping out terrorism and Islamist fundamentalism in the region. Other organizational priorities are initiatives to deepen economic and energy cooperation, including establishing a bloc-wide development bank.
Although dealing with China and Pakistan will be an extremely tough exercise for India, working together in the SCO will help remove many of their mutual grudges and suspicions.