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AUGUST 2015 ISSUE

Force Magazine
Guest Column - Force Magazine
Right at the Centre
India has made a diplomatic entry into Shanghai Cooperation Organisation
 
Kanwal Sibal
By Kanwal Sibal

India was admitted to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as an observer in 2005 along with Pakistan and Iran. We would have wanted full membership, but an internal consensus in the SCO on admitting new members had not crystallised by then.

In China’s view India could not be made a full member without Pakistan also becoming one. Russia, however, was not satisfied that Pakistan had the credentials for full membership in view of its involvement in terrorism, its support for the Taliban and its role in creating instability in Afghanistan.

The Central Asian states had concerns about export of terrorism and religious extremism from Pakistan and the consequent threat to their secular polities and internal stability. In the case of Iran, the nuclear issue was an impediment, as that contentious issue in which Russia and China were involved as part of the P5 plus 1 would have intruded into the SCO agenda and complicated its deliberations.

An observer status was not a satisfactory decision from our point of view, but we were willing to allow the Russians to determine the pace of obtaining full membership. An observer status gave us only a ceremonial role in the organisation as we could not participate in the summit discussions. Attempts were made to involve observers more meaningfully in the working of the organisation, but the role of observers has inherent limitations. While the leaders of Pakistan and Iran attended the SCO summits as observers, the Indian PM did not, and quite rightly so. It did not behove the dignity of his office that he should be hovering in the side-lines at these summits. Some in India criticised this as a form of neglect of our interests in Central Asia, but this was misconceived fault-finding.

After 10 years, India has been accepted as a full member at the SCO summit at Ufa in Russia in July this year, but, as expected, with Pakistan in tow. It is China that has been the most responsible for this delay in India’s membership. For China, it was out of question that India could become a member without Pakistan. This would have been contrary to its geo-political strategy in the region, which is axed on its ‘iron’ ties and ‘all weather friendship’ with Pakistan, which it has built up over long years as a strategic counterweight to India in the sub-continent. Opening the SCO door for India and not for Pakistan at the same time would have meant a major revision of China’s strategy towards India-Pakistan.

China has also tried to leverage the question of India’s SCO membership with its own membership of SAARC, though the two cases are not parallel at all. China may have common borders with some Central Asian states, but these were countries which until 1991 were part of the Soviet Union. If Russia had not been gravely weakened after the Soviet Union’s collapse, it would have exerted much more weight than it presently does in its erstwhile territories, which geopolitically still constitute its strategic backyard. The concomitant reality is that as Russia got politically and economically weakened in the wake of the Soviet break-up and the disarray of the Yeltsin years, China continued its spectacular economic rise during this period and beyond. After settling its boundaries with Central Asian states, it began to penetrate them economically, dominating their markets and, most importantly, obtaining access to their hydrocarbon resources. With the huge financial resources that China now possesses, its weight in the region has become preponderant.

Russia and China have established a modus vivendi in Central Asia. As Russia cannot keep China out of the region, and cannot compete with it economically, its best option is to work cooperatively with it and yield it space, while preserving Russia’s own security and other interests in the region. The Central Asian states, now independent, would, in any case, resist domination by Russia, and their ties with China allow them freedom to pursue policies in their best national interest. It is ironical, though, that countries that were once part of the Soviet Union have been brought together on a platform under China’s auspices. The SCO is headquartered outside the region, in distant Shanghai. This itself gives added clout to China, as it can influence the organisation’s agenda-setting. The huge financial resources that China has accumulated give it the means to finance the economic agenda of the organisation more than any other player. In actual fact, in addition to exploiting the resources of the Central Asia states to fuel its growth, China is successfully harnessing Russian oil and gas and other raw materials for the needs of its economy.

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