Guest Column | Right at the Centre

India has made a diplomatic entry into Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

Kanwal SibalKanwal 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.

The situation in South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is altogether different. China is a threat to India’s interests in the subcontinent. It may have common borders with some countries in the sub-continent, but this is the product of its occupation of Tibet, which the Tibetans contest. China has not settled its borders with India and Bhutan. It occupies large parts of our territory and is claiming more in the east. If contiguity and economic exchanges are the principal justifications for China’s claim for membership of SAARC, China should first become a member of ASEAN, a grouping which adjoins the heartland of China, not its periphery as in the case of SAARC countries.

From Pakistan’s point of view China’s support for India’s entry without linking it with that of Pakistan would have been an unthinkable change of direction in China’s strategy. Pakistan sees itself as the gateway to Central Asia for the sub-continent. It has had visions of dominating this region, including Afghanistan. Its obsession is to keep India out of Afghanistan as much as possible, and Central Asia by extension. India’s support for the erstwhile Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in cooperation with Tajikistan, where India has refurbished two military bases, would weigh in any strategic calculations of our neighbour. Pakistan would have found it politically humiliating and would have viewed it as an intolerable diplomatic defeat if the SCO had given India any preference over Pakistan for membership; and that with China’s assent.

Russia and the Central Asian states may well have reasoned that India had better credentials than Pakistan for membership, especially the economic value that India could bring to the organisation, but neither of them would have wanted to push their preference for India over Chinese objections. All said done, even if India’s entry would have also served the interests of the Central Asian states by establishing a better balance of power within the organisation that is currently dominated by Russia and China, India is not critical to its functioning and cohesion. If the political and economic agenda of the organisation were to become more ambitious, then, of course, India’s entry would acquire significance in both respects.

Recent developments involving Russia and China would explain why the decision to enlarge the membership of SCO has been taken now. The rapid deterioration in US/EU ties with Russia to the point of reviving the Cold War atmosphere in Europe has forced Russia to move eastwards towards China and put more emphasis on its Eurasian vocation. A stronger strategic understanding between Russia and China is emerging, as part of which Russian arms supplies to China have grown. This convergence of their strategic interests obviously impacts on their cooperation in the SCO. The talk that the SCO could be the Russia-China response to NATO is highly exaggerated, but such thinking reveals the growing understanding between these two countries to consolidate regional groups to counter US global hegemony.

China’s expansionism in the western Pacific has to contend with the power of the US and its allies in the area. China sees the US ‘rebalance’ towards Asia as a strategy to contain its growing power. It is developing, as a counter, its own “pivot”, but eastwards, towards Eurasia, and across it to Europe. It has already created connectivity with Central Asia and Eurasia as a vehicle for the expansion of its economic power, and along with its political influence. The land component of its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative reflects its Eurasian ambitions. Through this initiative, presented as a cooperative proposal to build infrastructure in the area, which it could finance through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank it has set up, and integrate its markets, China also hopes to create export opportunities for the excess capacity it has built up in some sectors of its economy.

By expanding the SCO at this moment, Russia wants to signal that western efforts to isolate it internationally are failing. India’s entry would be coherent with the Russia-promoted Russia-India-China dialogue and BRICS. There might be a calculation that India’s perceived leaning towards the US could be balanced by giving it a proper role in the Russia-China dominated SCO. For China, the entry of Pakistan would be an integral part of OBOR. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) links the land and sea components of OBOR. Connectivity between Central Asia and the CPEC will give the landlocked Central Asian states the much needed access to the Arabian Sea.

To realise this plan, Afghanistan has to be stabilised, which would explain China’s direct involvement in the reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban. China may also be calculating that India’s reticence towards OBOR could be attenuated by its SCO membership, given that the Central Asian states support the initiative and India would find it difficult to maintain an overly negative stance. In the best case scenario, India could even join the initiative eventually, especially if Indian companies are able to participate in some projects. The inclusion of Nepal and Sri Lanka as SCO dialogue partners indicates the thrust of China’s OBOR plans as well as its influence within the organisation, as there is no reason why Nepal, and especially Sri Lanka, would merit association with an organisation centred on Central Asia.

Actually, India and Pakistan could have been brought into the SCO fully some years ago when the US was promoting its New Silk Road idea with the objective of drawing the Central Asia states towards South Asia and tying them together in trade and energy partnerships so as to lessen their dependence on Russia and China. That US strategy could have been thwarted, but at that point Russia-US/EU relations had not nose-dived as they have done now and China had not decided to spread its strategic wings as openly as it is doing under President Xi.

India’s SCO entry is a diplomatic gain for India. By this the legitimacy of its interests and role in Central Asia is recognised. India now has a platform to influence the agenda of the organisation, and propose cooperation in niche areas in which it has strengths. India’s engagement with Central Asia has been limited so far, but will now increase, with the added advantage that it will be able to integrate its dealings with Central Asian states more effectively as it will be able to engage them collectively rather than only individually on common programmes.

India will have an opportunity to stress the menace of terrorism plaguing the region and push for greater cooperation in countering it. The issues of terrorism and religious extremism are of priority concern to Central Asian states. Russia, as well as China, are threatened by this affliction too. Pakistan’s role and responsibility in the spread of this virus is well-established.

Even if today Pakistan is suffering from the forces it has itself let loose, its fight against domestic terrorism being selective and its unwillingness to curb the jihadi groups that are not targeting the Pakistani state being evident, it can come under some pressure on the issue of controlling terrorism and religious extremism.

China will try to shield it from any direct accountability on this issue, as it has done in the UN Security Council on the Lakhvi case, but, unlike within South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), where Pakistan can pay lip service to combating terrorism, as only India is the victim, within the SCO it will be ranged against several countries who want this menace to be eliminated. Its conduct will, therefore, be under closer scrutiny.

The view that the SCO can play a role in settling differences between India and Pakistan is ill-considered. If SAARC could not play a role in bridging these differences, it would be illusory to think that the SCO can succeed better. China cannot be a broker because of its ‘higher than the Himalayas’ and ‘deeper than the oceans’ relationship with Pakistan and its own territorial differences with us, including over parts of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Russia’s inclination to become a broker would be seen as a throwback to Tashkent and will create serious misunderstandings with us. In any case, India’s policy of opposing any third party role in India-Pakistan affairs is well-established.

PM Modi’s decision to visit all the five Central Asian states before and after the Ufa summit has been timely, as it has coincided with India’s membership of the SCO. It has created a political base for India expanding its relations with these countries, now that it will be part of all the decision making processes within the SCO.

Modi’s visit has been well received by his hosts, whose special requests for sequencing his tour were accommodated. The terrorism issue was discussed with all, and this finds strong reflection in the joint statements issued. India understands that it cannot compete with China in the region because of lack contiguity and limited financial means, but we have niche areas in which we can work with these states to mutual advantage.

During the visit, IT, agriculture, health, pharmaceuticals, education, training, capacity building, entrepreneurship and the like have been identified as areas of cooperation. India has interest in obtaining access to the hydrocarbon resources of Central Asia. We have had some openings in Kazakhstan in this sector, but, equally importantly, an agreement to purchase of 5,000 metric tons of uranium for our civilian nuclear programme was signed during Modi’s visit. We have had discussions on obtaining Turkmenistan gas through the TAPI project, but the prospects for this remain uncertain because of instability in Afghanistan and our security issues with Pakistan.

However, a urea production facility to be built by India in Turkmenistan has been agreed to. With Uzbekistan discussions on uranium purchase will continue with a view to resolving price issues. Some of the Central Asian states are ready to enhance defence cooperation ties with India. Significantly, defence cooperation agreements were signed with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan during PM’s visit, in addition to further consolidating defence ties with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan is of particular strategic importance in view of US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s resurgence. The Central Asian states have welcomed India’s decision to invest in Chabahar, and they back the North-South Transport Corridor through Iran for greater connectivity with India. All this is reflected in some of the joint statements.

All in all, India’s entry into the SCO as a full member by 2016 opens up some new opportunities for increasing its footprint in Central Asia. But unless we have easier access to this region, which Pakistan will deny us, we will continue to face serious hurdles. Our overall partnership with Iran has to reach a level high enough to allow the building of alternatives routes of access through that country in a reasonable time frame. One should note that Iran, despite its contiguity with Turkmenistan and its linguistic affinities with Tajikistan, still remains an observer country in the SCO.

(The writer is a former foreign secretary and Dean, Centre for International Relations and Diplomacy, Vivekananda International Foundation)


Call us