India and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: An Analysis
Prof Nirmala Joshi

At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) forthcoming annual summit meeting in Bashkortostan in Russia in July 2015 , it is expected that India’s status would be elevated from an Observer to a full member. If reports are true, it would indeed be a positive development for India. A regional Grouping, the SCO, comprises of countries some of whom are part of its extended / strategic neighbourhood. Today India’s neighbourhood is in a state of flux, the shape of future scenario in Afghanistan is uncertain.The process of withdrawal of Western coalition forces from Afghanistan has begun. Afghanistan is in the midst of a complex transition; security, political and economic. In the months ahead, it will be clear as to how strong the resurgence of the Taliban is. Simply put, Afghanistan is the pivot of regional stability, an imperative necessity both for the consolidation of the new democracy and for the region. .

The withdrawal of Western coalition forces from Afghanistan, after over thirteen years of an inconclusive ‘war on terror’ has undoubtedly weakened the Taliban, but has not been able to dismantle its terrorist infrastructure. Therefore, the resurgence in insurgency will continue depending upon the ability of the Afghan government to control these forces. The violent activities of the Islamic State (IS) in West Asia serve as an encouragement to extremist forces in Afghanistan. A new security paradigm, however, will emerge in the months ahead. In this shifting geopolitical paradigm, military action will be ruled out to counter the threats emanating from non traditional sources. . At this critical juncture, the best approach is the cooperative approach by the stakeholders of peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region. .

In this unfolding scenario, the SCO is the only regional grouping that has a security agenda for the region. The SCO is not a military alliance or ‘an Eastern NATO‘ in the making as some opine, nor a mere ‘ discussion club’. The focus of the SCO is on comprehensive security, that includes social and economic aspects as well. The question is, can the SCO emerge as the security provider for the region? What are India’s interests in joining the SCO?

Since India has a high stake in the stability of the region, its membership of the SCO will give it an opportunity to contribute towards its objective. Indian experience of confronting the challenge of nontraditional threats for decades could be useful in broadening the discourse on regional stability. The regional security agenda of fighting the ’ three evils’, extremism, separatism and terrorism as spelt out by China are in congruence with Indian security interests. Under the Taliban rule, Afghanistan had emerged as the hub of extremism and radical Islam which affected all the members of the SCO. The Taliban have proved to be a resilient force, despite the war on terror. Consequently, the insurgency has emerged as a festering sore. India and the member countries of the SCO are multi ethnic pluralist societies, and have been afflicted with the scourge of extremism and radical Islam, though the level of this challenge varies from country to country.

The non-traditional threats are trans-national in character and are carried out by non state actors cooperation among the countries of the region is an absolute necessity to deal with this danger as it does not have its own Collective Rapid Reaction Force, a para military organisation to deal with counter terrorism, it can nevertheless initiate a positive discourse on the need for a cooperative approach. Another dimension of insurgency is the well known fact that drug profits is one of the sources that sustains extremism and terrorism. The issue of drug production and its continued trafficking has not received its due attention. As a result, drug cartels have come up along the borders and they oversee the trafficking of drugs. Drug trafficking is also having a negative fallout at the societal level in the region. The SCO had earlier suggested the creation of a drug belt around Afghanistan for protection of its members. It had put forward the suggestion of training border guards. However, nothing further has been heard about this suggestion. Moreover the region is awash with weapons and its illicit trade has also helped in keeping insurgency alive.

The SCO has, however, established a Regional Anti Terrorists Structure (RATS) at Tashkent in 2002 which became operational in2004. The focus of RATS is to “…arrange studies of regional terrorist movements and exchange information about counter terrorist policies. The RATS also coordinates military exercises among its members as a way of training the forces. As mentioned, the RATS does not have its own Collective Rapid Reaction Force. It still has to create one, and importantly it has to work out a multilateral legal document which could provide for joint action on struggle against counter terrorism. Till then, RATS will remain a coordinating centre. Nevetheless, India has been actively cooperating with RATS sharing experience and information, and gaining useful inputs into the movements of various groups and organizations. The SCO has also set up a Contact Group on Afghanistan whereby Afghanistan became a permanent invitee as a ‘guest’ to SCO summit meetings. At the Dushanbe summit in 2014, Afghanistan was given the Observer status. Thus, SCO comprises of countries which have crucial ramifications for its security concerns.

In the present day world order, the trend towards globalistaion has gathered momentum wherein nations are drawing closer to each other particularly in the sphere of economy. Paradoxically, the tendency towards regionalism has become dominant feature of a region. This tendency is because the nature of issues today are transnational in character; be it security or economic ones, and these require a collective voice. A collaborative approach helps in strengthening its bargaining position with other regions. The SCO is a regional grouping and can promote a discourse on regional cooperation. As a founder member of the Non Aligned Movement in the sixties, India has varied experience of participating in several multi lateral groupings. The Indian experience could prove to be an asset for the SCO.

Moreover, the countries that are part of the SCO are also part of the vast Eurasian landmass. The total population of this landmass is over 1.5 billion. It has opened up prospects for commercial interests for India of this huge market. Since India’s ‘strategic vision’ broadened to include the wider Asian region, it wants to enhance its engagement with its extended neighbourhood for mutual benefit. India is likely to negotiate a free trade zone with the Russia led Customs Union.

Similarly the Central Asian Republics have reached a stage in their development, where they would now like to focus on the southern vector of their foreign policies. The SCO has established an Energy Club, Business Forum etc. Recently at the Dushanbe summit in September 2014, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj expressed India’s readiness to participate in these economic forums. India has already participated in the Energy Club and the Business Forum. Among its other areas of focus is the Transport sector. It is hoped that Pakistan’s likely membership of the SCO along with India would facilitate the opening of a trade route for India to Central Asia and beyond.

Besides, there is a perception among the academic and strategic community, journalists and others, that the SCO is an instrument in the hands of China to spread its influence in Central Asia. Probably for this reason China, a leading member of SCO, has been reluctant to upgrade India’s status from an Observer nation to a full member. It may be apprehending, that within the grouping two broad viewpoints could emerge; one led by Russia, the Central Asian Republics and India, and the other one by China and Pakistan. In any future discussions and resolutions of the SCO, the view point led by Russia and others could prevail. The latent differences between Russia and China may have strengthened Chinese apprehensions. The Central Asian Republics have always perceived India as a ‘soft balancer’ and hence supported its candidature. If India is made a full member, some of these Chinese concerns will no longer be untenable.

In conclusion, the SCO cannot be a security provider to the region, in view of the nature of threats and challenges. It can at best facilitate regional cooperation. From that perspective, the Indian membership of the SCO would be a positive step and its rich experience of multilateral diplomacy could provide valuable inputs to SCO’s efforts.

(The author is former Professor at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

Published Date: 3rd April 2015, Image source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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