Shanghai Cooperation Organization: New Delhi’s March into Eurasia
Dr Rashmini Koparkar

India became the full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on 9th June in Astana. Along with India, Pakistan has also joined the forum. Inclusion of the new members has expanded organization’s geographical outreach, and has raised its international stature. SCO now represents 42% of world's population, 20% global GDP, and 22% land. From India’s point of view, this membership brings some challenges and a lot of opportunities.

History of the SCO

SCO was established in 2001 in Shanghai, the Chinese city after which the organization is named, by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. However, the origins of the SCO lay in the ‘Shanghai Five’ grouping that was formed in 1996 by all the above members but Uzbekistan. It is interesting to study the history of creation of ‘Shanghai Five’.

China had territorial issues with the former Soviet Union, which culminated in the Sino-Soviet rift and border skirmishes in 1969. After the Soviet Disintegration in 1991, Sino-Soviet border was divided between four independent countries, namely Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In 1990s, China signed separate pacts with each of these republics, and ‘demarcated’ the border. In the process, some of these republics had to cede territory to China. In 1996, ‘Shanghai Five’ was created, by China and four former-Soviet Republics that shared border with China. Core motive behind this grouping was ensuring security and reduction of military forces at the borders. Through this initiative, China permanently ‘stabilized’ its western border.

In the Shanghai Summit of 2001, Uzbekistan was admitted as a member in the Shanghai mechanism, which subsequently led to creation of the SCO. Member-countries adopted the SCO charter in 2001 in the Saint Petersburg Summit. Enhancing the political, economic, military and humanitarian cooperation amongst the member-states; expanding trade, investments and connectivity; maintaining regional security, peace and stability; and fighting against the ‘three evil’ forces of terrorism, extremism and separatism, are amongst the key objectives of SCO. Eventually, India, Pakistan, Belarus, Iran, Mongolia and Afghanistan were given the observer status; out of which India and Pakistan were granted full membership in the latest summit. Now, SCO has eight members and four observers. Headquarters of the SCO is situated at Beijing. It has also set up Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) at Tashkent for information sharing and for jointly fighting terrorism.

Central Asian Angle

Four of the Five Central Asian Republics (CARs) are the members of SCO, which puts Central Asia at the key position within the organization. Five CARs, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, became independent in 1991 as a result of the Soviet Disintegration. They are landlocked and are surrounded by big powers like Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran. These are geo-strategically significant countries. Firstly, Central Asia, as the name suggests, is centrally located and links other regions of Asia and Europe. All international, inter-regional and inter-continental land routes pass through this region, making it extremely important in connectivity projects. Secondly, these republics are abundant in natural resources including oil, natural gas, uranium, gold, silver, copper and hydropower, which are lifelines of economic growth in modern times. Lastly, three CARs share border with and have ethnic link with Afghanistan, making them vulnerable to the spillover effects. They have themselves been affected by radicalization and violent extremism.

After independence, CARs were subjected to big-power interplay within the region. Russia, which had enjoyed supremacy for more than two centuries tried to exert influence. Russia’s post-Soviet economic weakness restricted its moves. Nevertheless, Russia is still seen as most influential political and military player, with its bases in three CARs. The US and the EU countries tried to interfere in the regional affairs, based on three key areas; viz. democratization and human rights protection, counter terrorism, and trade and energy. In the post- 9-11 scenario, CARs readily cooperated with the West in war in Afghanistan. However, this influence could not last long, as there was loss of interest from both the sides. Keeping in mind the Muslim-majority angle in the CARs, countries like Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan also tried to march in.

China began its engagements with the CARs mainly in the economic realm, and has made deep inroads in the region through its trade, investments, and infrastructure and connectivity projects. China’s trade with the five CARs combined exceeds $50 billion, whereas that of Russia in little above $30 billion. It has put enormous money in the transport and energy sector, and has been funding building of roads, railway lines, bridges and tunnel across Central Asia. The three pipelines from CARs take huge amount of energy to China. It owns close to a quarter of Kazakhstan’s oil production and takes almost half of Turkmenistan’s gas exports. All the CARs are important partners in China’s ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative.

India has lagged behind in its engagements vis-à-vis CARs. Troubled region of Af-Pak lies in between India and the CARs, which blocks India’s direct access to these resource-rich countries. Also, lack of interest and political will on the Indian side was responsible of very few high-level contacts for more than two decades. Prime Minister Modi’s ‘first of its kind’ visit to all five CARs in July 2015 was a game-changer. India is set to expand its bilateral and multi-lateral engagements in the region, where membership of SCO could be of added advantage. SCO is one of the most influential regional organizations in the Eurasian region. Indian prime minister will get the opportunity to visit CARs, and meet the Central Asian heads, as part of SCO’s annual summits. Moreover, it would be introduced to the Eurasian political, security and economic environment, which will be helpful in enhancing bilateral relationships.

Opportunities and Challenges for India

SCO has been mainly a Eurasian organization, which is expanding in South Asia with the inclusion of India and Pakistan. On the one hand, this means increase in the area and people it influences. On the other hand, it can get affected by the ongoing strife between India and Pakistan. This is already evident from the hung status of the SAARC. Moreover, presence of big powers like Russia and China may add another angle to the Indo-Pak scenario. In recent years, China and Pakistan have come closer, and they are also trying to build China-Pakistan-Russia axis, which could be disastrous for India. India is the only country in the SCO that has not endorsed the OBOR project. On this backdrop, India has to act consciously and should try not to get isolated within the forum.

Prime Minister Modi’s personal rapport with Putin and Xi Jinping could play a significant role. India is engaging with Russia and China in forums like BRICS and RIC. Russia has been India’s closest ally and strategic partner for years. This enduring friendship was instrumental in Russia proposing India’s name for SCO membership. This proposal had also received support for the CARs. The goodwill and popularity of India among the CARs can be utilized by India.

Modi, in his speech at the Astana summit, listed the priority areas of India in the SCO, as energy, education, agriculture, capacity building, development partnership, trade, investment and security. In addition to this, he mentioned about India’s connectivity projects in the region, namely International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the Chabahar Agreement, which are likely to boost its economic relations with the CARs. India can cooperate with the SCO members in terms of counter-terrorism efforts, information sharing and joint security exercises.

In the nutshell, SCO has brought an opportunity for India to expand its political influence and economic footprints in the Eurasian region. However, this membership should not be seen only in terms of the annual visits. It calls for comprehensive engagements with these countries that can raise India’s international stature, both in qualitative and quantitative terms.

Published in the Swarajya online Magazine on 14 June 2017
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