It seems clear that India, along with Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia, would be made full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) unless there is a last minute political hitch. A formal announcement in this regard is expected on July 10 in Ufa.
Prime Minister Modi will be attending the Ufa Summit of the six-nation SCO, after the BRICS Summit. Earlier, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had attended the BRICS and SCO summits in Yekaterinburg in 2009, albeit as an Observer. Unless Modi has been assured of full SCO membership for India, he would not have agreed to stay back after the BRICS Summit.
So far, the delay in granting full membership to India and the other observers was caused by several factors. The grouping had always entertained some reservations about the entry of South Asian countries. China in particular has retained its ability to prevent something that it does not approve of either directly or through others. In addition, UN sanctions prevented the SCO from admitting Iran as a member.
India and Pakistan will be joining the SCO when the grouping has consolidated its strength more effectively. In Ufa, Russia would be able to showcase its diplomatic strength. Putin will invite leaders of 12 nations at the ‘BRICS outreach session’, comprising SCO members and observers, members of the Eurasian Economic Union, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. For its part, China is upbeat about the way in which its blueprint for Eurasia, the One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR), is progressing.
More importantly, Beijing and Moscow have finally achieved complete entente after a prolonged and tenuous balance, if not an undercurrent of competition, within the SCO. The May 2015 Putin-Xi joint statement on the amalgamation of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) initiatives within the SCO framework has altered the game. A plan to set up a dialogue mechanism to bring synergy between the two big projects would probably form the “SCO Development Strategy Towards 2015”. Clearly, the aim is to establish a common economic space equivalent to the Asia-Pacific. Make no mistake: this is China’s counterpoise to the US “Pivot” to Asia. The synergy would cover every aspect, including connectivity, trade, energy, agriculture and raw material production.
Amidst Western sanctions, Moscow is unlikely to resist the idea of the SCO Development Bank. Instead, it is seeking more banking business from China. The SREB-EEU convergence is likely to combine the Russian-Kazakh Eurasian Bank, the SCO Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). To be sure, China is aware of the challenges ahead but it also knows that the priority of the West now is to corner Russia rather than to counter China’s grand chess move in Eurasia.
For China, the biggest strategic challenge until now has been to replace the Soviet-built standardized railway tracks in Eurasia. Moscow has been resisting China’s offer of its narrow gauge tracks for security reasons. But Uzbekistan and even Kyrgyzstan seem to be willing to change the rail gauge to meet the Chinese standard. Moscow’s resistance becomes meaningless, when a common gauge system would bring more Chinese investment, development opportunities and economic benefits to Russia. Does Russia have a choice now?
China welcomed India into the SCO during Prime Minister Modi’s Beijing visit. However, the Chinese would be still assessing whether India under Narendra Modi is a friend of Russia, a non-aligned country, or an ally of the United States.
For his part, Modi would find the Eurasian dynamics at odds with his vision of containing China along with the United States. The SCO is essentially a counterweight to the West. For Modi to play an ancillary role of offsetting the United States is tricky. Recall that Natwar Singh faced problems after he displayed activism at the 2005 SCO Summit in Astana.
Modi has not shown much enthusiasm for China’s Silk Route initiative either. Instead, India has resented China’s plans for an economic corridor through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Herein lies a potential problem for India as a member of the SCO.
India’s imperatives are looming security concerns such as the spread of terrorism, the Afghan fallout and the growing footprint of ISIS in Central Asia. It is fearful that the SCO could possibly become a forum for inimical forces to drum up anti-India voices. Thus, staying outside cannot be to India’s advantage. At the same time, India could benefit from SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) and also learn from its counter-terror exercises. Being part of the SCO means that opportunity would also open for India to cooperate in soft-political areas of the region that it knows little about.
But the question is whether joining SCO could help India get out of the current tight geopolitical spot it finds itself wedged in – between a wall of Pakistani hostility and fear of cooperating with China. Ironically, Pakistan, not a full member as yet, seems already geared up to fully operate in SCO coordination efforts. Already, Russia’s confidence in Pakistan seems to have increased after the Inter-Services Intelligence agency selectively eliminated or handed over Chechen or Central Asian terrorists fomenting trouble in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Consequently, the acceptance of Pakistan in Eurasia as a partner has already advanced.
On countering terrorism, the SCO’s key anchor, China, has decided to block India’s bid to seek action against Pakistan at the United Nations on the issue of bail to 26/11 mastermind Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi. To India’s shock and disbelief, its good friend Russia took a stand at a Brisbane meet on anti-terror financing against the Indian demand for censuring Pakistan for its inaction against the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
It needs to be underscored that Russians and Central Asians often exaggerate terror threats as a ploy to tighten domestic control as well to gain external help and legitimacy. In this regard, the threat from ISIS is a new tool to garner global support. The West has raised eye brows over crackdowns and the curbing of rights of even children in the name of countering ISIS threat.
But Central Asians know what pleases Indians and make their demands accordingly. India has already decided to appoint former IB chief Asif Ibrahim as a special envoy to liaise with governments in the region and assist them in counter-terror technology and training. India should take Central Asian concerns about radicalization with the proverbial pinch of salt.
On Afghanistan, these countries have sufficient mechanisms in place under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation to counter the threats along the Afghanistan-CIS borders. With Pakistan in, any plan to create a Northern-Alliances-type counter group for countering the Taliban is unlikely to fructify.
How the SCO will enable the fructification of Indian energy and connectivity projects, including TAPI, is a curious question. Some fresh news are in the offing, that the 1,078-mile long TAPI pipeline will transport 38 million cubic metres of gas from the Caspian Sea resort of Avaza to India. But for India, dealing with tricky authoritarian leaders plus the challenge of getting the energy supplies to India has been insurmountable. The issue has never been about the source of energy but about transporting it.
In Ufa, Modi will have to display pragmatism for building greater convergence with China and Russia. The SCO sees itself as an ideal forum to bring about a serious thaw between India and Pakistan. Chinese vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping had reportedly said that “India and Pakistan’s admission will play an important role in the SCO’s development. It will play a constructive role in pushing for the improvement of their bilateral relations.” Hopefully, the SCO would prove useful in getting Modi and Nawaz Sharif together.
Author is a former Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan.