The upgradation of India’s status from that of Observer to a Member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), at its recently held summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, marks a significant enhancement in India’s diplomatic engagement with its members.
In conjunction with the country’s extensive bilateral relations with them in all aspects of government-to-government relationship, the membership of this premier Organisation would help it in influencing the geopolitics of Eurasia.
With the latest expansion, it represents, as Prime Minister Modi put it, nearly 40 per cent of the population and 20 per cent of the global GDP.
At the height of the Cold War, the erstwhile Soviet Union and China fought a sharp short border conflict, in 1969, on the Ussuri River in the east and the Xinjiang border in the west.
The momentum generated by Gorbachov’s olive branch to China continued after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991) and manifested in settlement of border disputes of China with Russia,, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
This process was accompanied by treaty arrangements for confidence-building on their respective borders. With this, the Shanghai Five group, comprising Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, came into existence in 1996.
Following the admission of Uzbekistan (2001), the grouping was renamed as Shanghai Cooperation Organisation by adopting a declaration to that effect.
It was followed by the adoption of the SCO Charter in 2002 and, in July 2005, the SCO summit, in Astana (Kazakhstan), was attended by representatives of India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan as observers.
The category of Dialogue Partner was created in 2008 for countries sharing the goals and principles of SCO and interested in an equal mutually beneficial partnership.
Its supreme body is the Council of Heads of State with cascading bodies at lower levels, with a council of national coordinators and a permanent secretariat headed by a secretary-general.
In addition, there are several ministerial working groups and institutions like the business council, interbank consortium and SCO Forum as well as the SCO RATS (Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure).
Following the admission of India and Pakistan at Astana summit on 9 June, the current membership comprises eight countries, with Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia as observer states and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey as dialogue partners with guest attendance by ASEAN, CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) and Turkmenistan.
Future membership possibilities are, currently, being discussed, in accordance with the procedure of admitting new members, adopted in 2010. President Xi Jinping announced, in January 2016, support for Iran’s full membership following the lifting of UN sanctions.
The different phases of evolution of this Organisation represent significant landmarks in the geopolitical churning in the Eurasian heartland. It came into existence as an organisation, first, to stabilise the relationship between China and the countries sharing the land border and thus shedding the bitter legacy of the Cold War.
Against the backdrop of the post-Cold War emergence of US as a global hegemon, it represented the assertion of their common interest in opposing external intervention on the pretext of protection of human rights and their efforts in safeguarding their national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and social stability from “terrorism, separatism and extremism” (SCO Charter).
Clearly, this was a reaction against the growing influence of the US and the Western European countries ~ and their affiliate organisations ~ in the Eurasian heartland and resultant anxiety amongst the member countries about the threats to their stability, including perceived support to the disaffected ethnic minorities in the region especially Chinese.
Whilst US and allied countries’ military operations continued in Afghanistan, the Chinese and Russian ‘balancing’ moves in Central Asia also unfolded.
As China’s economic heft increased, its various infrastructure-building activities, especially road, rail, gas and oil pipelines, also increased allowing it to tap the hydrocarbon and mineral resources of the countries of the Central Asian region and their markets for consumer goods.
Along with transportation, energy and telecommunications, the other aspect of the agenda of cooperation of the SCO member countries included the security, military, defence and discussion on foreign affairs.
The emergent strategic framework for the Central Asian region was shaped by Russia providing security through its military presence whilst China’s economic linkages with them grew becoming as significant, if not more, than Russia’s.
At the same time, terrorism became an important common agenda for the member countries which led to the setting up, in 2004, of the RATS headquarters in Tashkent (Uzbekistan).
This period also coincided with the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the activities of a large number of Islamist radical and ethnic irredentist elements from SCO member countries.
The presence of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, which also used base and other facilities in the Central Asian countries as well as supply routes across the former Soviet geographical space, created their own pressures leading to the SCO demanding, in July 2005, the US to set a clear timetable for withdrawing its troops from the SCO member states; Uzbekistan did, in fact, shut down its base later in the year.
Although disavowing any intention of making SCO as a military bloc, there is a significant defence and security component with joint military exercises being held since 2003; SCO defence ministers meet on a regular basis. From 2004 onwards, there have been plans for economic cooperation amongst the member states in areas such as joint energy projects, joint use of water resources, a banking system in view of the “the effectiveness of the monopoly in world finance” (President Putin, 2007 summit).
In 2009, China announced plans to provide US$ 10 billion loan to SCO member states to weather the impact of the global financial crisis.
The SCO has agreed on a common development strategy including finance, investment and trade cooperation for a 10-year period. At the 9th June Astana summit, the clear focus was on the threat of terrorism and the SCO Secretary-General, in addition to providing information on the final documents adopted, spoke of signing of the SCO Convention on Counteracting Extremism and the Summit Statement on Joint Counteraction on International Terrorism.
Prime Minister Modi spoke of connectivity with SCO members (where Pakistan is the only obstacle) and on coordinated action as a prerequisite for successful fight against radicalisation and the recruitment, training and financing of terrorists; on connectivity, he also emphasised “respect to sovereignty and regional integrity” and ensuring “inclusivity and sustainability” in these projects in a veiled reference to Indian reservations to CPEC which is part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Pakistani Prime Minister claimed success in fighting terrorism and extremism in his country. Chinese President also spoke of BRI stating that projects under this initiative would be coordinated with the national development programmes of the member countries.
What does this magaexpansion mean for the Eurasian heartland geopolitics?
As China’s influence grows in this region, there is increasing prospect of it shaping the regional institutions as well as the structure of their economies: this influence can become a critical factor in Afghanistan’s political settlement with the growing strategic relationship with Pakistan making a supportive impact on that outcome.
For China, the growing uncertainty in Afghanistan is both a challenge on account of its past history as a terrorist haven and an opportunity to put its imprimatur on an eventual settlement there. Russia, despite its proximity to China on account of the strained relationship with the US, has a certain anxiety about the endurance of its economic and security stakes due to the growing Chinese influence.
The geographical expansion of the SCO area does help in checking the Western, especially US, footprint in the efforts to create a “polycentric world order”. Whilst Russia has been backing India, China has been wanting to balance that by bringing Pakistan into the fold.
The Indian participation would help influence the policies and activities of the Organisation where it might concern the Afghan developments.
Engaging Central Asian countries in the multilateral framework as well would bolster its bilateral relationships with them which also have a security and defence dimension. Pakistan’s membership has had an unpropitious start in that President Xi snubbed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by not giving him a meeting over the recent killing of two Chinese nationals in Baluchistan by ISIS. India can utilise its participation in the SCO RATS meetings by pointing out that instability in the region ~ a matter of concern to all, including China ~ can be overcome only with Pakistan ceasing to distinguish between “good” and “bad” terrorists.
There is media comment, in China as well as in Russia, that participation of both countries in SCO would lead to better relations between the two new entrants as they would be working to advance the objectives of the organisation.
The organisation is largely underfunded with most members, given their divergent agendas, preferring bilateral channels for addressing critical issues of concern.
For this reason, the media commentaries about this forum having significant impact on India-Pakistan bilateral relations appear overly simplistic.
Yet, Indian membership of SCO offers considerable scope for diplomacy especially as Pakistan’s activities, given its past history, are looked at with suspicion by the Central Asian countries.
The writer is India's former Ambassador to Tajikistan. He can be reached at [email protected]