New Delhi forges a unique path in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO): A positive stride amidst diversity

Srikanth Kondapalli

The SCO represents 40 per cent of the world’s population and a third of its GDP, albeit due to China and India.

India seemed to be charting a new bottom-up, democratic approach in the just-concluded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit meeting under its presidency. The challenges are formidable in the highly authoritarian regimes of the region, but the approach is subtle, long-term, and comprehensive.

The July 4 meeting of the heads of the SCO came at the end of a year-long outreach to all member-states, observers and dialogue partners during which India organised a massive programme of 140 diverse activities across the country involving these countries, specifically their youth.

As the SCO is expanding – Iran became a member, Belarus may be next – India has been paying much attention since it became a full member six years ago. The SCO represents 40 per cent of the world’s population and a third of its GDP, albeit due to China and India.

One significant approach India adopted at this meeting was to strongly put forth its strengths and interests. In contrast to the top-down approach among many authoritarian governments, India advocated enhancing “contact and engagement among people” — reflected in the programmes conducted across the country.

India seemed to be charting a new bottom-up, democratic approach in the just-concluded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit meeting under its presidency. The challenges are formidable in the highly authoritarian regimes of the region, but the approach is subtle, long-term, and comprehensive.

The July 4 meeting of the heads of the SCO came at the end of a year-long outreach to all member-states, observers and dialogue partners during which India organised a massive programme of 140 diverse activities across the country involving these countries, specifically their youth.

As the SCO is expanding – Iran became a member, Belarus may be next – India has been paying much attention since it became a full member six years ago. The SCO represents 40 per cent of the world’s population and a third of its GDP, albeit due to China and India.

One significant approach India adopted at this meeting was to strongly put forth its strengths and interests. In contrast to the top-down approach among many authoritarian governments, India advocated enhancing “contact and engagement among people” — reflected in the programmes conducted across the country.

New Delhi also offered to share India’s start-up experience. With the Stalinist planning model discredited and the market economy spreading, India’s suggestions on start-ups, innovation and digital inclusion provide a transformative moment for the SCO states. India also advocated youth empowerment, traditional medical practices, and shared Buddhist heritage. There are also proposals for cooperation in emerging fuels, decarbonisation, and digital public infrastructure.

These are sure to create interest in the Central Asian states whose aspirations India declared to be its “primary focus”. The New Delhi declaration announced Central Asia as the “core of SCO”, perhaps replicating its “ASEAN centrality” approach in the Indo-Pacific in this Eurasian grouping. However, India needs to find its feet and resurrect the age-old ties it had with the region to overcome the hard power of the two dominant powers in the SCO, Russia and China.

This is easier said than done for several reasons. Firstly, in a surprise move, India announced that the 23rd SCO summit would be held in a virtual format. That decision led to speculation mainly due to the actions of China and Pakistan. Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s intemperate remarks and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s (and Defence Minister Li Shangfu’s) denial of any border crisis with India created an impression of a Sino-Pak cabal in the SCO.

China’s summit meeting with the Central Asian republics at Xian in May this year, the new trilateral of China-Russia-Iran and other signals from Beijing indicated strong moves to balance against India. A virtual meeting avoided any embarrassment for New Delhi due to all this.

Secondly, given India’s national security priority of countering cross-border terrorism, India found the Sino-Pak axis on the issue intriguing. India’s call to avoid double standards in addressing counter-terrorism efforts appears to be falling on deaf ears as China supports Pakistan in the UNSC 1267 committee proceedings as well as shielding Pakistan-based terror outfits. While India participated in Russia-led counter-terror exercises and found useful tactical and operational principles, given the Sino-Pak axis, counter-terrorism issues have been diluted in the SCO to India’s disadvantage.

Also, regional security in the SCO has worsened with the Ukraine war, imposing costs on India and the Global South in terms of food, fuel and fertiliser shortages and price rise. The SCO had taken up an energy club effort, given the preponderance of energy producers and consumers. However, so far, much of the energy resources have been garnered by China as Pakistan has blocked initiatives to transport energy resources from Central Asia to India. Recently, India found an opportunity after Chabahar Port was built. India is also backing the International North-South Transport Corridor. Russia has also supplied substantial energy resources to India in the last two years.

Thirdly, India remains the lone SCO member to not have endorsed, much less joined, China’s Belt and Road Initiative. India reiterated its position that “it is essential to uphold the basic principles of the SCO charter, particularly respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the member-states”, pointing at the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that passes through Pak-Occupied Kashmir.

India also stated that “it is our shared responsibility to understand each other’s needs and sensitivities.” As the host of the SCO, India thus had to steer through difficult and turbulent terrain, balance competing claims, and still protect its interests and aspirations. A creative “soft” approach of reaching out to the people of the Eurasian region amongst the “hard” regimes appeared to be the best path, and New Delhi took it.

The article was first published in The Deccan Herald as New Delhi is carving out a lonely furrow in SCO on July 9, 2023.

Read more by the author: Modi’s Successful Visit to the US Leaves China Uneasy.

Authors

  • Krishti khandelwal
  • Srikanth Kondapalli

    Dean, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

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  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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