Harsh V Pant & Ayjaz Wani
SCO Being Hosted in Virtual Mode
In an unanticipated move, New Delhi has decided to host the 23rd Summit of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) virtually on July 4, 2023, rather than in person. India, the current chair of the eight-member grouping, has also invited the three Observer States and the heads of six regional and international organisations to participate in the summit hosted by prime minister Narendra Modi. Since assuming the rotating presidency at the historical city of Samarkand last year, New Delhi used its diplomatic capital to host 134 events, including 14 ministerial-level meetings to pursue the often-blurred regional collaboration and cooperation agenda of this divergent and antagonistic grouping.
However, the decision to host the annual summit online has indicated India’s disappointment with what is increasingly emerging as a fragmented grouping being used by China to pursue its hegemonic interests.
In 2017, India joined SCO as a full-time member after 12 years of observer status. Russia was keen to have India in the SCO to counterbalance China’s hegemonic dominance and belligerent pursuits in Eurasia. With a constructivist agenda, New Delhi’s membership lent SCO a democratic character, otherwise packed with authoritarian leaders. Likewise, SCO became an additional platform for India to pursue its geostrategic and geoeconomic interests in Eurasia based on centuries-old civilisational, spiritual, and cultural connections.
New Delhi took advantage of this regional grouping to strengthen and deepen bilateral ties with strategically vital central Asia, a pivot of geopolitical and geoeconomic transformations within the world island for centuries. India also used its diplomatic and intellectual capital in SCO to bring a progressive agenda on connectivity, counterterrorism, and Afghanistan.
SCO has been a sound platform for India to revive its ancient ties with central Asia. Central Asian Republics (CARs), which share a civilisational bond with India, have responded keenly, recognising New Delhi as a reliable partner to diversify their strategic interests. They concurred with India’s view that interconnectedness between Central Asia and South Asia will contribute to the common goals of prosperity and security.
CARs admitted New Delhi into the Ashgabat Agreement, allowing India access to connectivity networks to facilitate trade and commerce with Eurasia, and also shown a lot of interest in the India-led INSTC and Chabahar connectivity projects. In 2020, Uzbekistan established a trilateral working group with Iran and India to examine the convergence between the Chabahar port, INSTC, and other connectivity projects for greater intra-Eurasian connectivity. New Delhi also provided a $1 billion line of credit to CARs for the development of infrastructure projects, like Tajikistan’s Dushanbe-Chortut highway.
Similarly, the first India-Central Asia summit in 2022 stressed the inclusion of Chabahar Port and Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi Port in INSTC to facilitate direct trade. CARs also stressed transparency, focusing on local priorities, and upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all participating countries. Recently, India and Central Asia also formed a Joint Working Group (JWG) on the Chabahar Port to boost regional connectivity and trade.
India also used SCO to raise the issue of Chinese ingress and its belligerence in its neighbourhood. New Delhi has stressed “respect for territorial integrity” under the SCO’s “Shanghai Spirit”. India has successfully exposed Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorism in Afghanistan and Jammu and Kashmir, which has hampered the connectivity, security, and economic development of the SCO region. Pakistan, under China’s influence, has stonewalled India’s attempts to pursue its cultural, strategic, and economic interests by not allowing any regional connectivity via its territory.
Conversely, China has used the hostility between Pakistan and India for its hegemonic pursuits in the SCO region through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing also violated India’s sovereignty and integrity in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) by constructing the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
On the other hand, India has used SCO to highlight terrorism as a root cause for the lack of regional peace, security, and prosperity. The SCO charter revolves around the “three evils” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism, but Pakistan’s use of terrorism as a foreign policy tool with the help of China has neutralised SCO’s potency to effectively tackle these threats. Currently, the AF-Pak region has become a safe haven for dreaded terror organisations.
People’s Anti-Fascists Front (PAFF), an offshoot of Pakistan-sponsored Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), killed five Indian Army men in the Rajouri district of the Jammu and Kashmir on May 5, the same day when India hosted the SCO’s Council Foreign Ministers (CFM) meeting in Goa.
In November 2021, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval hosted the third regional security summit on Afghanistan and invited all the members of SCO, including Iran. However, Pakistan and China did not attend. Islamabad even deplored these consultations as a “futile attempt” and called New Delhi “a spoiler” that “cannot be a peacemaker”. Instead, both Pakistan and China held the “Troika Plus” talks with the US and Russia on Afghanistan in November 2021. The China-Pakistan axis has always used SCO against India’s regional interests.
Owing to the fragile global geopolitical environment, the Russia-Ukraine war has made SCO a China-created, China-dominated, and China-led multilateral forum used by Beijing for its parochial geostrategic, geoeconomic, and regional interests. With Moscow’s shrinking ability to balance hegemonic and belligerent Beijing, questions are rising about Russia’s ability to act independently. Russia’s declining influence and China’s increased dominance has made navigating this China-led anti-West grouping difficult for New Delhi.
India is the fastest-growing economy and an emerging pole in the current multipolar global order. For steady growth in the face of fragile geopolitical contestations, New Delhi needs access to different multilateral platforms to pursue interests in different geographies. India’s wider economic and strategic priorities have shifted it focus on its northern borders with Pakistan and China to the globally contested maritime space of the Indo-Pacific.
SCO, which is increasingly becoming a China-driven grouping, is marred with divergences and faultlines among the member countries on many pressing issues, including narcoterrorism, connectivity, border disputes, sovereignty, and regional stability. Underlying friction between several SCO members owing to the current geopolitical contestations has posed challenges to the strategic autonomy of India. While continuing its SCO membership, India must prioritise strengthening the India-central Asia dialogue to develop mutually-beneficial and meaningful cooperation with CARs for increased regional security, connectivity, trade, and cultural ties.
The article was first published in Financial Express as “Walking the SCO tightrope” on June 13 , 2023
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