India’s hesitations about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Last Friday (26/2/16), the Russian news agency TASS announced a memorandum on India’s joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is expected to be signed at a SCO summit in Tashkent in June.

India-in-SCO

This move has been a long time coming. One reason is China, which was unenthusiastic about Indian participation even just as an observer (it finally agreed in 2005). However, since then India has also vacillated on applying for SCO membership.

The dynamics and nuances of this situation is covered in an interesting text by Swaran Singh – India and the SCO: Better Late Than Never – published in The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasian Geopolitics: New Directions, Perspectives, and Challenges, edited by Michael Fredholm. Here are a couple of excerpts from that text.

Apart from its rapid progress, visibility, and Asian genre, the sub-structures that were to make India particularly interested in the SCO included its Regional Anti-Terrorism Center (RATS). The RATS was set up as a permanent organ of the SCO at its Tashkent summit of June 2004. Located at Tashkent, it serves as a secretariat to promote cooperation amongst member states to fight against the three evils of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. By April 2006, the RATS had begun to expand its domain to include in its plans initiatives like fighting cross-border drug crimes. By October 2007, the SCO had signed agreements with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of ex-Soviet republics to further broaden its regional cooperation paradigm and include issues like security, crime, and drug-trafficking. These two organizations have since chalked out detailed plans in these fields. As a result, though the SCO has repeatedly clarified that it does not expect itself to emerge as a military block, it now holds regular joint military exercises amongst its members and is often viewed as a counter to the eastward expansion of NATO. All this is what makes the SCO attractive to New Delhi, though this does not explain India’s lukewarm engagement with this forum. This chapter makes an attempt to explore and examine further this engagement.

[…]

Why Is India So Reluctant?

Prima facie, in spite of a fair amount of sustained engagement, India has not been enthusiastic about the SCO meetings. At the bilateral level, however, in addition to India’s traditionally close friend the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation, it has also evolved a close engagement with the Central Asian republics, especially Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Even with China, India has sustained intense economic and diplomatic engagements, though these have seen fluctuations from time to time.

India’s pursuit of SCO membership has not been as aggressive or as sustained as has that of other aspirant contenders like Belarus, Iran, or Pakistan. This lukewarm approach of India is often explained by the following factors:

  • First and foremost, India remains cautious because of its preoccupation with autonomy, ensuring that it does not get into any binding relationship that may circumscribe its future policy options. The fact that scholars in west have viewed the SCO as parallel to NATO makes India wary.
  • Second, India’s continuous rivalry with Pakistan and China’s close ties with Pakistan act against India’s desire to show an interest in joining the SCO. India does not wish to compete with Pakistan for SCO membership. This is also likely to increase the SCO’s influence on India–Pakistan ties.
  • Third, the SCO has been especially sceptical of U.S. overtures to be part of SCO initiatives. But western experts criticize the SCO for being an exclusivist economic, if not military, forum. Given India’s growing closeness to the United States, India would not like to be seen siding with forums trying to exclude the United States.
  • Fourth, China – which has been the main force behind the evolution of the SCO – remains wary of allowing India any influence in the region whatsoever, especially when it comes to the SCO. This is partly driven by India’s rising stature and its long-standing close ties with Moscow.
  • And last but not the least, and in more practical terms, lack of easy and direct access for India to the Eurasian landmass is also often cited as something that discourages Indian initiatives. India has to access the Central Asian republics through the troubled states of Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iran, which makes matters complicated.

At the same time, however, the SCO provides India with an effective model and platform of Asian multilateralism, which has been making rather visible contributions towards ensuring peace and stability in the Eurasian region and also has been facilitating rapid development across various sectors across regions. Given India’s growing interest in the gas and oil of the Central Asian republics, India is normally represented at the SCO summits by India’s petroleum ministers, and improvements in relations with several Central Asian republics have opened new avenues in other sectors as well. As an exception to this rule, India was represented by India’s Prime Minister at the Yekaterinburg SCO summit of May 2009 and, in his speeches, Dr Manmohan Singh underlined the need for evolving innovative means to strengthen people-to-people contacts and exchanges of business delegations to expand bilateral trade, investments, and technology transfers. The June 2010, June 2011, and June 2012 summits were attended by India’s foreign minister, who gave signals about a certain upgrading of India’s participation.

Given the SCO’s unique selling point being its attempt to evolve innovative strategies for energy security and countering terrorism, India also sees a special role for itself in making an important “value addition” to the SCO’s functioning and to its evolving vision and initiatives. India also sees for itself several new opportunities in helping the Central Asian republics in their agriculture sector, pharmaceuticals, and food security, as well as in building material infrastructure and social capital in the region. Similarly, the Central Asian republics can offer India much needed energy resources like oil, gas, and uranium, and there is scope for cooperation in such resource exploration. At the multilateral level, the SCO provides India with opportunities for regular deliberations with several of Asia’s major powers who are now either members or observers of this important Asian forum. Given that most of the SCO observers are “regional powers with claims to global status … will undoubtedly turn the SCO into a major regional organization to be reckoned with.” But there remain serious challenges in realizing some of these multiple visions, and the historical baggage of the China and India equation remains a most difficult hurdle in achieving this amalgamation of thought and action.

Swaran Singh, ‘India and the SCO: Better Late Than Never’, in From The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasian Geopolitics: New Directions, Perspectives, and Challenges, edited by Michael Fredholm, pp. 162–63 and pp. 167–69.

© NIAS Press 2013 (2016)

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