Narendra Modi in Astana: SCO membership raises questions on India's foreign policy, group's efficacy

With India becoming a full-fledged member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) along with Pakistan, now there is a regional organisation which covers the widest land area with the biggest population in the world — it constitutes nearly three-fifths of the Eurasian continent, 43 percent of the world's population and accounts for 24 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP). Obviously, if the SCO works towards the common prosperity and stability of the member countries, it will emerge as the biggest contributor towards global peace, co-operation and prosperity.

But the big question is: will it? Let us remember that the world is full of such regional organisations. But how many of them have really lived up to their expectations, save European Union (EU), Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and military entities such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)? Take the case of India. We are members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), an association of five major emerging national economies Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) and the Forum of India, Brazil, South Africa (IBSA) to promote international cooperation. But what exactly have they achieved?

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with other heads of delegations at SCO summit in Astana. PTI

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with other heads of delegations at SCO summit in Astana. PTI

Let us see the contradictions within the SCO. Originating as Shanghai Pact to be a "Eurasian political, economic, and military organisation", consisting of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, in 1996, it was renamed as the SCO after the inclusion of Uzbekistan on 15 June, 2001. With India and Pakistan joining the organisation on Friday, there are now eight member countries. India’s association with the SCO dates back to 2005 when it attended it as an observer for the first time. The issue of expanding the SCO was decided by the group in 2010. Discussions within the group started in the same year. The decision on actually expanding the SCO was taken by the SCO in 2014 and the same year India applied to join it as a member. But here is a catch. In 2014, the SCO had indicated to admit Iran and Mongolia as well.

Ostensibly Iran has been excluded because it has been under some international sanctions or the other following its nuclear programme. Mongolia’s case is said to be that of its "loss of interests in SCO" after 2014. However, the reality could be different, given the fact that memberships in the SCO have always been a matter of geopolitical or a global rebalancing game.

The SCO’s origin should be looked at from the angle of the commonality of interests between Russia and China to balance the hegemony of the West led by the United States in world politics. They wanted to avoid conflicts that would allow the US to intervene in areas near both Russia and China. In fact, some observers described it as an "Asian NATO" when the SCO countries decided in 2003 to have joint military exercises from time to time. Such an observation might have been a hyperbole given China’s intricate economic ties with the United States, but the fact remains that the SCO has been viewed as a small step in the direction of creating a multipolar world.

However, the problem has been the type of the multipolar world that the SCO wants to promote. And that is because Russia’s multipolar world is not necessarily the same as the one promoted by China. And this basic difference between Russia and China is fully reflected when they decide on who should be granted membership (or for that matter, the status of an observer) in the SCO. For example, the United States’ application for being an observer in SCO has been rejected. If India is there in the SCO, it is solely due to Russian support, nothing else. In fact, Russia was never in favour of Pakistan joining the group. But China would have none of it until Pakistan was also allowed to join along with India. And it seems that the Chinese have prevailed over the Russians, though it will be utterly simplistic to view that Russia will now do whatever China wants.

In the true sense, India and Pakistan becoming members of the SCO simultaneously is the outcome of a Sino-Russian compromise in which China had to make its membership formula flexible, particularly the criteria of "location factor", "cordial ties among prospective members", and "signing the NPT". It will be foolhardy to say that India and Pakistan have "cordial relations". Neither of them has acceded to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). And most importantly, "location wise", they do not exactly share the border with other SCO members (unless one makes a case of Tibet that has been forcibly annexed by China). In fact, one may point out, and this is a great irony, Turkmenistan, one of the original five central Asian republics — others being Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — is not a member of the SCO, following what it says is "positive neutrality".

Another noticeable feature of the SCO now will be the fact that India is the only democracy in the true sense of the term in the group that otherwise is composed of, essentially, countries with autocratic or authoritarian regimes. Let alone Pakistan, China and Russia, the four central Asian republics have essentially been trying to preserve the illiberal patterns since the times they were constituents of the then Soviet Union. In other words, India is an odd member of the group.

Another contradictory feature is that the SCO has always talked of "maintaining and reinforcing peace" and "ensuring security and stability in the region", by organising joint efforts against terrorism, separatism and extremism, or "fighting the three evils", as they call it. In fact, The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), headquartered in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is a permanent organ of the SCO which serves to promote co-operation of member states against the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism. How does then Pakistan, the hotbed of all the three evils, fit into this scheme of the things?

And what is more, as a part of 'security cooperation' the SCO, from time to time, conducts joint military exercises (first of its kind was held in 2003). Now imagine a situation when India will have to, as per the SCO norms, conduct joint military exercises with Pakistani troops (it will be different in nature of the two countries' troops working together in United Nations peace operations).

Finally, India’s membership in the SCO gives a little confusing signal about what is India’s priority area of interest. As C Raja Mohan asks, “Where should Delhi pitch its tent? In the continental or maritime domain? Should it align with the heartland powers or stitch together a rimland coalition? Must India define itself as a Eurasian or Indo-Pacific power?"

In the book Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look East Policy, this author had argued that India’s preeminence as a major power in ancient times stemmed from its undoubted civilisational and economic influences in the Far East and Southeast Asia. No wonder the region was called “Farther India”. If India’s decline as a major power started in the medieval period, it was essentially because of the Mughals — then rulers of India — who came from Central Asia, turned their attention from the "seas" and focused on land power. The trend was reversed during the British rule. If Britain was the undisputed power in the region stretching from Suez to China and Singapore, it was because of the fact that India was "the jewel in the Crown". But after Independence, the importance of seas diminished again until its resurrection by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao through his Look East Policy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given further impetus to this trend through his Act-East Policy. Of course, one could argue that India could well be as much a Eurasian power as an Indo-pacific power like China and Russia are. Let us hope that it is so. But for that to happen, the SCO has to resolve its inner contradictions that have been pointed out and not get reduced to becoming a talking shop such as SAARC.

Updated Date: Jun 09, 2017 19:30 PM

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