Narendra Modi in Astana: Joining SCO is a shift in policy, but Pakistan may throttle India's goals

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to travel to Astana in Kazakhstan where India and Pakistan will become full-fledged members of Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, is a welcome change after New Delhi’s boycott of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) summit in Beijing last month.

The SCO is a grouping originally meant to ensure Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia and a Eurasian counter to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Now, the platform is being used by China, among other things, to promote President Xi Jinping's OBOR initiative. The aim is to involve Central Asian countries, prone to the influence of radical Islamists, to think of connectivity and development. Russia has its concerns about Muslim-dominated Chechnya, while China’s worries are about Islamists in Xinjiang province.

 Narendra Modi in Astana: Joining SCO is a shift in policy, but Pakistan may throttle Indias goals

File image of Nawaz Shairf and Narendra Modi. Reuters

India is well aware of Beijing’s intentions to use the SCO to promote its ancient Silk Route which traversed through the region. Perhaps it has realised now that boycott does not serve any purpose, as many European countries who see OBOR as a move to project China’s growing clout in the world were present at the Beijing summit. India’s pragmatic plan now is to be part of the SCO and work from within the system. Whether anything substantial can be achieved will depend on India. "How we use our entry into the SCO, will depend on the deftness of Indian diplomacy. It will certainly raise India's profile in Central Asia," said Nandan Unnikrishnan, an expert on Russia and Central Asia, from the Observer Research Foundation. As part of SCO Indian ministers and diplomats will be visiting the region more often and help strengthen political ties with these countries.

India joining the SCO gives additional weight to the group as well. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted before leaving for Astana, after India’s inclusion, the SCO will represent 40 percent of humanity and 20 percent of global GDP.

The twin pillars on which the SCO stands is furthering trade, economy and connectivity in Central Asia and fighting terrorism through cooperation and exchange of intelligence as well as military exercises. At press briefing ahead of the SCO, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)was quick to point out that "the joint exercises are not a defence pact".

Expectations on SCO are not high, however. New Delhi is aware of the ground reality. The China-Pakistan axis will ensure that India does not reap many advantages from the SCO. Fighting terrorism jointly with Pakistan is a no-go, considering New Delhi regards Islamabad as the promoter of terror groups aimed at bleeding India. Will Pakistan stop funding and nurturing these outfits? Where will the interests of New Delhi and Islamabad meet within the SCO in fighting terrorism? This is a throwback to the anti-terror talks that India and Pakistan have initiated during one of the numerous peace initiatives between them. The Pakistan military and its spy agency ISI ensured that there was no cooperation. The SCO, of course, be a multilateral platform and some broad parameters may be followed by both countries, but when it comes to nuts and bolts on terror against India, there will be no action.

Ever since the break-up of the former Soviet Union, New Delhi had ambitions of rekindling its ties with the newly-independent republics. But because of geography and the fact that Pakistan had consistently opposed India’s overland trade with these nations, there was little forward movement. The SCO seems like a good opportunity to get things moving. Pakistan has been a spoiler for India in Central Asia. After all the South Asian Freed Trade Agreement got scuttled due to Pakistan’s reluctance to allow transit of goods through its territory to Afghanistan. New Delhi’s commitment to the Chabahar port in Iran for trade with Afghanistan and other central Asian nations was basically to work around this problem. So, even with regards to trade with Afghanistan and other countries, Pakistan is expected to be a stumbling block. So, where are the benefits for India in the SCO?

Afghanistan may just be one issue where India, China and Russia will find common ground. All three countries want stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan does too, but the country has a very different approach as it tries to strengthen the section of the Taliban it trusts. But as it's for India as well as Russia and China, an unstable Afghanistan could lead to an escalation of jihadi forces. Development of central Asian nations will help Afghanistan immeasurably, and perhaps, get the entire SCO to work towards it. This may take time, but can help bring back some semblance of order to this unstable country. "I think Russia, India and China can play a much more positive role in Afghanistan," said Unnikrishnan.

Both Modi and Nawaz Sharif are in Kazakhstan’s capital for the summit. The chances of any forward movement between the South Asian rivals appear dim. Both sides have already made it clear that no bilateral meetings between the two countries have been planned. But with India and Pakistan nothing can be taken for granted. Despite denials by both sides, Modi and Sharif may do more than just exchanging pleasantries in Astana.

Updated Date: Jun 09, 2017 15:48:10 IST