Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is scheduled to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s Annual Defence Ministerial Meeting to be held in Beijing on April 24. This is the first time that an Indian Defence Minister will be attending such a meeting, which will have the participation of SCO’s Secretary-General and Director, Executive Committee of RATS. The meeting reviews pressing global and regional security matters, coordinates action plans, and issues a Joint Communiqué.
The meeting will certainly offer an opportunity to reset India-China ties especially after last year’s 73-day long standoff at Doklam. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has just returned from Shanghai after meeting with the Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi on 13 April – both agreed to set ties on track in a comprehensive way.
The critical point is whether India is willing to join the SCO’s defence solidarity and coordination efforts defined under the “Shanghai Spirit”.
The agenda this year is to hold a Fanfare for Peace Military Tattoo in China and Peace Mission 2018, the Joint Counter Terrorism Military Exercise in Russia. India was part of this decision taken early this year when an Indian military delegation led by Major General Ajay Seth participated for the first time in a meeting of the international military cooperation departments of the SCO since joining the bloc last year.
Importantly, India and Pakistan also joined an anti-cyber-terrorism drill in Xiamen organised by the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) last December. It was designed to improve coordination in a scenario dealing with a terrorist group that had infiltrated into SCO countries. Apparently, Pakistan and India expressed willingness to actively participate in defence and security cooperation within the SCO framework to contribute to regional security and stability.
The SCO’s common security threats were conceptualised as fighting against the “Three-evils”. Article 6 of RATS stipulates action by SCO Parties to deal with the three-evils including sharing of intelligence on extremist groups and individuals. RATS is based in Tashkent, and gathers information on terror networks, spread of ideology and propaganda, cross-border organised crime, and terrorist financing and money laundering. So far, it has seemingly curbed over 500 terrorist crimes, eliminated over 440 training bases; caught 1050 international terrorists. It maintains a list of terrorist outfits that are banned in the SCO space.
The focus this time is expected to be on anti-terrorism cooperation. Significantly, SCO adopted a draft convention last year on a single consolidated legal framework on terrorism, terrorist acts and terrorist organisations. The Astana Declaration last year expressed agreement to cooperate against individuals and legal entities related to the recruitment, training and employment of terrorists.
Importantly, the SCO holds the Annual “Peace Mission” or “anti-terrorist” drills, which focus on the anti-terror command, coordination and combat readiness. Currently, Russian and Chinese are the common operating language for military exercises. Whether English will be added to improve interoperability (after the entry of India and Pakistan) is yet to be seen.
SCO also holds the military music festival “Trumpet of Peace” with military bands participating from member States.
The 2017 defence ministerial meeting decided to study and preserve the historical and cultural heritage. It also confers awards on people who contribute to strengthening better cooperation between the organisation’s defence ministries.
Defence Ministers normally use the SCO to highlight their respective security and strategic concerns. Examples include: Russia’s position on the Syrian conflict; and China’s position on the South China Sea issue, garnering support for its “One Belt, One Road” connectivity plan under SCO, etc.
So far, China is seen following an opportunistic but non-confrontational approach to using the SCO platform to create a favourable atmosphere for itself based on the idea of deepening strategic cooperation and mutual trust. The consensus-based decision under “Shanghai spirit” tends to serve Chinese interests mainly due to the strong bilateral economic ties it has with other member states. Notably, SCO is also about harmonising China’s policies with Russia’s regional agenda.
The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group was revived last year (dead since 2009) in the context of Russia’s renewed interest in Afghanistan to counter the growing threat of ISIS, and China’s interest in playing a peace-building role and expand its BRI and CPEC projects into Afghanistan.
Central Asian defence policies (barring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) remain Russia-oriented owing to their militaries’ Soviet origins, but China has been subtly seeking influence in the regional defence and security areas under the aegis of SCO. Beijing has been hedging its own bets in Afghanistan by formulating a Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) security grouping involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.
From India’s perspective, RATS is important for gaining information on extremist movements from SCO States to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It also collects information on the Taliban’s activities, but it is hard to imagine how all sides would share high value information mainly because of the closed nature of the various intelligence services and the mutual suspicion that generally exists between China and its Central Asian neighbours. It is even harder to imagine RATS sharing hard inputs on terrorist hideouts say in FATA region when Pakistan is also a member.
India has been maintaining security cooperation with Russia and the Central Asian Republics from the days of its support for the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. India had set up a small field hospital at Farkhor in Tajikistan in 2001. In the post 9/11 era, India made a bold strategic move by undertaking renovation work of Ayni air base in Tajikistan in 2002.
The scale of India’s defence cooperation with the Central Asian states has expanded since then to cover areas ranging from military-to-military cooperation, training and assistance, joint military exercises, servicing and upgrading of military hardware, import of military equipment and spare parts.
The SCO has certainly emerged as the most important regional grouping in the Eurasian region. India joining the SCO has largely a symbolic meaning. As of now, there is lack of clarity about what it means for India in terms of any specific function and benefits. Yet, India cannot afford to be left behind in the strategic Eurasian region where only SCO has emerged as an important geopolitical pole. Therefore, logic demanded that India better be in than out of the SCO. But to be sure, multiple conflicting interests would intersect at the SCO forum, ranging from regional and global issues to combating terrorism.
Last year, Prime Minister Modi reposed full faith in the SCO as he fine-tuned India’s aspirations in the grouping to benefit in economics, connectivity and counter-terrorism cooperation, but he also drew certain redlines of “respect territorial integrity, unite against terror”.
The SCO could become a new frontier for India, but the Pakistan factor could put a spanner in India’s goals. The SCO sees ISIS rather than Taliban as a serious threat to regional security. Moreover, Russia and China seemingly recognise Pakistan’s role in counter-terrorism. Clearly, India’s positions may be at odds there. Yet, it could be used as a neutral forum to discuss terrorism in a broader context as a leverage to obtain Beijing’s cooperation on curbing Pakistan-sponsored terrorism or at least not to unduly favour Pakistan. As it is, China’s concerns about the threat of terrorism are growing and, as the BRI moves ahead, Chinese nationals are getting exposed to a greater threat from terrorist groups.
Defence cooperation in the SCO ambit could possibly provide impetus for the Indian military and PLA to shed misgivings about each other besides providing both India and Pakistan a rare opportunity to share several multilateral tables such as the antiterrorism structure, military exercises etc., to work together incoordinating operational details and sharing intelligence, which might change the regional climate in the longer run. But, given existing deep differences, defence and security cooperation with Pakistan and China would remain challenging.
But mainly, India’s journey in the SCO would depend mostly on how India and China weigh ties on security and economic calculations. Of course, it will also depend on other factors, especially the future trajectory of Indo-US relations.
It would be wise on the part of India and Pakistan to maintain a low profile and not act as spoilers. They will have to respect the 38 parameters of the SCO, which, among other things, oblige member states to “avoid active military conflict” and strictly adhere “to maintain long-term Good-neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation”.
For India, the existing bilateral-level defence cooperation with individual states should provide further impetus for enlarging engagement in the SCO.
Significantly, the SCO had banned Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) as long as the July 2007 meeting in Bishkek. Even Pakistan had to put terrorist Hafiz Saeed-backed terror outfit ‘Tehreek-e-Azaadi Jammu and Kashmir’ on the list of “proscribed organisations” a day before it entered SCO as a full member in June 2017, although Islamabad cited its compliance with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for the ban.
For its part, India should get the chiefs of JeM (Masood Azhar) and Hizbul Mujahideen (Syed Salauddin) designated as “global terrorists” by the SCO.
Working closely with RATS would be extremely important to ensure that no undesirable elements inimical to India gain a footing in Central Asia. Importantly, India has raised its flag at SCO’s RATS Headquarters in Tashkent on June 15, 2017.
Finally, to increase awareness, visibility and the effectiveness of India’s role in the SCO, India should institute regular strategic and security dialogue and conferences to discuss issues of common interests and identify priority actions for stronger cooperation. In this regard, the foundation laid by the Ladakh International Centre (LIC) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses through their various projects relating to India’s role in the SCO needs to be built upon.