Reshaping Asian politics

The SCO will play a crucial role in shaping politics in the Asian region

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has been one of the important organizations that straddles both Central Asia and South Asia. Established in 1996 as the Shanghai Five, it came to be known as SCO in 2001 when Uzbekistan joined it. The organization has since come a long way.

While the core principles of mutual trust, mutual respect, equality, respect for cultural diversity, and shared development remain as guiding principles, it is significant, in more than one way, especially in the context of recent global developments that is likely to impinge on this region.

This year’s summit in Qingdao, China on June 9-10, was held against the background of the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, the recent US-China trade war, and the imposition of sanctions on Russia. Most importantly, for India, the post-Wuhan and post-Sochi dynamics of its bilateral relations with China and Russia respectively. India has substantial interest in this region and has been pursuing them bilaterally.

All four important issues delineated by the organization as priority areas of cooperation — ie political, security (with focus on terror), economic, and cultural contact — are areas which India is already bilaterally engaged in with the member states.

Interestingly, its reservation on the China-led One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative has not come in its way of being a member of SCO. New Delhi’s interest to develop a communications network with Central Asia and Afghanistan through the Iranian port of Chahbahar — built by India, and International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that will link it to the Eurasian region — has been part of its long-term strategy to overcome its lack of land access to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Therefore, in the context of developing rail and road infrastructure for trade, some of these initiatives which India is engaged in, along with other countries in the region, is likely to bring economic dividends for the region as a whole. A membership in SCO only furthers India’s initiative in this region.

A significant area of cooperation is that on combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism under the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in SCO. India has already participated in a RATS meeting held in Islamabad this year.

In the latter part of this year, the member countries will hold a joint anti-terror exercise in Russia which, for the first time, will bring army personnel from India and Pakistan together. Though the personnel from the armed forces of the two countries have worked together in UN peacekeeping missions, this will be the first joint exercise.

The importance of RATS is that it has a terrorism database on international terrorist, separatist, and other extremist organizations. For India, which has substantial investment in the region, especially in Afghanistan, this database will help it map the threat. Moreover, having access to a database of trans-national terror groups will help India’s own fight against them.

China and Russia remain significant guiding forces within the SCO, notwithstanding the inherent competition between the two to emerge as major players in the regional grouping.

China has emerged as an important consideration for Central Asian countries with major infrastructure and energy projects, and has capitalized on their fear of Russian domination. With the convergence of interests between these two countries on several global issues — against the backdrop of Russia-US and China-US tension — SCO has gained more strength and unity of purpose and is a counter-balance to the US interest in the region.

Though China concedes to Russian primacy in Central Asia, nevertheless, many Central Asian countries look at Beijing as a balancer. In the past few years, China and Russia have managed significant economic and military cooperation, and have strategic convergence in their approach to Iran and Syria in spite of their geo-political fear of each other.

India and Pakistan will attend the summit for the first time as full members of SCO. The countries’ membership with SCO will help the organization bring in two more countries which have an interest in the region and are eager to connect and gain access to Central Asia’s energy resources.

The two countries are part of the TAPI pipeline and of several multilateral infrastructure projects. Both also have an interest in the stability of Afghanistan, an observer in the SCO. The SCO has a contact group in Afghanistan. This will allow India to meaningfully engage in the effort to bring peace in Afghanistan as a member of SCO.

Both India and China, who are interested to invest in mines in Afghanistan, have agreed to a joint India-China economic project in Afghanistan and would initially concentrate on capacity building.

Interestingly, there is a lot of diplomatic juggling that India has to do. It is trying to reinvigorate its ties with Russia and China, it also has substantial convergence of interest with the US in the Indo-Pacific.

India’s decision to buy S-400 Triumf missile system — the delivery of which has been pending for some time — in spite of US reservation, is a significant signal that Russia remains an important destination for India’s defense procurement.

Similarly, it has made it clear that it will go ahead with its proposed preferential trade agreement with Iran and would continue its import of crude oil, in spite of US sanctions. As long as European Union are not part of the US sanction regime, India can continue to pay Iran in Euro.

The SCO summit allowed India to not only articulate its vision for the region, but the meetings India had with member states on the sidelines are equally significant in shaping its bilateral relations.

As it appears, the SCO will be an important organization that will play a crucial role in shaping the politics in the Asian region.


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