The meeting of Council of Heads of Sates of Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) at Kyrgyzstan capital Bishkek, attended by eight Heads of member States, and four Heads of observer States ended in smoke. Like previous SCO meetings, the Bishkek Summit was also quite high in content but low in intent.
If we scan the resolutions passed, one would expect the SCO geo-politics to be stable and peaceful. But, on the contrary, India-Pakistan conflicts continue unabated, India-China border disputes remain unresolved as China makes fantastic claims on Indian territories, Russia continues to worry about China extending its influence over Central Asia and Afghanistan problem defies a durable solution.
To substantiate our charge of SCO being platitudinous and hyperbolic in its utterances, let us sample one of the many resolutions passed. It goes, “increasing challenges and security threats that are becoming cross-border in their nature like terrorism, spread of terrorist and extremist ideologies, including on the internet, returning foreign terrorists, proliferation of the weapons of mass destruction, the risk of an arms race among others need special attention, close co-ordination and the construction of co-operation of the global community.” The SCO, interestingly, has a Tashkent based Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS).
Note the spirit and intent of the above Resolution. If it is observed in the same spirit, the world would be a much better place, let alone the SCO region. But look at the hard and painful realities on the ground, China blocked for 10 years designating Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist under 1267 Al Qaeda Sanction Committee of UNSC. This was when Azhar claimed to have carried out terrorist attacks on Indian territory.
Likewise, Afghanistan is persistently accusing Pakistan of engineering terrorism in its soil, and Iran, the observer member of SCO has, charged Islamabad of sponsoring terrorism in Teheran. When Pakistan continues to be the hub and epicentre of cross-border terrorism, Beijing stands by Islamabad and indirectly supports such activities. In such a scenario, what is the sanctity, integrity and authenticity of such a Resolution? What purpose does it serve for India? Should India latch on to such a network that is Beijing-led, when ironically, China is India’s biggest threat, and countries like US expect India to be the bulwark against China.
What is SCO? How and why did it come into being? It started originally as Shanghai Five on 26 April 1996, at the behest of China, which wanted to expand its market and influence to the Central Asian region. The original five members were China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Then SCO or Shanghai Pact came into existence in 2001 with inclusion of Uzbekistan. As Russia became increasingly wary of China’s growing influence in the region, it wanted to rope in India to counter it. At the same time, China wanted to bring in its all-weather friend Pakistan to balance India. That is how India and Pakistan became full members in 2017.
SCO is theoretically driven by the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ – harmony, non-alignment and non-interference in others’ internal matters; and the SCO charter effective from September 2013. The objectives enshrined in the charter include, “strengthening mutual trust and neighbourliness among member States research, technology and culture as well as in education, economy, energy, promoting their effective co-operation in politics, transport, tourism, environmental protection, joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, stability and security in the region.” It seeks to fight the evils of ‘terrorism, extremism and separatism’. It further commits to an “establishment of a democratic, fair and rational new international, political and economic order.”
Quite commendable objectives indeed, but, as I said, they are purely rhetoric, hardly reflecting on the ground by China and Pakistan, both major adversaries of India. Russia, for its own weaknesses is holding on to the apron-string of China, so are the Central Asian countries. China is using its economic might to browbeat these countries into joining the alliance. Russia has had a lot of goodwill for India.
The Central Asian States would want India to play a bigger role in the region. India, any day, is preferred to China. But China benefits heavily from the interface between economy and foreign policy, as India suffers from their mismatch. The comparative trade figures of both China and India with this region validate this hypothesis. India’s trade with Russia is $10 billion, and with Central Asian countries is $2 billion, where as China’s trade with Russia is $100 billion and with Central Asia is $50 billion.
Therefore, as I have underlined many times before in this column, until India catches up economically with China, which may happen sooner than later, she has to play with other rules of the game, not what China uses, and India will have to punch above her weight in international politics. Hence, India has to be extremely sagacious in making alliances and choosing the forums she needs to engage with. SCO may not be one among these.
What were the drivers for India to join SCO, certainly not the so-called Shanghai spirit, nor the laudable objectives in the SCO charter? Our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru projected himself to be an idealist, was easily carried away by phoney sentiments and fanciful statements, as he was by Chinese, and we were chanting Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai. Narendra Modi is said to be a hard-nosed leader. It could be that South Block and NAMO thought, Russia is pushing us into SCO, we would have the scope to deal with both the super powers in the region, China and Russia, which would help us counter Pakistan.
Secondly, India was driven by triple interests of energy security, connectivity and trade in Central Asia, that is hydro-carbon rich. Some observers argue it will give India an extra forum to interact with Pakistan in absence of SAARC. All these arguments do not hold since SCO economy and geo-politics do not favour India. On the other hand, India creates misgivings among her more reliable allies like Japan, USA, Israel, South Korea and Australia.
At the cost of repetition in this column, New Delhi should never fall back even inadvertently to its old days of non-alignment or balancing and straddling the competing interests of the emerging blocks. The US, moving close to India, is wary of New Delhi procuring S-400 anti-missile systems from Russia, allowing Huawei for 5G telecom bid, and buying oil from Iran. New Delhi will have to find substitutes for these or take US into confidence. Given Beijing’s manoeuvres in the region, New Delhi can no longer run with the hare and hunt with the hound. It has to make a choice.
Also SCO itself lacks full commitment of members. Any alliance with China is a matter of convenience, not conviction. The Central Asian countries cooperate in other forums too, like Eurasian Economic Union, Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) of Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building Measures in Asia (CICA) and so on. These dilute the central importance of SCO for them.
However, in international affairs, a country has to be a part of various, multiple forums. In that sense, New Delhi could continue to associate with SCO, at least to retain the past goodwill and friendship with Russia. It could expect no more from SCO. Let us face the facts.—-INFA