What prospects does the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation hold for India?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit which will be held in Qingdao, China on 9 and 10 June is being looked at with a lot of expectations. This is the first time that India and Pakistan will be attending the summit as full-fledged members. At the time when India is trying to redefine its position in the emerging world order it is important to analyse India’s participation in this summit through two major perspectives. One is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s keynote address at the recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue. Though Shangri-La Dialogue covers only Indo-Pacific, Modi’s speech must be looked at as India’s efforts towards defining and playing a constructive role in the world order. The second perspective is India’s outreach with Central Asia.

Considering Modi’s speech as the basis for India’s policy orientation in the future it is pertinent to examine its alignment with India’s participation in the SCO. The SCO was formed on June 15, 2001 in Shanghai by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The purpose of formation of the SCO was stated as strengthening mutual cooperation in the areas of economic development and security in the region. However some observers believe that the SCO was formed to counter the influence of the United States (US) in Central Asia. India’s participation in the SCO may be considered as a balancing act since India is also closer to United States. But the SCO certainly does not fulfill India’s condition of a multi-polar order.

Modi in his speech at Shangri-La Dialogue mentioned that any system must not be directed against any one country. With reference to Indo-Pacific Modi’s statement implied that sharp polarisation in any region would give rise to conflict. Similarly strategic competition with the US as a policy creates similar polarised situation in the Central Asian region. Like Indo-Pacific there is a possibility of India becoming an instrument in the strategic posturing between different powers.

The strategic posturing against the US in the SCO is bound to increase this time since Iran would be attending this summit in the capacity of an observer. It presents China and Russia with an opportunity for closer engagements with Iran since the US has walked out of the nuclear deal. This situation only adds to India’s challenge of building a strong foundation in the grouping. The SCO is an organisation having a strong influence of China. The presence of Pakistan makes addressing of India’s strategic concerns difficult. In recent times with Russia’s leaning towards China has meant that India has to work hard and compete with China to sustain Russia’s friendship. India has close relations with Iran independent of the former’s relations with the US. Iran is strategically important for India on two counts. One, India is involved in development of the Chabahar port. This port is being developed in response to China’s development of Gwadar port in Pakistan. Secondly, Iran is India’s gateway to Central Asia. Iran is a part of International North South Transit Corridor (INSTC) which runs from Iran to Central Asia.

Closer engagements with Iran would benefit China on two fronts. It gives China an edge against the US. The second benefit would be it could potentially dilute the competition from India. Last year India opened a trade route through Iran to Afghanistan. With this route India is able to circumvent Pakistan.  This is an important strategic milestone for India since it can pose challenge to China’s encirclement of India.

Security is another important aspect for India both at national level and international level. Terrorism emanating from Pakistan is a major security concern for India. Similarly security threats for India in Afghanistan are of equal concern. Attacks on Indians in Afghanistan weaken India’s prospects of outreach to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The SCO has a body named Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) to deal with terrorism, extremism and separatism. India is also facing these problems for a number of years. These problems are the cause of India’s troubled relations with Pakistan. India’s territorial disputes and strategic concerns with Pakistan and China are still unresolved. In addition China’s posturing against India and in support of Pakistan makes resolution of outstanding problems difficult. There have been a number of mechanisms and dialogue processes which have not yielded satisfactory results. In this scenario it remains to be seen how effective the SCO proves to address India’s concerns.

India’s participation in the SCO is meant to strengthen the former’s engagements in the region. However overlapping strategic interests of two major Asian powers China and India render the prospects of the SCO for India uncertain.

Niranjan Marjani
Niranjan Marjani
Niranjan Marjani is an Independent Researcher and Columnist based in Vadodara, India follow on twitter @NiranjanMarjani