Authors: Meena Singh Roy &Rajorshi Roy*
“As the political landscape of the region changed at the turn of this century, India restored its historical ties of natural affinity with the Central Asian countries….. Our membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a natural extension of these relationships and mirrors the region’s place in India’s future. Together with other countries present here, SCO could be a springboard for an integrated and connected Eurasia to become one of the most dynamic regions in the world” — statement by Prime Minister Modi at the 2015 SCO Ufa Summit that highlights the scope and importance of SCO in India’s Eurasian geostrategic calculus.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has emerged as a key regional organisation in the Eurasian space. Accounting for over 60 per cent of Eurasia’s territory and more than 40 per cent of the world’s population, the Eurasian members produce almost a quarter of the world’s GDP. The introduction of new states, both as permanent and observer members, has not only expanded the frontiers of the organisation but also helped unshackle the image of an organisation limited in its scope and effectiveness. The renewed momentum at building regional synergies is reflected in addressing common security challenges and building long-term economic and energy linkages. While still a work in progress, there inherently appears to be a strong desire among SCO stakeholders to strengthen the bonds of regional cooperation. This is, arguably, reflected in co-opting Afghanistan as an Observer State with a view to transform a potential arc of Eurasian instability into an oasis of regional stability.
India’s interests, against this backdrop, align with that of the SCO. New Delhi, which acquired the Observer status of the organisation in 2005, has constructively participated in all SCO summit meetings. This culminated in it being accorded the full member status in 2017. More than a decade’s participation in the organisation highlights India’s willingness to play a more meaningful role in this regional grouping. This stems from India’s strategy of rebuilding Eurasian partnerships that once made the confluence of South and Central Asia the magnetic centre of the known world. The SCO, thus, provides India with a platform to strengthen its outreach to Inner Asia.
The present paper seeks to examine India’s growing interest and role in this Eurasian organisation. More importantly, it aims to answer two key questions – what it means for India to be a full member of the SCO? And what are the likely opportunities for cooperation and challenges that New Delhi can encounter in the future?
It is argued that given India’s benign strategic image, growing economic potential, and vast experience and expertise in building institutional capabilities, it can add greater value to SCO’s ongoing projects and share best practices in newer areas to forge a common vision for the region. India’s foundational pillars in the SCO appear at expanding synergies of cooperation in connectivity, counter-terrorism, energy and economic arenas.
However, the key challenge for India will be to adapt to Eurasia’s emerging geopolitical reality. Shifting great power rivalries, inherent tides of dominance, undercurrents of both geostrategic and geo-economic cooperation and competition, and desire of Central Asian states for greater strategic manoeuvre highlight the Eurasian churnings that New Delhi will need to navigate. This is, arguably, reflected in the geopolitics of the multiple ambitious integration projects being pursued by China, Russia, U.S. and even India. While integration is viewed as an antidote to Central Asia’s underdevelopment, which in turn contributes to the region’s political volatility and instability, yet their underlying agendas can have far-reaching strategic implications.
This paper is divided into four sections – the first deals with the evolution of SCO and the emerging regional dynamics, the second highlights the importance of SCO for India, the third delves into the opportunities for expanding New Delhi’s engagement with the organisation, and the final section crystal grazes into the future relevance of SCO and the challenges that India is likely to encounter.
I. Evolution of the SCO: An Expanded Regional Agenda
The profile of SCO, right from its nomenclature to its scope, has grown since its inception in 1996. Established as Shanghai Five by Russia, China and the newly independent Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the organisation aimed to resolve longstanding Eurasian border disputes. With its foundation being based on the Treaty of Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions, the institution was looked through the prism of “promoting and deepening good neighbour relations, mutual confidence and friendship among the member-states”.
The organisation in its current avatar emerged in 2001 when the Shanghai Five was elevated to SCO by broadening its limited scope of resolving border issues to inculcating cooperation in the security, economic and cultural domains. Uzbekistan now joined the five founding members of Shanghai Five. The Founding Declaration of SCO outlined its defining goal as:
“strengthening mutual confidence, friendship and good neighbourly relations between the participating states; encouraging effective cooperation between them in the political, trade-economic, scientific-technical, cultural, educational, energy, transportation, ecological and other areas; joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region; and to build a new democratic, just and rational political and economic international order.”
The SCO also imbued elements of the 1996 Shanghai Spirit, with the organisation’s founding declaration aiming to “pursue its internal policy based on the principles of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, mutual consultations, respect for cultural diversity, and a desire for common development, while its external policy is conducted in accordance with the principles of non-alignment, non-targeting any third country, and openness.”
With almost two decades behind it, the SCO, through an expanded agenda, has now evolved into a key pillar of Eurasian political and security architecture. It has morphed to focus on both traditional and non-traditional security threats, set up a fully functional Regional Anti-terrorist Structure (RATS) to tackle the three ‘evils’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism, conducted anti-terror exercises, prioritised Afghanistan’s reconstruction and stability, dwelt on building long-term economic, connectivity and energy linkages, and articulated the need for strengthening cultural foundations and people to people contacts.
The inclusion of India and Pakistan as full members in 2017, co-opting Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia as the Observer States, and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey as Dialogue Partners have not only added a new vibrancy to the organisation but also reflected its pan-Asian geographical spread – straddling Central, South, South-East and West Asian regions. It’s guest attendees include ASEAN, UN, CIS and Turkmenistan. SCO, arguably, has emerged as a key platform for regional cooperation and engagement.
Nevertheless, given the inherent strategic importance of Eurasia, the organisation is not immune to great power rivalries, inherent tides of dominance, the balance of power politics, and undercurrents of geostrategic and geo-economic competition.
Evolving Regional Dynamics
The SCO remains rooted in Eurasian geopolitics. The organisation’s scope and importance have, therefore, evolved in sync with the regional geopolitical churnings. This stems primarily from the SCO being a vital instrument of China’s and Russia’s foreign policy towards Central Asian Republics (CARs), as well as a reflection of CARs strategy of balancing their relations with two big neighbours — Russia and China and maintaining their scope for strategic manoeuvre. In between, the U.S. has continued to remain a key tangent, oscillating between being a partner to becoming a rival and an adversary based on regional strategic calculations.
This trend continues, with Russia’s ongoing standoff with the West being the key driver shaping Eurasia’s strategic landscape. Moscow has sought to push-back the ‘Western’ attempts to isolate it by reasserting its influence in Central Asia — an area which has traditionally been the Kremlin’s sphere of influence or it’s near abroad’. Apart from being the predominant security provider of the region, Russia retains civilizational, cultural and ethnic linkages with CARs.
Meanwhile, China has emerged as Eurasia’s dominant trade and investment partner. Its modus operandi in SCO has been to utilise the organisation as a platform to cultivate stronger bilateral synergies with CARs. It has now increasingly sought to leverage its formidable economic prowess by making Central Asia the fulcrum of its Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). This route, expected to connect Beijing with Europe via CARs, can fundamentally realign Eurasian geopolitics, with China edging out Russia at its forefront.
This undercurrent of clash of interests between Russia and China seemingly highlight their inherent shades of competition in Eurasia — with Moscow trying to reassert its fading influence while Beijing was attempting to expand its footprint. However, given Russia’s vulnerable position in its evolving confrontation with the West, Moscow has been compelled to build an entente with China to tap Beijing’s potential to be a bulwark against the Western geopolitical pressure. This Sino-Russian rapprochement has seen the Kremlin accommodate China even in Central Asia. Russian concessions involve acquiescing to a quantitative and qualitative improvement in Chinese military exchanges with regional countries and aligning the Moscow led Eurasian Economic Union’s (EEU) policies with SREB.
Russia and China also have a shared Eurasian interest — to counterbalance America’s Eurasian policy, which has been disruptive to their interests in the past — the ostensible regime changes through colour revolutions, in particular, and the U.S role and influence in global politics in general. Notably, they both face Western geopolitical pressure in their peripheries. As such, a Sino-Russian common vision for the region aims to ring-fence Eurasia from Western influence and project the image of an emerging geopolitical construct which is not only non-West but also bigger than the West. This convergence of interests is further highlighted in their need to insulate CARs from an Arab-Spring like situation, given the evolving politico-economic faultlines in Central Asia.
Nevertheless, hidden behind the Russian accommodative stand exists a more nuanced strategy aimed at subtly balancing Beijing in an attempt to maintain an equilibrium in their ties whose symmetry, otherwise, appears to be tilting towards Beijing. This is reflected in the Kremlin’s efforts to revive the EEU which inherently pulls Central Asian members into Moscow’s strategic embrace by offering exclusive preferential duties, a single currency and free movement of labour for the Eurasian economies. Needless to say, China is not a member of the EEU.
In the meantime, the U.S. too appears to be recalibrating its Eurasian strategy. While its 2015 C5+1 diplomatic platform had enabled Washington to establish a framework of high-level engagement with CARs, yet, if President Trump’s track record of being fixated on ‘America First’ policy is an indication, U.S. influence in Eurasia is likely to diminish, particularly at a time when Washington appears imminently poised to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan. A 36 per cent reduction in the U.S. aid to Central Asia in 2018 is an indication that wheels of U.S. disengagement have already been set in motion. Viewed through the lens of Russia and China, while an American withdrawal from Kabul is likely to exacerbate the worsening security situation in the country with a potential spillover of violence into Eurasia, U.S. disengagement will also leave Eurasia to regional powers to carve out a regional cooperative mechanism. These developments are in marked contrast to the 2017 testimony of Daniel Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, who stated that the America’s Central Asia policy aimed to improve the ‘ability of the Central Asian states to resist economic and political pressures from the powerful countries that border the region’, and that the engagement sought to ‘promote greater cooperation and connectivity in a region that has one of the lowest levels of intra-regional trade in the world’.
At a regional level, new developments in the Af-Pak region, renewed American sanctions on Iran and Turkey’s fissures with the West have created a situation of strategic alignments and realignments. In this emerging situation, regional actors like India, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan have been re-engaging CARs by developing ties, both at bilateral and regional levels. Notably, all these regional powers are partners of SCO, highlighting the centrality of the organisation in the regional integration process.
In this Eurasian geopolitical chessboard, the Central Asian countries have sought to strike a balance in maximising their political and economic gains from each actor while trying to preserve their strategic autonomy. Notably, CARs remain inherently suspicious of Beijing’s overall economic motives and apprehensive of a greater strategic embrace by Moscow. Broadening their regional relationships, thereby, provides them with a platform to increase their scope for strategic manoeuvre. Arguably, the political dynamics among CARs now appear inclined towards intra-regional cooperation. This is reflected in the new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s conciliatory outreach to other Central Asian countries to resolve contentious regional issues, including those on the delimitation of borders and sharing river waters.
Consequently, while the spectre of great power rivalries and competition continue to cast its shadow on Eurasia, yet the ongoing regional dynamics highlight a shift towards the greater regional cooperative approach.
II. India and the SCO: From an Observer State to a Full Member
From an Observer State in 2005 to a full member in 2017, the evolution of India’s more than a decade long exposure and engagement with SCO highlight the growing relevance of the organisation in India’s Eurasian strategic calculus. As a full member of the SCO, India is now not just an observer, where it would earlier be compelled to react and recalibrate its position based on its Eurasian observations, but a key stakeholder in shaping the dynamics of Central Asia. Given the geopolitical realignments, the stakes are high, responsibilities higher and immense opportunities to expand its engagement.
In this context, India’s ongoing engagement with SCO can be seen through the prism of reconnecting and re-energising ties with a region with which India has shared civilizational linkages, and is considered the country’s extended neighbourhood. Significantly, India views the SCO as an Asian body and not a military bloc. From New Delhi’s perspective, SCO as a forum provides a unique opportunity to discuss and expand new areas of cooperation in the economic, energy, developmental, connectivity, and traditional and non-traditional security arenas. It is also an alternative regional platform to delve into the rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan and the centrifugal forces arising from religious extremism and terrorism in the region which threaten India’s security and development. These nuances were aptly reflected in Prime Minister Modi’s statement at the 2017 Astana SCO Summit, wherein he articulated the ‘many dimensions of India’s involvement with SCO countries, with energy, education, agriculture, security, minerals, capacity building, development partnership, trade and investment as its major drivers.’ The forum also provides India greater visibility in the affairs of the Eurasian region and enables it to renew bilateral ties with regional countries on an annual basis.
Similarly, from SCO’s perspective, India’s growing global economic and political heft adds weight and credence to the organisation’s own profile, and, perhaps, dispels the Western notion of its existence being solely limited to counter-balance American influence in the region and it being an exclusive anti-U.S. talk shop. In this context, New Delhi’s calibration of a new regional cooperation approach which prioritises connectivity and development projects, its achievements in nation-building, and positive economic outlook in an era of slowing global growth carries a significant resonance in the region.
More importantly, India retains the inherent potential to balance competing strategic interests. Its benign image, positive historical connections and expertise in developmental partnerships place India as a credible partner for CARs in their calculus to strengthen their strategic autonomy vis-à-vis Russia and China. Similarly, given the existing Russian vulnerability in the face of the balance of Sino-Russian ties tilting towards Beijing, a more prominent Indian presence in Central Asia, leveraged by the traditional Indo-Russian partnership, fits well within Moscow’s strategic calculus of subtly balancing Beijing. From New Delhi’s perspective, Moscow can facilitate an enduring Indian-Eurasian partnership, given the substantial linkages the Kremlin retains with CARs. A calibrated Indian-Russian coordination in Central Asia can also help overcome the latent dissonance that has lately crept in their strategic outlook.
Meanwhile, given the Wuhan Spirit-led ongoing positive momentum in India-China ties, the SCO can be a platform for India to reset ties with China. Beijing’s ongoing and unpredictable standoff with the U.S. can be leveraged to build greater Chinese sensitivity to India’ core concerns since a confrontation with New Delhi can further muddy China’s external strategic environment. In this context, it is in Beijing’s interest to prevent India from aligning its strategic priorities with that of the U.S., particularly in India being an inherent partner of the American policy to balance China. Therefore, the recent India-China joint programme to train Afghan diplomats is a reflection of not only their convergence of interests to stabilise the region but also the benefits of a détente in their strategic outlook towards each other. China’s Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui has stated, “India and China shared similar views on the war-torn country, including the need to support an Afghan-led and owned peace and reconciliation process and fight terrorism.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was also quoted as saying, “the launch of this programme marks an important step forward. It reflects the closer coordination and cooperation between our two countries on regional affairs and represents a positive development in China-India relations.” While it is likely that India’s cooperation and contestation with China will go hand in hand, it is, nevertheless, in both their interest to comprehensively engage each other. With India seeking sustained high growth, and China transforming its economy to avoid the middle-income trap, both will gain by preserving strategic peace and forging increased mutual dependence between them. It is imperative that India and China set up a modus vivendi for the 21st century to be viewed through the lens of an Asia century. This sentiment was aptly reflected in Prime Minister Modi’s statement at the 2018 Shangri La Dialogue wherein he stated: “Asia of rivalry will hold us all back. Asia of cooperation will shape this century.”
In the same vein, SCO provides New Delhi with an opportunity to constructively engage Pakistan regionally while at the same time neutralise Islamabad’s negative moves in the region. A major impediment in India’s expanded engagement with Eurasia remains the strategic denial of direct land connectivity between India and Afghanistan and beyond by Islamabad. SCO’s emphasis on promoting economic cooperation, trade, energy and regional connectivity can, perhaps, unblock India’s access to Eurasia, and provide a fillip to projects like TAPI and CASAREM which seek to bridge the gap between an energy-rich and energy deficit region. Notably, India imports close to 80 per cent of its hydrocarbon requirements, the majority of it from the volatile West Asian region. This has led India to seek energy security in the resource-rich Central Asian region, and build its trade and transport linkages through bilateral and regional mechanisms. With Afghanistan’s membership of SAARC and an Observer State in SCO, it is theoretically possible to envision an arc of advantage — a new Silk Route of energy and economic stakes connecting the Ferghana Valley to the Mekong Delta — should peace and stability return to the region.
In this context, India has expressed its commitment to connectivity projects that are open, transparent, economically sustainable and fiscally responsible. It has also articulated the view that developmental finance for connectivity projects must respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity as well as the environment. And, connectivity projects should highlight the priorities of the host nations. India’s participation in the International North-South Transport Corridor and Ashgabat Agreement, and development of Chabahar Port appear to be guided by these principles.
Overall, India’s presence in SCO can provide better triangular relations between India, Russia and China to address new security challenges meaningfully, enhance infrastructural development projects, and create a network of regional oil and gas pipelines for the larger benefit of Central and South Asian region. This also blends in with PM Modi’s agenda of sustainable development of the region. Notably, at the 2018 SCO summit, the Indian Prime Minister had articulated the foundational dimension of Eurasia being ‘SECURE’. The letters in the word SECURE are:
S for Security of our citizens,
E for Economic development for all,
C for Connecting the region,
U for Unite our people,
R for Respect for Sovereignty and Integrity, and
E for Environment protection.
III. Opportunities for Expanding India’s Engagement with SCO: Forging a Common Vision
As a new full-time member, the onus is on New Delhi to carve out a meaningful role for itself and contribute constructively to the SCO’s expanded agenda. In its attempt to forge a common vision for the future, India does have a head start in the form of a benign and friendly image, growing economic profile, vast experience and expertise in building institutional capabilities, and more importantly, the desire to qualitatively and quantitatively increase its engagement with the region. However, it will still need to adapt and adopt innovative ways of interaction in sync with the ongoing regional strategic realignments. In this context, a critique of India’s Central Asian outreach in the past has been the episodic nature of its engagement. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the region in 2015 and the robust political, strategic and economic interaction thereafter, however, do indicate a quantum shift in India’s commitment to play a bigger role in building regional synergies.
The Indian Prime Minister did lay out the scope of India’s contribution to SCO at the 2015 Ufa summit – “we will work together with SCO for sustainable development and combating climate change……. combat terrorism and extremism that is a rising threat to the entire region….. support efforts to create an environment that eases barriers and facilitates trade and investments in the region….. and would lend our support to improving transportation and communication networks in the region.” India’s focus, therefore, appears to be on expanding synergies of cooperation in connectivity, counter-terrorism, energy and economic arenas.
In this context, India is uniquely positioned to contribute towards these mutually beneficial projects — a fact acknowledged by the majority of SCO states. Notably, India is expected to maintain an annual growth rate over 6 per cent for the foreseeable future, and a recent Pricewaterhouse Coopers report projects India to be the 3rd largest global economy in PPP terms by 2030. These economic indicators increase the attractiveness of India being a stable economic partner for SCO countries to fast-track Eurasia’s regional economic development.
A. Combining Strengths to Tackle Emerging Regional Security Threats
Today, terrorism is not limited to one particular area, having spread its tentacles to South, Central and the West Asian region. It has also morphed — new actors and forces connect more easily through terror networks, and use social media to recruit, train and finance their extremist activities.
In this context, the drawdown of Western forces from Afghanistan and the rise of Islamic State (IS) with its stated intention to create ‘Khorasan’ have added a new explosive dimension to the region’s security landscape. In many ways, security and stability of Eurasia are linked to peace in Afghanistan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has shown signs of revival while the Taliban and IS have expanded their presence in northern parts of the country bordering CARs.  Similarly, the Al-Qaeda linked Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), comprising largely of Uighur jihadist members, has indicated its willingness to join the Afghan Taliban, apart from being active in Syria. This raises the prospect of spillover of violence into the Eurasian heartland, given the regional terror groups linkages. Central Asia also remains vulnerable due to the many drug trafficking routes that traverse through the region. This assumes even greater significance given the ties between drug trafficking, terrorism and organised crime. Notably, the largely secular CARs have witnessed a growing shift towards Political Islam. Several fault lines, ranging from weakened socio-economic state structures to inter-ethnic discords, have led to increased radicalisation, particularly among the regional youth. This is has seen more than 2,000 Central Asians joining the IS. The Ferghana Valley remains a hotbed of religious extremism.
Similarly, the potential base of Khorasan in the Af-Pak area can be the pivot to spread IS influence in Kashmir. IS has already threatened to attack India, kidnapped Indians in the Middle East and indoctrinated a few. As such, the prospect of IMU, IS, Taliban, TIP and other extremist outfits coordinating their militant activities in Eurasia raise the spectre of an arc of regional instability. It is, therefore, in India and SCO’s interest that Afghanistan does not regress into a hub of terrorism.
India, as a victim of terrorism, has been developing its skills at the national and state level and cooperating with other countries at the regional and international level to fight this menace. It has articulated the belief that no country can fight terrorism alone, and that only a well-coordinated, multilateral and integrated effort can tackle this problem. To counter these threats and challenges, India can share its experience with the region. In the post 26/11 phase, India’s counter-terrorism infrastructure has been strengthened. India can offer expertise on policy aspects, train people and provide technological solutions. India has niche capabilities in satellite, bio and information technologies which can help in collecting and analysing intelligence that can, in turn, be employed for counter-terrorism and human development. Thus, India can offer customised solutions if required.
India’s desire to strengthen its security cooperation with SCO was noted by its External Affairs Minister during the 2014 SC summit meeting, where she said, “we are keen to deepen our security-related cooperation with the SCO in general and with the Regional Counter-Terrorism Structure, in particular.” In this context, India has actively supported the SCO Qingdao Summit Leaders’ ‘Appeal to Youth’ against radicalisation of youth, participated in the SCO Peace Mission 2018 counter-terrorism exercises and attempted to strengthen its coordination with RATS. It is also likely to co-host the next meeting of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group along with Afghanistan.
B. Strengthen Connectivity, Trade, Economic and Energy Linkages
The foundation of India’s economic outreach to Inner Asia is based on its 2012 Connect Central Asia Policy with its focus on the 4 C’s – Commerce, Connectivity, Consular and Community. These are aimed at building long-term partnerships, both bilaterally and collectively. India’s willingness to share its unique experience in banking, finance, Information Technology (IT), education, telecommunications, health and agriculture with CARs can be leveraged to build mutually beneficial development partnerships. Given the regional economic slowdown, brought on by the devaluation of the rouble, India, with its long-term positive economic outlook, can help stabilise the region. India has implemented several projects involving IT excellence, entrepreneurship development and industrial training centres in Central Asia. Some of India’s core strengths that can be leveraged to expand India’s engagement with SCO involve:
Pharmaceutical and Health Care: One of India’s biggest strength is its niche capabilities in the pharma, health care and hospitality sectors. It’s pharmaceutical companies have much to offer to the Eurasian region, including affordable medicines. Other areas of collaboration can include telemedicine and medical tourism. Notably, India has emerged as an attractive destination for medical tourism for regional countries.
Green Technology and Bio-Fuels: Green technology is an area where India is investing heavily, particularly in solar, bio and wind energy. India is a founding member of the International Solar Alliance with its secretariat based in the outskirts of New Delhi. India can contribute, collaborate and share its experience with the regional countries on adopting clean, renewable energy. These capabilities can gain traction on account of environmental issues being a serious cause of concern for the entire region. Given the successful India-Russia cooperation on ash damps, it has been suggested that this project could become one of the pilot projects for India to cooperate with SCO.
Education: India has a robust education and training curriculum that can be offered to the SCO member states. Its technology institutes, business schools, and banking and financial institutions can be of relevance for the region. In this context, India’s successful tele-education and telemedicine initiatives in Africa can be a model for the Eurasian region as well. Similarly, New Delhi’s Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme (ITEC) programme with the Central Asian countries, which seeks to build capacity in the region, can be further expanded.
Culture: Given India’s historical and civilizational linkages with the Eurasian countries, culture can be a vital area where India can contribute to the SCO processes. Old regional links can be revived in order to frame confidence-building measures. Cultural exchange programmes, in the mould of ‘SCO Our Common Home’, ‘Days of Open Doors’, SCO Film Festival and SCO World Heritage Exhibition, that foster greeter people to people contacts and exchange of ideas can be expanded. Indian art, music, dance and movies continue to be popular in the region. India’s proposal to host the SCO exhibition on ‘Shared Buddhist Heritage’ in 2019 is a step in the right direction. Notably, Buddhism had spread from India to Central Asia with Buddhist stupas being discovered at Dalvarzintepe near Bukhara and Tashkent being named after a local Buddha altar.
Infrastructure and Energy: India and SCO members share a similar objective of developing multi-modal transport and transit routes, effectively linking markets of Central Asia to South Asia, South East Asia and Europe, to boost intra and inter-regional trade and investment. The need of the hour, therefore, is to build pan-Asian cooperation. India is already working to enhance its connectivity with the region through the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). The present government has recently outlined its vision for unified connectivity among the South Asian countries. In this context, cooperation between SARCC and SCO to enhance connectivity and build energy pipelines will go a long way in bridging distances. The first meeting of the Heads of Railways of the SCO Member States held in September 2018 highlights the endless possibilities of shortening the prevailing distances. Indian companies have, meanwhile, built considerable expertise in building refineries. Indian infrastructure and oil companies can cooperate with CARs, China, Russia, Iran, Mongolia and other member states to boost ties in the regional framework. The SCO’s deliberations on forming an Energy Club, in order to bring together the regional producers and consumers, hold strategic relevance for an energy deficit India.
Disaster Management: Given the multiple disasters, both natural and man-made, that India has faced, the country has developed robust disaster management practices covering a broad spectrum of worst-case scenarios. These are being further augmented by niche Indian advancements in space with satellite mapping and weather forecasting helping prevent and mitigate disasters. India’s skills can be of relevance for SCO members who have had to tackle critical environmental challenges in the past.
IV. Future of SCO
In less than two decades, SCO has emerged as an eminent Eurasian construct. Its geostrategic pillar, which prioritises tackling security threats, remains the most enduring fulcrum of its membership. While the organisation’s focus has expanded to build economic, connectivity and energy synergies, yet the results have been mixed. An evolving objective of SCO now appears to increase not just its regional but also its global strategic and economic profile. The inclusion of new members reflects a growing pan-Asian acceptance of the organisation beyond Eurasia. Against the backdrop of shifting sands of global economic and political heft from the West to the East, the SCO has morphed into a relevant pillar of this change. However, for the 21st century to be truly recognised as an Asian century, an effective regional cooperative mechanism would need to be one of its key pivots, and, arguably, the SCO can be a key organisation by the Asians, of the Asians and for the Asians.
The key challenge for SCO will be to navigate the evolving regional and global strategic landscape, marked by unpredictability and turbulence, in order to unlock its true regional potential. Recalibration of traditional alliances, the formation of new partnerships, and undermining 21st century’s foundational pillars, including globalisation which has acquired a pejorative connotation, are being played out at multiple spaces, including in Eurasia.
Given their dominant position in the SCO, their existential stakes in the region and ongoing rapprochement, it is likely that Russia and China will seek to consolidate continental Eurasia. However, the organisation’s inter and intra-regional contradictions, including the evolving asymmetric Moscow-China ties, can inherently limit the Sino-Russian calculus. A key vector of SCO’s future will, therefore, depend upon the equilibrium in Russia-China ties. Notably, this equilibrium or asymmetry, competition or cooperation, and being a partner or rival is linked to a large extent on the triangular Russia-China-U.S. relationship. For both Moscow and Beijing, their ongoing standoff with Washington has compelled them to seek greater synergies not just among themselves but also with others to navigate the Western pressure. This may lead to a more Sino-Russian accommodative approach towards regional players.
In this context, the manner in which the SCO will accommodate the concerns and interests of smaller CARs will be vital in shaping the organisation’s future. The Central Asian Republics remain fearful of a closer strategic embrace by Russia and apprehensive of China’s growing economic pre-eminence which has cast a shadow on their local economies. Their focus on intra-regional cooperation and exploration of new partnerships to increase their space for strategic manoeuvre highlight the centrifugal dynamics in play. Similarly, SCO members have, in the past, expressed fears of the organisation being held hostage to India’s and Pakistan’s adversarial relationship, and their fears would likely have worsened in recent times.
In the meantime, the organisation’s goals to create a web of trade, economic, connectivity and energy arteries may hit a brick wall in the face of the region’s evolving economic dynamics which is being increasingly dominated by and dependent on a singular power with all roads leading to and from Beijing. This raises long term questions on whether these linkages are transparent, economically sustainable, and fiscally responsible, and reflect the priorities of the host nations. In the 18th Qingdao SCO meeting, India did not endorse the grouping’s declaration on the Belt and the Road Initiative (BRI) since the BRI is centred on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which goes through areas of Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). In order to build a cooperative spirit, the SCO would need to accommodate the concerns of all members who interest may not always converge although, in principle, ‘better connectivity can help nations overcome political differences by conceiving of their borders as bridges, not barriers, by better leveraging their geographic proximity for mutual benefit, by optimally utilising the vast resources of the region, and enhancing their capacities and competitiveness to more effectively engage with the international system’. The key challenge for SCO, given the enormous stakes, therefore, will be to find the proverbial sweet spot of regional cooperation.
It is likely that the immediate priority for cooperation will be in areas where the majority of SCO member states interests converge, and they can pool their strengths. These involve fighting terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking. Even then, the vital question is will SCO, which is not a military organisation, find common ground to intervene militarily in Afghanistan if the country is on the verge of collapse?
Consequently, while the jury on SCO is still out yet its potential remains immense. The organisation will likely continue to remain a principal vector of Eurasia strategic architecture.
Meanwhile, India, as a new member, will need to formulate an appropriate Eurasian strategy. India’s regional interests stem from its goals to partner the CARs in sustainable nation-building through development partnerships, maintaining their sovereignty, preventing the region from being a hub of terrorism and extremism, and retaining Central Asia’s vector of being a bridge between Asia and Europe for building trade, transport, connectivity, and economic linkages. At the same time, it is also in India’s interest that this region does not evolve into a geopolitical chessboard of great game rivalries.
In this context, several of SCO’s initiatives have the potential to address these issues. Given the fact that decisions in SCO are made on the basis of consensus, India is now in a better position to advance its interests in its extended neighbourhood which, as an observer, it was unable to do so.
Today, India is also in a unique position to leverage the contradictions in great power rivalry. It is the only country within the Russia-India-China triangle which has a fairly positive relationship with the U.S. While this could be a challenge for New Delhi in SCO, particularly if the organisation morphs into an anti-U.S. grouping, yet the opportunity could be to leverage better ties with each big power to improve ties with others in this illustrative quadrilateral. Notably, India has improved its links will all SCO members, with the exception of Pakistan, in the last two years. This highlights the potential to reset great power relations with both Russia and China, with cooperation and not confrontation being the pivot of regional strategic orientation. Notably, the Wuhan spirit of cooperative engagement has seen even China adopt a fairly neutral position on India’s retaliation against Pakistan in response to Pulwama terror attacks.
Therefore, within the framework of SCO, India will have to make every possible effort to not only strengthen regional cooperation but also utilise SCO summit meetings to cement bilateral engagements with SCO member states.
Nevertheless, the challenges that need to be navigated, including the new equation of growing Russia-China-Pakistan triangular convergence of interests, remain on the horizon. This has seen even Russia — India’s traditional partner — adopt a more nuanced position on New Delhi’s key strategic concerns.
With the stakes being high, deft diplomacy in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable yet opportunistic world would be called upon to preserve and promote India’s vital interests. Looking North is now more imperative than ever before.
*Rajorshi Roy Research Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
From our partner RIAC
Discussion of the authors on this theme with Amb Jayant Prasad, former Director-General, IDSA.
The two energy projects – the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, and the Central Asia South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA-1000) which is expected to bring Tajik and Kyrgyz hydropower to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and evolve into the Central Asia-South Asia Regional Energy Market (CASAREM), once the planned Central Asian hydro potential comes on stream, can facilitate a region-wide energy exchange.
 Ibid (14)
 Meena Singh Roy and Rajorshi Roy, “Managing Threats and Challenges of Terrorism in the Eurasian Region”, in Asian Strategic Review 2016 – Terrorism: Emerging Trends, (ed) S.D. Muni and Vivek Chadha, Pentagon Press, New Delhi, 2016.
This quote, attributed to Amb Jayant Prasad, Director General of IDSA, was made during his interaction with the authors.
India – The US Promote National Defense – Security Cooperation
In recent years, the India-US bilateral relationship has been more closely bonded, especially defense-security cooperation in various fields including nuclear technology, maritime defense and security, anti-terrorism in the region and in the world … has been continuously promoted, contributing to the development of an intensive bilateral relationship. This results from the demand for security strategy, economic, security and political interests of the two parties. The United States wants India to become its ally in the Indo-Pacific region, counterbalancing China’s growing influence, ensuring U.S. maritime security interests and a huge commercial arm market for the US. To India: a good relationship with the US will help India highten its position in the region; India also wants to rely on US power to increase its military strength, to watch out China and create pressure on Pakistan. In addition, India’s comprehensive diplomacy and the US’s regional strategy carried out simultaneously without overlapping, is conducive to strengthening the bilateral security cooperation for both countries.
It is evitable that in recent years, defense-security cooperation between India and the US has made remarkable progresses. After removing the Sanctions on India for nuclear testing in May 2018, the US and India announced the Joint Declaration on Civil Energy Cooperation between the two countries. Accordingly, the US will provide nuclear fuel and technology support for India to develop civil nuclear energy. This has opened the door for India to develop their nuclear weapons and improve military strength. The two countries also cooperate in many defense activities including ballistic missile defense, joint military training, expanding arms sales, strengthening military staff exchanges and intelligence, as well as loosening two-way technology exports.
To be specific: In January 1995, the two countries signed the “US-India Defense Relations Agreement”, stipulating that in addition to conducting cooperation on research and production of military weapons, the two countries also conduct exchanges between military and non-military personnel. In May 2001, the Indian government announced its support for the US to develop a ballistic missile defense system, and proposed to purchase the “Patriot 1 (PAC-3)” air defense missile system. In March 2005, during the Conference on Cooperation in Ballistic Missile Defense, the US, India and Japan agreed to set up a joint working group, to implement close cooperation on ballistic missile defense. In June 2005, the United States and India signed a 10-year military cooperation agreement, which not only required increased exchanges between the two countries’ armies, but also proposed to strengthen military cooperation regarding weapons production, and trading as well as ballistic missile defense. In July 2009, the two countries signed a “Comprehensive customer surveillance treaty” on defense, the US sold advanced defense technology to India. This treaty allowed India to obtain a “permission card” to buy the US’s advanced weaponry. In addition, the two countries also cooperate in counter-terrorism in the region and around the world, maritime security, and joint military exercises …
One of the activities promoting bilateral relations between India and the US was the “2 + 2 Dialogue” taking place on October 27, 2020 in New Delhi. Within the framework of this dialogue, India and the United States had shared exchanges of a free and open Indo-Pacific vision, embracing peace and prosperity, a rules-based order with the central role of ASEAN, resolving disputes, ensuring the economic and security interests of all related parties with legitimate interests in this region … The focus on defense-security cooperation in this “2+2 Dialogue” is the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). The agreement allowed India to access accurate data, topographic images, maps, maritime and aviation data and satellite data on a real-time basis from US military satellites. Thereby, this will assist the provision of better accuracy for such weapons as cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and drones of India, and support the rescue operations during natural disasters and security strategy. The BECA is one of the four basic agreements a country needs to sign to become a major defense partner of the US. The other three agreements that India had previously signed with the United States are the General Security Of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and theCommunications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) . These are “cornerstone” agreements allowing the armies of the two countries to fight together in the event of a conflict. Accelerating the signing of the BECA was just one of various ways India reacted to China threats, especially after the border clashes in Doklam (2017) and Ladakh (5/2020-now). India, the US, Japan and Australia were more active in the Quartet Meeting on October 6 in Tokyo. India also invited Australia to join the Malabar naval exercises with the US and Japan in November.
The signing of BECA was a further institutionalization of the Indo-US strategic relationship to promote the two countries’ intensive cooperate on strategy and military, without pressure to become an official ally yet have benefits. Washington received interests in selling weapons to New Delhi, especially when conflict starts. New Delhi has attached more importance to US military equipment because of its transparent pricing, simple operation and maintenance, thereby reducing reliance on Russia for weapons. Currently, the total value of Indian weapons purchased from the US is more than 15 billion USD and is expected to double in the coming time. The US-India military cooperation, therefore, will be closer in the future.
Also at this dialogue, the two countries agreed to cooperate in dealing with the Covid pandemic, considering this a priority for bilateral cooperation in this period. Accordingly, the US and India will cooperate in RDto produce a series of vaccines, to expand access to vaccines, and ensure high-quality, safe, effective and affordable medical treatment between the two countries and on a global scale.
Currently, India-US defense-security cooperation is at its heyday in the history and is likely to develop further. This relationship has profound effects on the regional security environment, especially direct effects on China. As military forces grow, India will probably implement their military strategy “taking the Indian Ocean in the South, expanding power to the East Sea in the East, attacking Pakistan in the West, watching out for China in the North”, plus nuclear deterrence. This will worsen the fierce arms race in such regions as the South Asia and the Indian Ocean, leading to an imbalance of forces and add up a number of unstability factors in these regions.
In short, India-US defense-security cooperation is making remarkable progresses and has created impact on regional security, especially China and other countries with common interests in this region, including Vietnam. Therefore, the China-American-Indian triangle relationship is currently in an unstable state. In this scenario, it is suggested that countries actively identify issues relating to the this three military powers relationship and devise appropriate diplomatic strategies, balancing bilateral relations with major powers with disagreements to ensure national security and stability in the region.
India-Pakistan LOC peace
India and Pakistan have both announced to “strictly observe” the truce along the Line of Control and all other sectors “in the interest of achieving mutually beneficial and sustainable peace along the borders”. Such an announcement could not have emerged without Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s imprimatur. A hunch is that the move is an upshot of a nudge from the US president. This impression is fortified by several events that are accentuated by India-Pakistan entente (so called surgical strikes, 5000 ceasefire violations, hype about 2008 Mumbai attack and the one at Pathankot airbase, so on). From Pakistan’s angle, India believed in might is right. And while it was open to compromises with China, it displayed a fist to Pakistan.
Need for a dialogue
In the past, peace at the LOC proved ephemeral as it was not backed up by sufficient follow-up. A dialogue is needed for the hour. It is a good omen that Pakistan is open to talks despite chagrin at abolition of the occupied state’s statehood.
Misconception about the sanctity of the India-Pakistan LOC vis-a-vis the Sino-Indian LAC
A common misperception is that the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is more sacrosanct than the LoC. For instance, India’s prestigious Indian Express explained: ‘The LoC emerged from the 1948 ceasefire line negotiated by the UN after the Kashmir war. It was designated as the LoC in 1972, following the Simla Agreement. It is delineated on a map signed by Director General Military Operations of both armies and has the international sanctity of a legal agreement. The LAC, in contrast, is only a concept –it is not agreed upon by the two countries, neither delineated on a map nor demarcated on the ground’.
To understand Sino-Indian differences, one needs to peek into the Indian mind through books such as Shivshankar Menon’s Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, Shyam Saran’s How India Sees the World, and A G Noorani’s India-China Boundary Problem 1846-1947.
The afore-quoted newspaper poses the question: “What was India’s response to China’s designation of the LAC?” It then explains India rejected the concept of LAC in both 1959 and 1962. Even during the war, Nehru was unequivocal: “There is no sense or meaning in the Chinese offer to withdraw twenty kilometres from what they call ‘line of actual control…” In July 1954, Nehru had issued a directive that “all our old maps dealing with this frontier should be carefully examined and, where necessary, withdrawn. New maps should be printed showing our Northern and North Eastern frontier without any reference to any ‘line’. The new maps should also be sent to our embassies abroad and should be introduced to the public generally and be used in our schools, colleges, etc”. It is this map that was officially used that formed the basis of dealings with China, eventually leading to the 1962 War’ (Indian Express, June 6, 2020, Line of Actual Control: Where it is located and where India and China differ).
India considers the LAC to be 3,488 km long, while the Chinese consider it to be only around 2,000km.
The LAC was discussed during Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng’s 1991 visit to India, where Indian PM P. V. Narasimha Rao and Premier Li reached an understanding to maintain peace and tranquility at the LAC. India formally accepted the concept of the LAC when Rao paid a return visit to Beijing in 1993.
The reference to the LAC was unqualified to make it clear that it was not referring to the LAC of 1959 or 1962 but to the LAC at the time when the agreement was signed.
India’s disdain of the LOC
India’s mindset on the LOC should change. The problem is Nehru never cared a fig for the disputed state’s constituent assembly, Indian parliament or the UN. This truth is interspersed in Avtar Singh Bhasin’s 10-volume documentary study (2012) of India-Pakistan Relations 1947-2007. It contains 3,649 official documents which gave new perspectives to Nehru’s state of mind.
In his 2018 book (published after six years of his earlier work), India, Pakistan: Neighbours at Odds (Bloomsbury India, New Delhi, 2018), Bhasin discusses Nehru’s perfidy on Kashmir.
LoC peace should lead to Kashmir solution
The tentative solutions include (a) status quo (division of Kashmir along the present Line of Control with or without some local adjustments to facilitate the local population, (b) complete or partial independence (creation of independent Muslim-majority tehsils of Rajauri, Poonch and Uri, with Hindu-majority areas merged in India), (c) a plebiscite to be held in five to 10 years after putting Kashmir under UN trusteeship (Trieste-like solution), (d) joint control, (e) an Indus-basin-related solution, (f) an Andorra island (g) Aland island-like solution and (h) permutations and combinations of the aforementioned options.
Another option is for Pakistan and India to grant independence to disputed areas under their control and let Kashmir emerge as a neutral country. An independent Kashmir, as a neutral country, was the favourite choice of Sheikh Abdullah. From the early 1950s “Sheikh Abdullah supported ‘safeguarding of autonomy’ to the fullest possible extent” (Report of the State Autonomy Committee, Jammu, p. 41).
Abdullah irked Nehru so much that he had to put him behind the bars. Bhabani Sen Gupta and Prem Shankar Jha assert that “if New Delhi sincerely wishes to break the deadlock in Kashmir, it has no other alternative except to accept and implement what is being termed as an ‘Autonomy Plus, Independence Minus’ formula, or to grant autonomy to the state to the point where it is indistinguishable from independence”. (Shri Prakash and Ghulam Mohammad Shah (ed.), Towards understanding the Kashmir crisis, p.226).
Sans sincerity and the will to implement, the only Kashmir solution is divine intervention or the unthinkable, nuclear Armageddon.
Twentieth century was a century of great events and developments in every part of human life. The century is marked by the deadliest wars, deadliest weapons and unprecedented interconnectedness. The destructive power of A-bombs and the interconnectedness that transformed world into a global village infused traditional wisdom of conflict resolution with great confusions. New conflicts demanded new solutions. Globalization transformed the traditional theatre of conflict; war.
War in twenty first century has acquired a whole new character. State which was once the almighty Leviathan has lost its monopoly over violence, its erosion of monopoly over violence from globalization transformed the character of war. Wars of today are not fought between states rather there is network of state and non-state actors which includes mercenaries, private security companies, hired thugs etc. Globalization has unleashed a plethora of problems by undermining state sovereignty. Globalization which was supposed to encourage cosmopolitan politics and cooperation ended up creating more divisions.
Mary Kaldore, professor at London School of Economics, is among the scholars who have acknowledged the impact of globalization on the character of war. In her book, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, she highlights this change in character of war. Highlighting the difference she wrote that new wars are different from old wars because of who fight these wars, for what reason these wars are fought, how these wars are financed and the way these wars are fought. Old wars were fought by states, financed by states, were waged for ideological purposes and battles were the defining character. However, in new wars; actors are networks of state and non-state actors, which are to a greater extent privately financed and direct confrontation between opposite forces is rare. Kaldor is of the view that this change in character of war is caused by globalization. Kaldor is of the view that this transformation is a consequence of globalization and disintegration of state.
Along with globalization, clash of symmetrical opponents can destroy the world. Advent of nuclear weapons has changed the traditional military logic. In fact, any war according to old military logic is simply not beneficial anymore. War between nuclear powers will leave neither party at benefit. Since the costs of such victory cancel the benefits it holds. Avoiding direct war serves the political interest better than waging one. This change in military logic is evident from the change in tactics of wars of today. Today’s wars are fought through Guerilla and counter insurgency tactics are the tactics. Majority of the conflicts involves one state and one or more than one non-state actor. These are battles between wolves and shepherds where wolves attack the flock while shepherds try to save the sheep.
However, it is not the change in military logic and innovation of new types of weapons that have transformed the character of war. Rather transformation in politics is the defining element of this change. Politics of ‘new wars’ is Identity politics which is very different from politics of old wars. Old wars were largely driven by ideological politics whereas new wars are driven entirely by identity politics. In words of Professor Kaldor, “identity politics is about right to power in the name of a specific group whereas ideological politics is about winning power in order to carry out a particular ideological programme”. Globalization prompted groups to securitize their identity. War for these actors is either a mean for keeping their identity or claiming in lands in the name of that identity.
Another dimension of problems caused by globalization for the concept of war is proliferation of capitalism. The ideas of capitalism and free market motivated such actors who saw potential for profit in war. These actors established private security firms and were up for grab for the highest bidder. Companies like Titan and Blackwater are profit-maximizing companies whose only motivation is the accumulation of wealth. These institutions induced the concept of war with further complexities and legitimacy of violence further degenerated. These developments underline the need for a new conceptualization of war. To address these complexities and set the basis for future exploration, Kaldor defines war as a “mutual enterprise” rather than a “contest of wills”. The reason illustrated by Kaldor is that the latter makes the elimination of enemy the ultimate objective of war whereas former suggests that both sides are interested “in the enterprise of war rather than winning and losing for both political and economic ends”. Although it is very difficult to discern what means one employs for what ends, the protracted conflicts all around the world and the industry which these wars fuel paints a different picture a picture very close to the concept of war as mutual enterprise rather than a contest of wills.
War in nuclear age, where symmetry in capabilities will, eventually, lead to MAD, cannot have the same character it once had. Mankind frightened by the destructiveness of these weapons and compelled by their natural instinct to clash is trying to fight the new wars with new weapons according to old principles. This is commendable but not practical as this undermines the capabilities of new weapons by considering them just another weapon of war. Concepts of limited war show the appreciation of this reality. There political, technological and economical developments highlight the need for evaluation of old ideas and encourage the need for new ideas. As the aphorism goes “modern problems require modern solutions”, wars of today are modern and they require modern solutions as the traditional ones are not adequate enough.
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