In the wide-ranging menu for socio-economic cooperation contained in the Declarations issued by the 15th Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit and the 19th SCO Heads of Government Meeting in November 2020, two areas are relevant for India. These are the role of connectivity projects and an emerging digital economy driven by high technology (including information technology) to accelerate sustainable economic cooperation, writes Ambassador Asoke Mukerji, former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations. The article is published as part of the Valdai Club’s Think Tank project, continuing the collaboration between Valdai and Observer Research Foundation (New Delhi).
The 15th Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit (hereafter “Summit”) hosted virtually by Russia on 10 November 2020, and the 19th SCO Heads of Government Meeting (hereafter “Meeting”) hosted virtually by India on 30 November 2020, highlighted the relevance of three issues which are crucial for India’s membership of the SCO. These are (i) the SCO’s progress on enhancing cooperation within its socio-economic space, including through connectivity projects and digital technology; (ii) the SCO’s effectiveness in countering trans-national terrorism directed against India; and (iii) the role of the SCO in contributing to security and stability in Asia.
Since its inception in 2001, the SCO’s quest for greater socio-economic cooperation among its members, catalyzed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, has been influenced primarily by China. The border agreements between China and Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan between 2001-2012 provided a supportive political framework for China’s interest in using the wider SCO region as a stable source of natural resources and a market for its growing economy.
In the wide-ranging menu for socio-economic cooperation contained in the Declarations issued by the Summit and the Meeting, two areas are relevant for India. These are the role of connectivity projects and an emerging digital economy driven by high technology (including information technology) to accelerate sustainable economic cooperation.
The Declarations issued by both the Summit and the Meeting supported China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connectivity projects. India abstained from both these decisions, due to her consistent opposition to the violation of her sovereignty and territorial integrity by the BRI’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir. Both meetings also endorsed Russia’s initiative to connect the SCO with the Eurasian Economic Union and ASEAN, placing the predominantly East-West connectivity alignment of China’s BRI alongside the North-South connectivity alignment of Russia’s proposal.
This juxtaposition of these two connectivity alignments involving SCO members allows India to prioritize support for implementing three major North-South connectivity proposals with Indian participation. These are the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) connecting the European Union through Russia and Iran to India and ASEAN; the Chabahar Port and Railway connecting India through Iran to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia; and the Vladivostok-Chennai sea lane of communication connecting India to Russia’s Far East as well as countries partnering India in her “Act East” policy.
Unilateral Western sanctions on Russia and Iran currently obstruct the successful implementation of these projects to the detriment of India’s interests. The Summit endorsed the creation of a working group to take forward the proposal for national currency payments between “interested” SCO members as one option to mitigate this problem.
The role of the emerging digital economy as an engine for greater socio-economic cooperation in the SCO region was highlighted by both meetings. India had convened the first virtual gathering of the SCO’s Consortium of Economic and Analytical Centers on 20-21 August 2020 to analyze the factors affecting economic cooperation within the SCO. The Meeting prioritized the implementation of India’s proposed SCO Special Working Group on Innovation and Startups, while welcoming the first SCO Young Scientists Conclave hosted virtually by India between November 24-26, 2020.
The outcome for India’s interest in using digital technologies and platforms to enhance SCO socio-economic cooperation for sustainable development will depend on India’s response to the overt Chinese interest in dominating the SCO’s digital economy, including through its Global Data Security Initiative mentioned by President Xi Jinping at the Summit and the proposed Technology Transfer Center of the SCO Member States in Qingdao endorsed by the Meeting.
A proactive Indian partnership with SCO members like Kazakhstan, which has proposed the creation of a pool of SCO technology parks, and Uzbekistan, which has proposed a SCO platform for interaction between the heads of information technology agencies, will be relevant for ensuring an Indian presence in the SCO’s digital space. Specific areas identified for Indian initiatives in the SCO using digital technologies would include the education, healthcare, and small/medium enterprise (SME) sectors. Such cooperation will help build resilient societies, including by empowering women and children and bridging digital divides, contributing to implementing the goals of Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development.
At the Summit and the Meeting, leaders spoke of the need to strengthen SCO cooperation to strengthen the response of members to the threat of Covid-19, which had “socio-economic consequences”. Both India and China proposed a SCO structure on Traditional Medicine to augment medical responses to Covid-19, which was endorsed by the Meeting.
The Summit adopted a Statement on the “Joint Response Efforts” against Covid-19, listing national efforts by its members to respond to the pandemic. The leaders called for “international cooperation on countering its spread and eliminating the global political and socio-economic consequences of the pandemic”. While supporting the role of the World Health Organization in providing a platform for international cooperation, both meetings glossed over the major structural deficiencies in the World Health Organization which needs urgent reform to prevent future large-scale disruptions from similar pandemics. Nor did the meetings prioritize a welfare-driven response to Covid-19 through easy and affordable access to a vaccine.
The success of the SCO in countering terrorism through international cooperation till now has been limited. The establishment of the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in Tashkent in 2004 has enabled the organization to register some results. In 2017, former SCO Secretary General Rashid Alimov listed these as preventing terrorist attacks aimed at its member states, conducting joint anti-terrorism exercises, creating a database for counter terrorist operations and assisting in extraditing 213 people associated with terrorist or extremist organizations.
The SCO’s counterterrorism policy framework is dominated by China’s concept of the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. So far, the SCO has not taken visible counterterrorism measures against the main threat facing its members, which emanates from terrorists and terrorist entities located in the Af-Pak region.
The SCO’s ambivalence towards the terrorist threat from the Af-Pak region is compounded by the position of two of its members (China and Russia) in the UN Security Council (UNSC). On 17 June 2011, the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 1988 to lift sanctions against designated Taliban terrorist entities on the UNSC Sanctions List to facilitate the re-integration of such Taliban into the political structures of Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US troops. This strategic agreement continues to influence overall SCO counterterrorism policy till today, despite the continuing violence and destruction caused by terrorists in the region.
The Summit called for the “central and coordinating role of the UN” to help the SCO to counter terrorism, and mooted “foreign policy coordination in the SCO format within the UN”. When India enters the UNSC from 1 January 2021 as an elected non-permanent member, one of her declared priorities is to enhance the UNSC’s effectiveness in countering terrorism, including through cooperation with non-UN bodies like the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Three SCO countries (China, India, and Russia) will be members of both the UNSC and FATF during India’s two-year term in the Council. Any initiative by India in the UNSC to enforce the Council’s sanctions against Pakistan-based terrorists and terrorist entities, including by applying the norms of the FATF, will be a test of China’s current geo-political priorities in the SCO.
Since hosting the Asian Relations Conference in March-April 1947, India has consistently sought to construct a participatory and inclusive framework for Asian unity and stability to support national socio-economic development goals. In 1999, India joined a group of 15 countries that created the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) at the initiative of Kazakhstan, to promote peace, security, and stability in Asia. CICA has co-opted professionals from India, Russia, and Kazakhstan in its Secretariat, and its two official languages are English and Russian. Active strategic partners of India such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Iran, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam are members of CICA.
This background, as well as India’s call for “reformed multilateralism” emphasizing the equal participation of members in multilateral decision-making, is relevant for the Summit’s endorsement of “a multipolar world order”, which would help SCO members to create “a community of common destiny for mankind”. The Summit called for “strengthening equal and indivisible security in Eurasia based on the rule of international law, non-interference in domestic affairs and settling disputes through peaceful means.” Significantly, it reiterated the need to “continue expanding ties between the SCO and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA)”.
As the SCO grapples with the impact of the current disruptive polarization between the United States, Russia and China, increased synergy between the SCO and CICA (which currently has 27 members including all 8 SCO members) can provide a viable framework for seeking Asian stability and security. India is well placed to collaborate with like-minded SCO members in identifying areas of convergence, particularly in the socio-economic sphere, that will lay the foundations to achieve objective.
The success of the SCO’s (and India’s) attempt at creating a region of mutually beneficial cooperation in Eurasia will be measured and supported by the role of the shared values and links between the peoples of the region that reinforce the principles of SCO Charter. In this context, the launch on 30 November 2020 of a SCO Digital Exhibition dedicated to the Common Buddhist Heritage in New Delhi is an example of how India can play a role to sustain unity and stability in the region.