India will engage with all other partners in the SCO to ensure the growth and stability of this Forum as it assists in maintaining the stability of this region has a whole. India has a long-term stake in the SCO, writes Anuradha Chenoy, Adjunct Professor at the Jindal Global University.
Since its foundation in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has provoked global interest because it is the first regional alliance to bring together the geographical Eurasian space commonly referred to as the ‘heartland’ of global geostrategy.
After a number of years, India and Pakistan joined this Forum (2017) because the security needs of South Asia are embedded in the geographic connections between South Asia-Central Asia and Eurasia. SCO is an expanding forum and Iran’s membership in the SCO has been approved. Other countries such as Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia have observer status and several countries of West Asia including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Egypt have expressed a desire to join this Forum. This makes the SCO a powerful forum within this region.
The interest in the SCO has grown because of the transition of the international system to a multipolar system has been hastened by the Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine. The collective West has positioned itself in a constant confrontation with two members of the SCO- China and Russia, while most of the Global South has asserted neutrality and opposes sanctions. Three countries in this Forum face different types of sanctions. Yet the member states of the SCO command a combined 30% of global GDP. This article focuses on India’s engagement with the SCO and its establishment as a non-militarist, regional organization in Eurasia. This is of particularly importance since 2023 is the year India holds the presidency of both the SCO and the G20.
India and the SCO
India’s relationship with the SCO can be analysed at three levels: the micro or bilateral, the macro or multilateral, and the operational or outcome-oriented:
- India’s relationship with the individual components of the SCO and internal contradictions impact its relations with the SCO as a whole. It is common knowledge that India has a historic, strategic and economic partnership with Russia, whereas it has unresolved territorial disputes with China and Pakistan. In addition, India faces state-supported terrorism from Pakistan. With the Central Asia state members, India wants to develop deep, long-term economic, cultural and energy relations. However, if relations between India and Pakistan or India and China deteriorate, the SCO can see some blocks emerge, even though bilateral relations are not discussed at this forum.
- India’s relations with multilateral organisations, where India has worked with all countries including China and Pakistan on many issues, like WTO rules, climate change and damages issues and so on have been effective. China and India have been on the same side on many international issues, including those concerning Russia and the countries of the Global South. So India’s negotiations in the SCO have not been bogged down by bilateral contradictions.
- India’s operationalization of its security, economic, cultural and other interests are set to expand its relationship beyond South Asia to the broader Asian region. India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ (2012) ‘Look East’ and other such policies operationalize its foreign policy goals. During the 2023 Indian presidency of G20 and SCO, India’s position is to project the voice of the Global South. So India has engaged with the SCO at the highest level of Indian leadership and contributed to the consolidation and expansion of the organisation.
A major focus of this Forum is on regional security. Given the recent history of Afghanistan, the menace of terrorism faced by India and other parts of this region, security is a major concern. Radicalism and violent movements originating from specific conflict points have spread across the region earlier and can do so at any time, so contact and dialogue between leaders is critical to ensuring stability. India along with Russia and China would like to see the Central Asian Republics and the Eurasia region retain its secular, multi-ethnic character. Any conflict in the region or attempt to de-stabilize it can flow into all other countries.
India has pressured and received assurances from the SCO on their commitment to end cross-border terrorism. To that end, several agreements to counter terrorism and coordinate information on terrorist activities have been signed and activated over the years. In addition, protocols to prevent trafficking in all kinds of illegal commodities, from drugs to weapons, has also been discussed and acted upon by the member states.
The hasty withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan in 2022, the freezing of the strategic reserves of Afghanistan, the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan and fears of regional instability have lead the SCO to develop a Contact Group for Afghanistan, of which India is a member. The US has usually engaged with Afghanistan unilaterally or with the NATO countries plus Pakistan. On the other hand, Russia has ensured that India must be part of security discussions on Afghanistan since this is a Eurasian regional issue.
US interventions in West Asia are similarly destabilising and all SCO countries get impacted. It is for these security-related development and stability issues that many countries of the region want to join the SCO. In this context, India as well as other member states would like to position the SCO as an ‘anti-Western’ or militarist alliance. Rather some western analysts themselves pose it as such.