India's membership in the SCO: prospects and challenges

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India's membership in the SCO: prospects and challenges 24.07.2017 16:14


On July 3, 2017, the Indian organization Observer Research Foundation held a meeting on the participation of India in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by Ambassador Rakesh Sood, distinguished member of the Observer Research Foundation.

During the meeting, Ambassador Ajay Malhotra noted that the SCO was formed on the basis of the "Shanghai Five", established to address border issues and related security problems. The need for this arose after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it was necessary to resolve such issues between the new independent republics of Central Asia, Russia and China. In 2001, the Shanghai Five, after Uzbekistan joined it, was transformed into a regional organization by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. India, like Pakistan, joined the SCO in 2005 as an observer country. In 2014, India applied for membership in this organization, the following year its application for full membership was accepted. In 2016, India completed the work on joining this organization and reaffirmed its commitment to the SCO by signing 38 relevant documents. As a consequence 9 June 2017 India and Pakistan became full members of the SCO.

India's approaches to the SCO are completely open. It is taken into account that China and Russia are the two dominant players in this organization, and the official languages of the SCO are Russian and Chinese. This organization should not be used as a platform for solving bilateral problems of any kind.

One of the key components of the SCO is the Regional Antiterrorist Structure (RATS). The focus of the RATS is "three evils" - terrorism, separatism and extremism. The RATS is involved in the exchange of information between the member states of the organization, the conduct of joint antiterrorist exercises and the exchange of best practices in its field of activity.

For Russia, the SCO can become a forum for safeguarding Moscow's interests in Afghanistan, so it is in its interests to step up the SCO Contact Group - Afghanistan.

For Russia, China and India, Central Asia is not the main sphere of interest, but all three countries oppose the domination of any other country in this region. However, for Delhi it is especially undesirable that Beijing began to dominate Central Asia, especially considering that China has a common border with three Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Russia borders only with Kazakhstan, and India has no common borders with the states located in the region.

Russia and other countries of the region are simultaneously members of other regional organizations, such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). And if the SCO and the EEU are more focused on trade and the economy, security issues are largely resolved within the CSTO and CICA.

It should be noted that the SCO member states have different visions of the future of this organization. One example of this is that Russia opposes the Chinese proposal to establish the SCO Bank (an analogue of the New BRICS Development Bank).

Ambassador Ashok Kantha believes that India's influence in Central Asia is limited compared to Russia and China. At the same time, the SCO is more a political regional organization that approaches economic issues quite formally.

In 2015, a few days before the procedure for admission of new members to the SCO was completed, Beijing tried to prevent India's membership in this organization. In particular, it was stated on his part that there is no procedure for accepting new members in the SCO. No less, Russia insisted on India's admission to the SCO, which indicates a partial mismatch in this organization of the positions of Moscow and Beijing. Thus, Russia opposes the Chinese proposal to establish the SCO Bank or the Agreement on the SCO Free Trade Area.

In the period 2013 – 2014 in the context of the expansion of the SCO, two important events took place. First, China has begun to play an increasingly important role in global affairs. Secondly, Russia is improving its bilateral relations with Pakistan. Given this, India, as a new participant in the SCO, has limited opportunities to change the current situation in the SCO and its structures. In particular, the statements (declarations) of the SCO do not always correspond to Indian national interests, but in Delhi this should not be a reason for any great concern.

Of course, India can use Chinese infrastructure in the region to promote its interests there. This will allow the Indian side to increase the volume of trade and obtain additional commercial experience. In this regard, Delhi should not oppose any initiatives in the SCO or all Chinese proposals (initiatives). In particular, this concerns the establishment of the Bank of the SCO, if it functions as the New Development Bank of BRICS. In the latter, India is the second largest stakeholder after China, so it can set its own rules there. And India's ties with the Central Asian region should go beyond the SCO. And such ties need to be strengthened independently of all other issues.

In connection with India's accession to the SCO, the following scientific discussions are taking place in the scientific circles of the country: "Should India be a continental power or a maritime power"? or "Should India be a Eurasian power or a power of the Indian Ocean?" According to Ambassador Ashok Kantha, India should strive to become both a maritime and continental power, as well as a major player in the Eurasian and Indo-Pacific regions.

From the point of view of Ambassador Phunchok Stobdan, the SCO was created at a time when the growing influence of the Afghan Taliban was dangerous, which created instability in Central Asia (inside the Shanghai Five). Along with this, the countries of the Central Asian region were not ready to jointly confront the existing threats and challenges. Moreover, during the creation of the SCO, this region was of immediate interest to Russia, the United States, and NATO, the EU, China, India and other countries. This was the time when the International Security Assistance Force launched its military campaign against the Taliban and other terrorist organizations in Afghanistan. And at the time of the creation of the SCO, China had limited opportunities in the region, including through Russia.

India's membership in the SCO was originally proposed by Russia to limit China's influence in Central Asia. China, for its part, proposed the candidacy of Pakistan as a counterweight to the inclusion of India in the SCO. In this regard, for India, the SCO is not just as important as, for example, for the states of Central Asia. The achievements that India will gain through ties with the Central Asian region will be more achieved at the bilateral rather than multilateral level. And such achievements for India will be relatively modest.

At the same time, Central Asian states expect a lot from India, as they would like to limit their dependence on China. And they prefer the position of India, not China. However, these states can exist without India. Consequently, the countries of Central Asia do not like China, but they cannot live without it.

The current security concerns in the region under consideration are related to the potential growth of the radical organization Islamic State, and not to the strengthening of the Taliban. At the same time, Kazakhstan plays a certain role in resolving the Syrian crisis and in establishing ties between Russia and Turkey.

Conclusions made during the discussion:

1) The SCO covers about 60% of the territory of Eurasia and has a population of more than 2.8 billion people. For Russia and China, the SCO as an organization is not paramount in importance, in contrast to the Central Asian countries. And if Iran joins the SCO, the organization will have the image of an anti-American grouping.

2) All members of the SCO prefer a bilateral mode of interaction in comparison with the multilateral one. So, for China, the SCO is a platform for building a strategic direction between Beijing and other countries. However, if the Central Asian countries go along a democratic path of development, they will pursue an anti-China policy.

3) Both India and Pakistan would like to include English as an official language in the SCO.