India’s Expectations for the SCO

February 23, 2018: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (middle) with Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow President of Turkmenistan (2nd left), Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (right) and India’s Minister of State for External Affairs Shri M. J. Akbar (left) during the TAPI gas pipeline project inauguration in Herat Province. [VCG]

At the Astana summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2017, India and Pakistan became full members of the organization. The development marked the SCO’s first expansion since its establishment in 2001. At the Astana summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2017, India and Pakistan became full members of the organization. The development marked the SCO’s first expansion since its establishment in 2001. 

India and Pakistan had both become SCO observer countries as early as 2005. Many Indian and Western scholars doubted that India would join the organization. First, they argued that as the largest democratic nation in the world with a state system contrasting the other member countries, India was not a good fit. Second, they considered the SCO an anti-American security coalition formed to counterbalance the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). And in recent years, India has inched closer to countries like Japan and the U.S., actively promoting the quadrilateral security talks with Australia, Japan and the U.S. and accepting a role as the “linchpin” of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. 

But actually, India had been consistently striving to join the SCO and contributed to many of its achievements. The SCO has made impressive progress in security, economic and cultural cooperation. And security collaboration is just one priority on its agenda. In 2001, the signing of the Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism heralded a new era of security cooperation among member countries of the organization. Since the launch of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in 2004, it has become a permanent organ of the SCO that plays an important role in fighting terrorism, separatism and extremism and maintaining regional security. In recent years, the SCO has greatly promoted economic cooperation, set up the SCO Business Council and the SCO Interbank Consortium, and made considerable progress in infrastructure for energy, transportation and telecommunications. Security and economic cooperation are now referred to as the “two wheels” driving the organization forward. Also, SCO member countries are active in cultural exchange after reaching many agreements on cooperation in education, disaster relief and healthcare. SCO University, a large-scale cultural exchange program, is underway. 

When it joined the SCO, India had clear aims which were discussed extensively by Indian strategists and scholars. Economically, India hopes to merge with the progress of the regional economic integration and achieve connectivity to Central Asian countries in a bid to access their energy, resources and markets. 

In terms of security, India hopes for a peaceful regional environment.  

The Trump administration’s new strategies in Afghanistan and South Asia seem to leave the Afghanistan issue as a mess for neighboring countries to handle. Since ISIS was defeated in the Middle East, many terrorists have returned to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the neighborhood, which has troubled India. India hopes to work with other SCO members to combat terrorism and extremism, constrain Pakistan and jointly promote peace and stability in Afghanistan. 

Also, India hopes to become closer to Russia and China by entering the SCO. In recent years, Western countries such as the U.S. have attempted to isolate and contain Russia through issues like the Ukraine crisis, while hindering China’s development. Due to its close relations with the U.S., India has become a cornerstone of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. And increasing tensions between Russia and the U.S. have resulted in deteriorating relations between India and Russia. So, India chose to join the SCO to demonstrate its “strategic independence” to balance its leanings between Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific region. No doubt India also hopes to counter China’s influence in the SCO and strengthen cultural exchange with Central Asian countries to raise its international status. 

India still has concerns about its entry into the SCO due to the ongoing dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir and various disagreements with China. According to the Shanghai Spirit, the core value of the SCO, member countries should be “good neighbors.” India worries that Pakistan would ask the SCO to pressure it and mediate the Kashmir affair. The country has always opposed interference from third parties on the Kashmir dispute. But actually, the SCO has not done enough to mediate border disputes among its Central Asian member countries, leaving some unsettled. SCO member countries need to adhere to the Shanghai Spirit, especially considering that military conflict has been frequent along the India-Pakistan border. Now that both countries have joined the organization, they should eliminate their cross-border military activities and avoid provoking border disputes or agitating for nationalism to win domestic elections. To solve disputes among member countries, the SCO needs to develop the functionality to maintain internal peace through friendship treaties. 

The admission of India and Pakistan evidenced strategic trust between China and Russia. At present, Russia faces great pressure from the West, which motivates the country to strengthen cooperation with China. Russia can work more with India to solidify the unity of the SCO and build its internal mechanisms. 

The entry of both countries has also brought challenges to the organization. Due to the expansion of its membership, the SCO faces greater difficulty in coordinating the interests of all member countries. At SCO meetings, member countries must prepare more documents, endure more complicated decision-making procedures and produce broader consensus. In this circumstance, some SCO resolutions may not be carried out at all. Central Asian countries worry that the entry of India and Pakistan into the organization could hollow it out and marginalize them. 

As a brand new member, India has been keeping a low profile in the SCO. India expects the organization to play an active role in fighting terrorism and promoting regional economic integration. It understands that the SCO is different from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which it dominated. But SAARC persists in name only after failing to hold an annual meeting for two successive years. 

India has two primary expectations from the SCO: fighting terrorism to promote stability in Afghanistan and achieving greater connectivity to Central Asia through the International North-South Transport Corridor. In these realms, China and India have shared interests and can cooperate well. China can persuade the Pakistani government and military to focus on long-term interests, meet their responsibilities in regional stability and economic integration, and increase information exchange with India in combating terrorism and extremism. China and Pakistan can both participate in the construction of the International North-South Transport Corridor. Iran has shown that it clearly hopes China will join the construction of the Chabahar port and has encouraged Pakistan to participate in the construction of the Gwadar port. China, Pakistan and Afghanistan are discussing extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan. If possible, the corridor will include the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project. If India seeks to join in the future, China and Pakistan will extend a warm welcome. 

During a recent informal meeting between Chinese and Indian leaders, they agreed to enhance mutual strategic trust and coordination, conduct more mature handling of conflicts and disagreements between the two countries, promote more effective operation of mutual military and security communication and strengthen coordination of their respective neighborhood policies. Though limited to bilateral interaction, the informal meeting produced a series of consensuses, especially on cooperation in Afghanistan, which should be seen as a concrete step to practice the Shanghai Spirit after India’s entry into the SCO.    

The author is an associate researcher at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

Related articles