Context: Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Council of Heads of State meeting, marking India’s inaugural chairmanship of the summit.
Rationale behind India’s SCO Membership
- India joined the SCO in 2017, emphasizing the group’s significance as its member countries collectively contribute to a substantial portion of global GDP, trade, oil reserves, and natural gas reserves.
- The SCO’s focus on regional security and connectivity aligns with India’s growth priorities and addresses challenges such as terrorism in Pakistan and Chinese aggressions, including the Belt and Road Initiative.
Importance of Inclusion within the SCO
India’s membership in the SCO provides it with a platform for engagement, especially considering Pakistan’s membership. Joint exercises under the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure are conducted, and India gains access to Central Asian markets and resources.
- SCO Membership and India’s Strategic Ambitions:
- Joining the SCO aligns with India’s goals of “multi-alignment” and “strategic autonomy,” positioning itself as a balancing power in the global arena. India’s simultaneous entry into the revived Quad with the United States, Japan, and Australia in 2017 reflects its strategic intent.
- Economic Necessity and Neutrality on Ukraine Conflict:
- India’s decision -to remain neutral in the Ukraine conflict has made its engagement with the SCO economically essential, benefiting from fuel and fertilizer purchases from Russia.
- Expectations for India’s Chairmanship of the SCO Summit:
- India’s turn to chair the SCO summit was anticipated to be a significant event, potentially revitalising the importance of the G-20 meeting. Given Russia and China’s obstruction of the G-20 joint communiqué, India saw the SCO summit as an opportunity for Prime Minister Modi to negotiate resolutions with his counterparts.
- Economic Cooperation and Energy Security:
- The SCO provides a platform for India to enhance economic cooperation with resource-rich Central Asian countries. India aims to diversify its economic partnerships and tap into Central Asia’s oil and gas reserves for energy security.
- Cultural Cooperation and Tourism:
- India benefits from cultural cooperation within the SCO, with initiatives such as designating Varanasi as the first cultural capital. The organization’s cultural heritage includes numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
- Counterterrorism Efforts:
- India, as a victim of terrorism, can benefit from the SCO’s focus on counterterrorism cooperation. The organization’s collective efforts can help combat terrorism in the region, providing security benefits for India.
- Significance of Iran’s Induction: Iran has been an observer in the SCO since 2005, and almost after 15 years, its bid for full and permanent membership in the organisation was approved at the 2021 Summit in Dushanbe. A formal Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Iran was signed last year at the 2022 Summit held at Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
- The SCO’s recent focus has shifted towards regional connectivity, making Iran’s induction crucial.
- India, with its connectivity strategy through Iran’s Chabahar port and the International North South Transport Corridor, sees Iran’s inclusion as a significant milestone.
- Iran’s presence supports India’s efforts to bypass land-based trade through Pakistan, which has impeded transit trade for India.
- The potential for double land-locked Central Asian states (Uzbekistan and Iran) to establish a multimodal trade route via Afghanistan to ports in Pakistan and Iran.
- Moreover, Iran’s inclusion allows India to engage in regional trade while avoiding China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
- Additionally, Iran’s historical partnership with India and its shared struggle against terrorism originating from Pakistan and Afghanistan strengthens India’s stance against terror safe havens.
Diminishing Returns and Challenges for India
With the conclusion of India’s chairpersonship of the SCO, the government may be experiencing the law of diminishing returns regarding its engagement with the organization. This situation could potentially complicate India’s task of hosting the G-20 meeting.
- Limited Consensus and Unendorsed Agreements
- While the SCO members achieved consensus on the New Delhi declaration and joint statements on radicalization and digital transformation, India, as the Chair, was unable to forge agreement on other matters.
- These included formalizing English as an SCO language and endorsing a road map on economic cooperation, likely due to concerns about China’s influence.
- Membership and Conflicts Among Member Countries
- There are conflicts between member countries, including the border issues between India and China, state-sponsored terrorism causing tensions between India and Pakistan, border issues between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and instability in the border area between Taliban-led Afghanistan and Pakistan.
- China’s Rise and External Pressures
- China’s increasing influence in inner Asia has led to external pressures from regional powers, such as the United States, seeking to contain China’s rise. This puts additional pressure on the SCO.
- Limited Institutional Mechanisms and Divergent Interests:
- The SCO lacks formal decision-making and enforcement powers, limiting its governance effectiveness. Member states with different political systems, economic models, and strategic priorities can lead to internal conflicts and disagreements.
- Geographical Scope and Western Criticism:
- The SCO’s focus on Eurasia and neighbouring regions restricts its ability to engage with global issues. Western countries criticize the organization for its lack of democratic credentials, support for authoritarian regimes, and internal conflicts.
- Challenges with the induction of Iran for India: While Iran’s induction into the SCO aligns with India’s interests, there are potential challenges.
- The SCO is increasingly seen as an “anti-West” forum, and both Iran and Russia face severe sanctions.
- The US has accused Iran of supplying weapons to Russia, further contributing to this perception.
- The expected inclusion of Belarus next year will reinforce the SCO’s image, contrasting with India’s strengthening ties with the Quad.
- This situation presents a delicate balancing act for India in managing its relationships.
- Enhancing Connectivity with Central Asia:
- India should focus on improving connectivity with Central Asia by utilizing the Chabahar port and becoming a part of the Ashgabat agreement. This will help strengthen India’s presence in Eurasia.
- Additionally, emphasis should be placed on utilizing the International North-South Corridor (INSTC) for enhanced regional connectivity.
- This can be used to enhance relations with Pakistan and persuade them to remove obstacles blocking India’s access to Eurasia. It is important to prioritize initiatives that facilitate cooperation, such as infrastructure projects.
- Peaceful Coexistence of India and China: For the Asian century to be truly realized, India and China must coexist peacefully. Both nations should work towards maintaining harmonious relations and fostering cooperation for mutual benefit.
- Strengthening the Fight against Terrorism: Efforts should be made to enhance the effectiveness of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, enabling better collaboration in combating terrorism.