[Burning Issue] India And Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)

India and SCO


  • PK Modi departed for the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek to attend a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)

  • After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the then security and economic architecture in the Eurasian region dissolved and new structures had to come up.
  • The original Shanghai Five were China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan.
  • The SCO was formed in 2001, with Uzbekistan included. It expanded in 2017 to include India and Pakistan.
  • Since its formation, the SCO has focused on regional non-traditional security, with counter-terrorism as a priority:
  • The fight against the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism has become its mantra.
  • Today, areas of cooperation include themes such as economics and culture.

India’s entry to the SCO

  • India and Pakistan both were observer countries.
  • While Central Asian countries and China were not in favour of expansion initially, the main supporter — of India’s entry in particular — was Russia.
  • A widely held view is that Russia’s growing unease about an increasingly powerful China prompted it to push for its expansion.
  • From 2009 onwards, Russia officially supported India’s ambition to join the SCO. China then asked for its all-weather friend Pakistan’s entry.

How does membership of the SCO help India?

[I] Counter-terrorism

  • These sit well with the SCO’s main objective of working cooperatively against the “three evils”.
  • India wants access to intelligence and information from SCO’s counter-terrorism body, the Tashkent-based Regional Anti Terror Structure (RATS).
  • A stable Afghanistan too is in India’s interest, and RATS provides access to non-Pakistan-centred counter-terrorism information there.

[II] Connectivity

  • Connectivity is important for India’s Connect Central Asia policy. Energy cooperation dominates its interest – and it’s in China’s neighbourhood.
  • But India will also have to deal with an assertive China, which will push its Belt and Road Initiative during the summit.
  • SCO membership also bolsters India’s status as a major pan-Asian player, which is boxed in the South Asian paradigm.

Geopolitics and play out for India

  • The US’ power struggle with China, exit from the Iran nuclear deal JCPOA which affected India’s oil imports from Iran and adversarial attitude towards Russia which delayed India’s defence purchase like S-400.
  • While US’s stance against Islamabad after the Pulwama attack was evidence of its support to New Delhi, India has had a strained relationship with China after the Doklam stand-off, followed by attempts to reset relations in Wuhan.

A cause of worry for US

  • In the SCO, India’s sitting down with less-than-free regimes, Russia and China has always had the West worried.
  • India, however, has always been tactful in not aligning with these countries on governance issues.

How does it play out in the India-Pakistan or India-China relationship?

  • In the absence of the SAARC summit, the SCO summit gives an opportunity for Indian and Pakistani leaders to meet informally, on the sidelines.
  • Both sides have the obligation not to bring in bilateral disputes, but can cooperate on issues of mutual interest and importance.
  • Signing off on joint counter-terrorism exercises will be a new form of engagement between the two militaries.
  • With China, it is yet another opening, like the BRICS summit last year, to bring down tensions, and ahead of the next informal summit in October in India.

Divergences in Central Asian and Indian Interests

  • Russia and Central Asian countries are likely to express “broad support” for China in the wake of trade war against U.S. India is equally concerned about this trade war, but is in a dilemma in view of openly slamming U.S. protectionism.
  • It is also notable that all SCO members, barring India, are enthusiastic supporters of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
  • Also, the other agenda of the summit would be to sell the Gwadar Port and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a potential passage to landlocked Central Asian states. But CPEC passes through territory over which India claims its sovereignty.
  • Terrorism is likely to be approached from the angle of improving the situation in Afghanistan and not necessarily of curbing the terrorist elements emanating from Pakistan.

Key outcomes of the Bishkek Declaration?

  • The Bishkek Declaration was finalised in the summit.
  • Member countries signed 14 decisions at the summit, including cooperation in sports, healthcare and environment.
  • The anti-narcotic strategy and the programme of action was amongst one of the documents signed.
  • Discussions regarding terrorism, regional cooperation, Afghanistan, and economic issues were carried out during the summit.
  • SCO urged the global community to work towards a consensus on adopting the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT).
  • It also emphasised the need to launch multilateral talks, at the Conference on Disarmament, on an international convention to combat acts of chemical and biological terrorism.
  • SCO called for the international community’s joint efforts to counter attempts to involve young people in terrorism, separatism and extremist activities.
  • The members committed to counter the use of information and communications technology to undermine political, economic and public security in the SCO countries.
  • Opportunities for economic cooperation had a special focus, and SCO countries committed to strengthening economic cooperation.
  • Countries also committed to supporting the World Trade Organisation structure.
  • Also, building more people-to-people ties, tourism and cultural bonds within the grouping was stressed upon.
  • On the sidelines of the summit, some cooperation agreements between SCO and UN-specialised agencies were also signed.
  • Afghanistan – On Afghanistan, the Bishkek declaration stressed on an inclusive peace process led by “Afghans themselves”.
  • India reiterated its long-held stand towards the peace process in Afghanistan.
  • It held the view that Afghanistan should be led, owned, and controlled by Kabul.
  • Indian PM Modi also touched upon the topics of connectivity, especially the north-south corridor, Chabahar port and renewable energy.
  • He also introduced the acronym HEALTH (during the SCO session) which denotes –
    1. Healthcare Cooperation
    2. Economic Cooperation
    3. Alternate Energy
    4. Literature and Culture
    5. Terrorism-free society
    6. Humanitarian Cooperation
  • India-Pakistan – Prime Minister Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan failed to hold substantive talks at the summit.
  • Nevertheless, the occasion provided a setting for them to exchange what India called the “usual pleasantries” at the least.
  • Beyond the summit, the two countries are committed to engaging at several other levels, including the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure.
  • Pakistan leads the effort to coordinate between the SCO and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
  • Besides these, India opposed to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
  • The summit declaration has mentioned only the other countries in a paragraph praising the project.
  • On the sidelines of the summit, Mr. Modi held bilateral meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Way Forward

  • What draws India to SCO is the “Shanghai spirit”, which emphasises harmony, non-interference in others’ internal affairs, and non-alignment.
  • The bottom-line is that it helps India keep all options open in terms of international partnerships.
  • n this situation, India will have to clearly identify and promote its interests to enhance its presence in the Eurasian region for this accelerating progress on the International North-South Transport Corridor, the Chabahar Port, the Ashgabat Agreement and the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway should be very much on the cards.
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