Foreign Policy Watch: India-SCO

Can the SCO be the regional body that stabilizes Afghanistan?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: SCO

Mains level: Role of SCO in Afghan Peace

On the face of it, the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) this week in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, is well placed to lead the stabilization of Afghanistan after the American retreat.

About 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 and the SCO

  • India and Pakistan both were observer countries.
  • While Central Asian countries and China were not in favor 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.

Afghanistan and SCO

  • Afghanistan has been engaged with the SCO for over 15 years.
  • In 2012, Afghanistan became an observer in the SCO when then-Afghan president Hamid Karzai visited China.
  • In 2015, Kabul applied for full membership in the group.
  • Kabul sought to be a member of the SCO as it believes that it is a natural candidate.
  • Geographically, Afghanistan is a part of the SCO region.

Limited (or No) progress made by SCO

  • For all the political hype, the SCO has not deepened regionalism in Central Asia.
  • Two decades after its formation — it was set up just weeks before the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington — the institutional promise of the SCO remains just that — a promise.
  • Seen from the subcontinent, the SCO certainly looks better than the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
  • That India and Pakistan, whose differences have prevented even regular meetings of SAARC, are actively participating in the SCO, would point to its attractiveness.
  • But then SAARC is such a low bar.

Opportunities for role-play in Afghanistan

The crisis in Afghanistan presents a major opportunity for the SCO to realize its regional ambitions.

  • Involvement of regional superpowers: The SCO’s importance for Afghanistan seems self-evident when you look at its sponsors and members. Its founding leaders are the two great powers of the east — Russia and China.
  • Neighborhood are members: Its other initial members were Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan to the north and northeast of Afghanistan.
  • Observers vested interest: Besides Afghanistan, Iran, Belarus and Mongolia are observers. Iran is said to be on track for full membership.
  • Many dialogue partners: The SCO has a number of “dialogue partners”. They include Armenia and Azerbaijan from the neighboring Caucasus region and Turkey a step further to the West. Nepal and Sri Lanka from the subcontinent and Cambodia from southeast Asia are also dialogue partners.

Issues with SCO

  • China centrism: For an organization that bears the name of Shanghai, but is focused on Central Asia, its associates look disparate.
  • Lack of coherence: The Central Asian members of the SCO have quarrels of their own, and have struggled to develop collective approaches to their common regional security challenges.
  • Dint go beyond dialogues: As it broadened its membership, the SCO has, unsurprisingly, struggled to deepen institutional cooperation.
  • Not comprehensive: There is also one important country missing in the mix. It is Turkmenistan, which shares an 800 km border with Afghanistan and a 1,150 km border with Iran.
  • Neutrality of members: The organizing principle of Turkmenistan rulers is absolute “neutrality” — think of it as an extreme form of “non-alignment”. It refuses to join any regional institution, political or military.
  • Individual interests: Russia’s effort to build a regional institution in its Central Asian periphery ran parallel to its plans for the so-called “strategic triangle” with China and India. India and Pakistan, needless to say, are poles apart on the Taliban.

No common interest in Afghan Peace

  • The US military retreat from Afghanistan has brought cheer to both Moscow and Beijing, although publicly they criticize President Joe Biden’s hasty retreat.
  • The US retreat might weaken the glue that binds Moscow and Beijing in Central Asia or tightens it.
  • Although Russia and China are closer to each other than ever before, their interests are not entirely the same in Central Asia.

Russian alternatives to SCO

(1) Central Security Treaty Organisation

  • While military confidence-building measures have grown under the SCO banner, Russia had its own security organisation for the region, called the Central Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
  • Three of the SCO members — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan — along with Armenia and Belarus are members of the CSTO.
  • Russia sees itself as the sole protector of the former Soviet Republics and may not be ready to share that role with China — “yes” to coordination, but “no” to a Sino-Russian security dyarchy.

(2) Eurasian Economic Union

  • Moscow also appears reluctant to back Chinese proposals to promote trade integration under the SCO banner; it prefers the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) under its own leadership.
  • China is not a member of either CSTO or EAEU. This is one reason for the weakness of SCO regionalism.

Other deterrents

(1) Affinity with Taliban

  • China has openly admitted to cooperating with the Taliban by restoring all formal diplomatic ties. It is the first such country to acknowledge the Taliban.
  • Turkmenistan too, which is not part of SCO, has been quite open to engaging the Taliban in sync with its principles of neutrality.
  • Some Russian analysts see Turkmenistan as the potential weak link in the defense against the Taliban’s potential threats to the region.
  • Uzbekistan seems open to a cautious engagement with the Taliban.

(2) Iranian aspirations for unwarranted interference (just like Turkey does regarding Kashmir)

  • Iran, which has ethnic and linguistic links with the Persian-speaking Tajiks, appears equally worried about the Taliban’s policies towards minorities.
  • As Moscow and Beijing, Tehran was happy to see the Americans leave in humiliation and appeared hopeful of a positive engagement with the Taliban.
  • Those hopes may have been suspended for now, if not discarded.

What can the SCO do now?

  • The Afghanistan debacle presents an opportunity for the SCO to play a constructive role in meeting the region’s burgeoning security challenge.
  • Providing humanitarian relief, tending to refugees, facilitating an inclusive dialogue and national reconciliation constitute immediate and long-term goals in which the organization can fill a role.
  • The SCO can also pressure the Taliban to share power with other domestic actors and refrain from providing sanctuary to foreign terror organizations (through foreign funds from Saudi*).
  • It can suspend Afghanistan’s observer status, curtail border traffic or withhold recognition, investments, and aid, should Kabul be found wanting.

Way forward

  • While the SCO is not an impressive regional institution, it remains an important diplomatic forum.
  • India has sought to make full use of the SCO’s diplomatic possibilities without any illusions about its effectiveness.
  • At the SCO summit this week, PM Modi would remind other leaders of the “three evils” that the SCO set out to defeat — terrorism, extremism, and separatism.
  • Few would disagree that the Taliban embodied all the three sins in the past. Today, the Taliban and its mentor Pakistan say the sinner wants to become a saint.
  • India must focus on finding common ground with those members of the SCO who do share India’s concerns about Afghanistan.


  • Given this divergence, it is unlikely that the SCO can come up with a “regional solution” for the Afghan crisis.
  • The only real Afghan convergence today is between Pakistan and China.
  • Expect them to try and nudge the SCO towards a positive engagement with the Taliban.

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