Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

SCO and Its Broader Geopolitical Evolution


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: SCO and its members

Mains level: SCO challenges and opportunities


Central Idea

  • The visit of Chinese and Russian defence ministers to attend a ministerial meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Delhi has drawn attention to the broader geopolitical evolution of the SCO. While the clamour for membership shows the attractiveness of the forum, its internal contradictions and inability to cope with intra-state and inter-state conflicts among member states are raising questions about its strategic coherence.

All you need to know about SCO

  • Background: 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.
  • SCO formation: 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.
  • Partner countries: Eight Member States are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan. While four observer states are Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia and six dialogue partners include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkey.
  • Functionaries of SCO
  1. Executive Branch: The SCO has an executive branch, which is headed by the Secretary-General and is responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the organization.
  2. Council of Heads of State: The highest decision-making body of the SCO is the Council of Heads of State, which meets annually to discuss and decide on important issues.
  3. Council of Heads of Government: The Council of Heads of Government is the second most important decision-making body of the SCO, which meets annually to discuss and decide on economic and trade-related issues.
  4. Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS): The SCO has RATS, which is responsible for coordinating the efforts of member states in the fight against terrorism, separatism, and extremism.

Facts for prelims


  • Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) is a permanent organ of the SCO which serves to promote cooperation of member states against the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism.
  • It is headquartered in Tashkent.
  • Its head is elected to three-year term.
  • Each member state of SCO sends permanent representative to RATS.

The SCO paradox

  • Shadow over its strategic coherence: Even as the Eurasian forum looks attractive to a growing number of regional states, its internal contradictions are casting a shadow over its strategic coherence.
  • Russia-Ukraine war: Russia’s war in Ukraine is raising questions about Moscow’s capacity to sustain primacy in its backyard.
  • China’s dominance in Asia: China’s rise is increasing the prospects for Beijing’s emergence as the dominant force in inner Asia.


Membership Clamour and Attractiveness of the SCO

  • Comparison between the long lines for membership at the doors of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the SCO:
  • Central European countries towards NATO: Many countries in Central Europe, including Ukraine, want to follow Finland and Sweden into NATO.
  • Several countries queuing up to join SCO: Several important regional states in India’s neighbourhood are queuing up to join the SCO, which now has eight members – China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
  • Iran set to join: Iran is set to join the SCO and Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia are observers and would like to follow Tehran.
  • Impressive list of dialogue partners: Then there is the impressive list of current and incipient dialogue partners that includes Azerbaijan, Armenia, Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates from the Middle East and Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka from the Subcontinent.
  • SCO is inclusive: Unlike NATO the SCO is inclusive, and its attractiveness underlines the rise of non-Western security institutions.
  • Turkey wants to be part of SCO: Turkey, a long-standing member of NATO, wants to be part of SCO certainly highlights the value of being part of a forum led by Russia and China that today are at loggerheads with the West.

Internal Conflicts and Counter-terrorism Preoccupation

  • Internal conflicts becoming high priority: Counter-terrorism has been the principal preoccupation of the SCO for all these years. The internal conflicts within and between the member states and associates are becoming a higher priority for the SCO.
  • For example: Afghanistan’s internal instabilities have been a major driver for the SCO. However, for all the talk of the SCO becoming the regional security arbiter, it was a direct deal between the US and the Taliban that reshaped the Afghan dynamic.
  • Russia’s Role and Ambitions in Central Asia: Russia’s muscle and Beijing’s money provide a sensible basis for their strategic division of labour in Central Asia to keep the Western powers out of the region. However, if Russia is a protector of the Central Asian regimes, it could also be a potential predator.
  • China’s Growing Regional Influence: China’s growing regional influence will come at Russia’s expense, as China becomes the senior partner in the bilateral relationship with Russia after Ukraine. China’s explicit support of the sovereignty of the Central Asian states is a straw in the wind. Shared borders, growing political salience, and rising regional security profiles promise to make China a force to reckon with in Central Asia in the not-too-distant future.

Significance of SCO for India

  • Central Asia connection: SCO membership provides India with an opportunity to engage with Central Asian nations, Russia, and China, and work towards promoting regional stability, security, and economic cooperation.
  • Security cooperation: SCO focuses on combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism in the region, which is of particular concern to India.
  • Consensus over CBT: India has been a victim of cross-border terrorism for decades. India has been working closely with the RATS to share intelligence and coordinate counter-terrorism operations in the region.
  • Economic push: SCO has set up mechanisms for trade and economic cooperation, including the SCO Business Council, the SCO Interbank Consortium, and the SCO Development Bank.
  • Cultural cooperation: The organization aims to promote cultural exchanges among member states and has set up mechanisms for cooperation in fields such as education, science, and technology

Issues with SCO (Indian context)

  • Pakistan’s presence: India has accused Pakistan of using SCO forums to spread propaganda and misinformation against India.
  • China’s dominance: India has also expressed concerns over China’s dominance in the organization and its attempts to use the platform to push its strategic interests in the region.
  • Limited economic benefits: Despite being a member of the organization for over a decade, India’s trade with other SCO members remains limited and has not been able to tap the full potential of the organization.
  • Limited counter-terrorism cooperation: While the primary objective of the organization is to combat terrorism, India has expressed concerns over the limited counter-terrorism cooperation among member states.
  • Limited influence: Despite being a major power in the region, India’s voice and concerns have not been adequately represented in the organization.

India’s challenging role in the SCO

  • India’s engagement with the SCO all these decades was premised on Russian primacy in the region and Moscow’s support of India’s regional interests.
  • For India, a strong and independent Russia is critical for maintaining the inner Asian balance. However, Delhi is in no position to ensure Moscow’s strategic autonomy from Beijing; that depends on Russian strategic choices.
  • India’s burden in the SCO must now be to protect its own interests amidst a rapidly changing regional power distribution in China’s favour.


  • India, which is chairing the Eurasian regional forum this year, has a range of bilateral problems to discuss with its fellow SCO members. However, its burden in SCO must now be to protect its own interests amidst a rapidly changing regional power distribution in China’s favour. The challenge is particularly demanding as India does not have direct geographic access to the landlocked region.

Mains Question

Q. The clamour for membership is a measure of a forum’s success the increasing clamour for the membership of the SCO is doing well. Discuss and highlight the internal challenges that the SCO is facing.

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