Call of Duty: India’s SCO Presidency, Can It Be A Gamechanger?

Lt Gen (Retd) Philip Campose discusses the dynamics of India’s relations with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The year-long presidency of the SCO will present India with several challenges, entailing some deft tight-rope walking, but it also presents an opportunity to make a positive mark.

A fortnight back, at the Samarkand summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, or SCO in short, the rotating presidency of this organisation, which was established by China and Russia in 2001, ostensibly, for ensuring the security of the Central Asian Region, passed over to India, for a period of one year. An important coincidence, providentially it appears, is that, for most of this period, India would also be holding the presidency of the G-20, a group of the world’s 20 economically most powerful countries, which, in addition to China and Russia, include countries on the other side of the global divide, viz. the US, other Western countries, and Japan, as well as the emerging economic powers. Undoubtedly, this year-long presidency of the SCO will present India with a number of challenges, entailing some deft tight-rope walking, but it also presents an opportunity to make a positive mark – in its own interests and in the interests of peace and security at the regional and global level.

Let us start with a brief fact sheet and history of the SCO. The organisation, with regional security in Central Asia as its prime focus, was started in June 2001 by the Shanghai Six as they are known – China, Russia and the four countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – at Shanghai, the venue of this first meeting of the SCO, from where it derives its name. Earlier, from 1996 onwards, without Uzbekistan, this group was known as the Shanghai Five. In 2005, India, Pakistan and Iran were granted observer status of the SCO. Subsequently, India and Pakistan were granted full membership in 2017, while Iran has been granted full membership this year. Other than these nine full members, the SCO has three observers, namely, Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia, and additionally, there are nine dialogue partners, which include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

An important point to note is that, though it is said that the SCO is the world’s largest regional organisation, covering approximately 60% of the area of Eurasia, 40% of the global population and 30% of the world GDP, as yet, it has not wielded proportionate influence, possibly due to lack of institutional strength and funding, as also conflicting interests within the group. Significantly, in the past, mostly in the period before India was admitted as a member, many Western countries described the SCO as nothing but a ‘Dictators’ Club’.

The SCO has established relations with the UN since 2004 and is an observer at the UN General Assembly since 2005. It also has links with the ASEAN, the CSTO, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the CICA and the ESCAP.

The developments related to the SCO and its primary members over the past 21 years clearly show that there is a difference between what the SCO was officially meant to be – and what it is turning out to be, essentially, due to dynamics related to the individual as well as the joint interests of China and Russia. This aspect needs a closer look.

What the SCO’s role was meant to be and the context and circumstances in which it has evolved:
First, the stated aims of the SCO are to combat the “three evils” of regional terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism in the Central Asian Region as well as to prevent drugs and arms trafficking, while promoting various forms of security and economic cooperation among the member states.

Second, the SCO provides a cooperative forum for consultations, which has allowed the Central Asian countries to ease bilateral tensions among themselves over border demarcation and ethnic issues, as well as balance their national interests with those of the regional giants, China and Russia.

Thirdly, the members also cooperate on political issues as well as economy and trade, energy, education, science and technology, culture, environment protection, and so on.

Now, let us see the trends and undercurrents in the SCO, especially, the more recent developments. These have to be seen in the context that, primarily, the SCO was, from its inception, an initiative by China and Russia to protect their interests and project their influence in Central Asia and, through it, to other parts of the world. So what are these trends :

Firstly, it appears that China and Russia are developing this grouping with its primary focus on countering the US and its Western allies, who are on the other side of the Cold War divide. Towards that end, the Central Asian countries are also being specifically influenced to resist efforts at Western-influenced democratisation, from inside and outside. Thus, the SCO is being variously described as the nucleus of a Sino-Russian counter to the G-7, NATO, the QUAD and the AUKUS.

Secondly, China considers SCO an important vehicle to promote and implement its Belt and Road Initiative – its global infrastructure connectivity and influence project. The Central Asian Region, due to its geo-strategic location, plays an important role in the BRI.

Thirdly, it is widely perceived that India was brought into the SCO in 2005 at the behest of Russia – to counter the additional heft that China would receive by bringing in Pakistan into the organisation, which was being promoted by China at that time.

Fourthly, Iran has been added more recently to the grouping in the wake of SCO’s anti-Western alliance getting sharpened as a consequence of exacerbating global divisions, especially following the Russia-Ukraine War.

Fifthly, despite their overt bonhomie, there have always been competitive undercurrents between China and Russia, thus resulting in a belief by interested parties in the West that it was always possible to cause fissures in this relationship. However, an important implication of the Russia-Ukraine war and the concurrent concerns of China over US support to Taiwan, is that bonds between China and Russia have received a tremendous boost and the differences have been cast aside, at least for the foreseeable future.

So, what are India’s interests in the SCO?
Firstly, it provides an opportunity for protecting its interests in Central Asia through a multifaceted interface with the countries of the region, both collectively and independently. Of particular interest would be India’s intent to counter negative influences by China and Pakistan.

Secondly, it provides an opportunity for independent interaction with Russia and China, as also with influential countries like Iran and Turkey, with which India has political, military and economic interests.

Thirdly, it provides a forum for India to project its capabilities and interests, towards achieving its regional and global aspirations, including support for its quest for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

Fourthly, the SCO provides a forum and opportunity to assert the independence of its foreign policy orientation, in the interests of retaining its strategic autonomy, and access to both sides of the strategic divide. This has to be seen in the context that India is concurrently a member of the QUAD and has close relations with the US and other Western countries.

What are the Challenges and Opportunities for India in the SCO Presidency?
First, the biggest challenge for India in the SCO is that China, which is the dominant founder-member of the SCO, has been indulging in inimical acts against India, whether it be the aggressive actions in the form of intrusions in May 2020 across the LAC, the disputed border with India, or its role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, in preventing sanctions against Pakistani terrorists who have committed terrorist acts in India. Can India cooperate with China on security issues, in this backdrop, especially when some of these may be targeted at India itself, or its friends and partners in the Western world?

Second, Russia, which has friendly relations with India, and also is a founder member of the SCO, has launched a cataclysmic war against Ukraine in violation of universal principles of territorial integrity and national sovereignty – principles, which have always been dear to India. How can India, which professes peaceful and nonviolent resolution of disputes, be seen to be openly associating and cooperating with Russia in such circumstances?

Third, all members of the SCO, except India, are illiberal and authoritarian in their governance structures and outlook. Only India, among the SCO, is a democratic country, which constitutionally, values human freedom and dignity, as well as cultural and religious pluralism. To that extent, the challenge for India would be to not get influenced by illiberal practices and the many constraints on human freedom that these countries practise, but instead, to influence them positively to see light – the Indian way.

Let us now look at the opportunities for India, as provided by the SCO presidency, which would be running concurrent to its presidency of the G-20.
First, India can use its leadership position and its overall aura of neutrality to bridge existing divides and cool tempers – whenever tensions rise. To start with, India should try to influence both sides of the Cold War divide, come to the negotiation table, and bring the Russia-Ukraine war to an end. For that, India would need to gain confidence on both sides. For Russia, it should be seen as an honest broker. For the West, India would need to be seen as a proponent of liberal democratic values, as distinctly different from what is being practised by its fellow members in the SCO.

Second, India should use this opportunity to secure its interests in Central Asia and Afghanistan through enhanced cooperation with the countries of the region.

Third, India should use this opportunity to display its enhance and display its political and diplomatic prowess as a potential leader in the changing world order.

To sum up, the SCO is a Eurasian politico-security grouping of nations, with the focus on Central Asia – and influence so far restricted largely to that sub-region and the countries that provide access to it. Though the intentions of China and Russia, independently and collectively, to develop it in the form of an anti-Western alliance, have always been apparent, India’s membership, ethos and interests have run counter to that intent. To that extent, India’s presidency of the SCO could well be a gamechanger in terms of delaying any overt anti-Western intent of the grouping as also India using it as a platform to assert its own independence and ascendancy in the regional and global matrix, just as it is likely to do during its presidency of the G-20 group of nations, starting later this year.