On Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek to attend a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Formerly the Sanghai Five and formed in 1996, the SCO has eight members today including India and Pakistan, which became part of it in 2017.
What kind of a grouping is the 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.
Under what circumstances did India enter the SCO?
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.
New Delhi expressed its serious interest to join the grouping in 2009. Months after the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008, Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Asif Ali Zardari had their first meeting in Ekaterinberg in Russia in June 2009. The occasion was the annual summit of the SCO, where both India and Pakistan were “observers”.The highlight was Singh’s message to Zardari: “”I am happy to meet you, but my mandate is to tell you that the territory of Pakistan must not be used for terrorism.”
It was the first time India had shown an interest in joining the SCO. Ten years of efforts, pushed by then Joint Secretary (Eurasia) Ajay Bisaria, who is currently India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, fructified in June 2017, when the SCO inducted both India and Pakistan in Astana in Kazakhstan.
How does membership of the SCO help India?
For India, two important objectives are counter-terrorism and connectivity. 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.
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.
How does global geopolitics play out for SCO and India?
The US’ power struggle with China, exit from the Iran nuclear deal JCPOA (affects India’s oil imports from Iran), and adversarial attitude towards Russia (affects India’s defence purchase like S-400) have forced India to choose sides. While Washington’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.
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. What draws India to SCO is the “Shanghai spirit”, which emphasises harmony, non-interference in others’ internal affairs, and non-alignment. The bottomline is that it helps India keep all options open in terms of international partnerships.
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.