Prime Minister Narendra Modi will return from the BRICS summit in Ufa with one big diplomatic prize in his hunting bag: a promise of full Indian membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. For years now, the SCO has been cast as the institutional heart of a new Asian order — an emerging counterweight to a world with US and European power at its core. That billing hasn’t been matched by anything the SCO has actually done since it was founded in 2001, but there’s little doubt that full membership will give New Delhi a real say in shaping Asia’s geostrategic powers. Four of the eight nations which have tested nuclear weapons, an index of military power, will be part of the new alliance once India and Pakistan are on board next year; so, too, will three of the world’s major economies, along with territories that house some of the world’s largest hydrocarbon reserves. Ever since 2014, when the SCO’s summit in Dushanbe signed protocols for admitting new members, it had been clear that the organisation had a vision greater than simply mediating Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia — and New Delhi now has a chance to shape this vision.
Each of the six original members, though, have varying geostrategic reasons for wanting India on board — a sign of how complex the challenges of shaping the new Asia are. The four Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan — want a counterweight to the dominance of Russia and China. Moscow wants a counterweight to China’s growing power in its Central Asian backyard and a new partner to show its adversaries in Europe and the US that it is not without friends. For its part, China sees expansion as a step towards giving the organisation heft — especially since its ally, Pakistan, is also joining up. In an editorial written two years ago, Chinese news agency Xinhua wrote that expansion would “testify to the rest of the world that the SCO is a truly open and equal platform for safeguarding regional peace and development, not an exclusive and ambitious China-led military alliance.”
For New Delhi, the challenge will be to ensure the two great powers already at the table do not undermine its own interests. In 2005, for example, the SCO called for a timetable for the US to shut down bases in Central Asia — bases that India, however, saw as important elements in stabilising Afghanistan. New Delhi, moreover, is seeking an enhanced partnership with East Asian states like Japan, which view China with suspicion. New Delhi has now gained entry to the halls where the Great Game is being played — but must beware that it does not gamble more than it can afford to lose.