India will become a functional member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) from this year. Along with India, Pakistan will also become a member of the forum. Both countries have been observers of the SCO for several years. India and Pakistan’s entry will expand the membership of the SCO from the current six — China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan — to eight. It will also draw South Asia into the SCO geography, which, till now, has been confined to Central and East Asia.
The SCO has the potential to play a strategically important role in Asia given its geographical significance. The forum has the Central Asian countries at its core and is fanning out to include China, Russia, Pakistan and India, on its east, south and north, respectively. If it is able to draw in some countries from the Middle East, particularly those bordering Iran, it would cover a huge land mass in the world and would be among regional associations with the largest populations and energy and mineral resources.
The presence of Pakistan and India in the SCO provide its members the much-desired access to the Arabian Sea that leads to the Indian Ocean. However, notwithstanding several distinct strategic characteristics, such as being a forum of the world’s noted non-Anglo-Saxon Asian powers and a reservoir of abundant energy resources, the SCO has not been able to develop a constructive economic agenda.
Energy cooperation, which Russian President Vladimir Putin had flagged in 2006 as one of the key goals of the SCO, has remained dormant. Rather, most energy cooperation between the SCO members has been happening bilaterally, such as the China-Central Asia gas pipeline. Beyond energy, China had proposed a SCO development bank in 2010, which has also remained a non-starter. Meanwhile, China’s interests have shifted to other regional initiatives like the New Development Bank of the BRICS and the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank.
One of the key reasons behind the SCO’s stunted growth in regional economic and strategic matters is the complicated dynamics between China and Russia. Neither has been willing to concede each other greater turf. India’s entry in the forum at this point in time would be visualised as a balancing factor for both. India might have some concerns over how the forum might react to its delicate relations with Pakistan. But this is unlikely to grow into a major concern as the rest of the members, particularly the Central Asian countries, are likely to maintain considerable distance from the Indo-Pak bilateral domain.
The long-term economic prospects of the SCO would, however, depend on its connection to the One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) infrastructure connectivity plan proposed by China for connecting Asia and Europe through land and sea. China would be aiming to utilise the SCO as an important organisation for drumming up regional support for the OBOR. In this respect, India, which till now has refrained from committing to the OBOR, might find itself on relatively weak ground. China is already working on connecting its western region to Central Asia through projects that are exclusive of the SCO. Its long-term objective would be to dovetail these projects into the OBOR network. This would be similar to the plans it has for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) projects.
An important prerogative for India at the SCO would be to fix a strategy for the OBOR. Having a totally non-committal attitude to the OBOR is not the right way to approach an initiative that is slowing spreading deep and wide across Asia and is becoming bigger than all other ongoing regional connectivity plans. Much of what India might gain from the SCO will depend on its own calculations of the OBOR.