SCO Summit: Indian touch gives a new meaning and outlook to organisation
By introducing soft sectors like innovation, traditional medicine, Buddhism, and youth empowerment in the SCO activities, India, during the chairmanship of the group, apparently tried to give a new touch to the international security and defence organization
The New Delhi summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) concluded on July 4, 2023 virtually after 140 programmes of conferences, workshops, and dialogues of member states on different subjects.
India also invited observer states such as Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia and dialogue partners like Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey, and Sri Lanka and held 14 ministerial meetings. Such activities are unprecedented in nature so far under the Indian leadership of the SCO.
Also, unprecedented is the elevation of the soft sectors like innovation, Buddhism, traditional medicine, youth empowerment and digital inclusion, decarbonisation in the SCO activities and agenda formation.
For a multilateral organisation like the SCO, seen widely as a hard-security focused group with counter-terrorism, energy security, drugs and small arms proliferation control and others dominating its agenda, the Indian touch is significant in transforming the SCO norms.
A third unprecedented formulation is the inclusion of Central Asia as the “core” of the SCO. Both the New Delhi Declaration as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech mention this.
This is a significant outcome of the SCO meeting as the two traditional powers of the SCO like Russia and China are seen as influencing events to their advantage in the Eurasian region.
Russia has been the traditional power holder in the region since the tsarist times. It has significant Russian diaspora, business interests, investments in strategic sectors, armaments industries and dependencies.
However, the annexation of Donbas recently and Crimea before had resulted in concerns in the Eurasian region. When Almaty riots took place in early 2022, however, Kazakhstan invited Russian dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) troops to stabilise the situation.
China is the new upstart in Central Asia trying to implement its ancient stratagem of “fanke weizu” (reversing the role of host and the guest) – essentially to displace Russia – through aid that resulted in massive debt for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with Kazakhstan barely able to survive the panda-hug, investments in four energy pipelines and oil wells.
China’s real estate grab in Almaty led to massive protests a few years ago. China has been enticing Central Asia through summit meetings since the Xian meeting in May this year, given Russian distraction in the Ukraine conflict.
To steer away from the geo-political weight of Russia and China, the focus on Central Asia as the “core” is expected to enhance the region’s significance. However, Central Asia needs to be on guard as China divided the ASEAN region in order to grab South China Sea territories.
A decade ago, only one country sided with China in the ASEAN grouping. Now, very few countries like Vietnam stand-up to China. Central Asia could witness such a fate if it does not balance bigger powers.
A fourth significant development is that the SCO is on the path of membership expansion with Iran joining the New Delhi meeting, while Belarus will be admitted after formalities are completed. Several countries have expressed interest in joining, even though Mongolia, which has been a dialogue partner since 2001, has no interest in upgrading itself to become full-fledged member even after two decades.
The SCO is said to consist of nearly one-third of the global economy at roughly $25 trillion. However, much of the gross domestic product of the SCO is traced to China, the 2nd largest economy at over $19 trillion, India the fifth largest economy at over $3 trillion and Russia at over $1.7 trillion.
Intra-SCO trade is minimal by globalisation standards and predominantly composed of energy resources. Barriers to trade, investments and free market principles are yet to take roots in the region.
The SCO is also said to be the largest populated multilateral organisation with over 40 percent of global population but even here India and China at over 1.4 billion each constitute the lion’s share. While China’s population is fast ageing, India's youth bulge offers opportunities for Russia and Central Asia. It is significant that youth exchanges are emphasised by India in the past year-long programmes.
Another significant feature of the SCO is that it combines the largest energy producers in Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and now Iran and largest consumers like China and India. The Ukraine conflict resulted in massive energy shortages benefiting Russian exports to China and India.
An energy club was established in the SCO but skewed in favour of Beijing. China currently monopolises the Central Asian energy grid with various initiatives. India’s emphasis on Chabahar Port and International North-South Transport Corridor provides an opportunity for the Central Asian region to diversify energy resources.
Finally, SCO crafted itself as a hard security organisation with Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) headquarters located at Tashkent, Uzbekistan. RATS is to facilitate information sharing on terrorism and curb such activities. While SCO facilitated “peace mission” counter-terror exercises every year for the member states, it has not been able to make much progress with the epicentre of terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, partly due to prevalence of double-standards.
As a Cold War legacy, China’s position on this issue increasingly came under scrutiny. China aided the Mujahideen to counter the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. With the Soviet Union disintegration, China continued to engage the Taliban recently with a deal to provide support in lieu of countering the Uighur insurgency in Xinjiang.
Despite terror attacks on Chinese at Kabul, Kandahar, Karachi, Quetta and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, China continues to bank on Pakistan and Afghanistan that promote terrorism. This has unnerved India as China even began to support Pakistan in the United Nations Security Council mandated 1267 Committee and shielding terror outfits and individuals in Pakistan. This has diluted the resolve of the SCO on the subject.
Another dent into the SCO is that when it was formed in 1996 as Shanghai Five, they insisted on confidence building measures (CBMs) in border areas to reduce tensions. However, with China overthrowing mutually agreed CBMs in Galwan in Ladakh-Aksai Chin borders in June 2020, a new round of tensions began between China and India that have not subsisted so far. This has exposed double standards in the SCO practice.
***The author is Dean of School of International Studies, JNU; views expressed are his own