Now that India has presided over the 2023 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), it is time to raise two pertinent questions: How has India benefited from joining the SCO? Is there a need to take a critical look at India’s policy towards Central Asia?
The SCO was begotten by China and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, China and Russia got closer and Washington’s policies, including the expansion of NATO and increased support for Taiwan, deepened their nexus, as demonstrated recently in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
China has been the dominant force within the SCO, similar to how the United States dominated the early United Nations. India and Pakistan joined as observers in 2005, and in 2010, the moratorium on admitting new members was lifted. India applied for membership in 2014 with Russia’s support, while China pushed for Pakistan’s membership. Eventually, both India and Pakistan became full members in 2017.
Incidentally, a request from the Washington DC for status as an observer was rejected in 2005. The stated reason for rejection was that the US had no land or sea contiguity with SCO member-states. Washington’s effort shows that the SCO was seen as a significant geopolitical forum.
Some scholars argued that India would benefit from SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), based in Tashkent, established in 2002. But given China’s repeated attempts to veto proposals to designate Pakistan-based jihadists as terrorists, it will not be prudent on India’s part to share intelligence with RATS as Pakistan will get hold of it. In short, India cannot benefit from RATS.
Improving connectivity with Central Asia was another goal for India, especially considering Pakistan’s restrictions on the movement of goods by road from India to Afghanistan. To overcome this hurdle, India had agreed with Iran to revamp the Chabahar port in 2003, but progress was slow due to various factors, including a lack of coordination among the various agencies within India, and even more because of the US economic sanctions against Iran.
When President Donald Trump walked out of the Iran nuclear deal – Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018, India complied with alacrity. India’s compliance with US sanctions on Iran, contrasting with its response to sanctions on Russia, may have been noted by Iran. India has drastically increased its purchase of oil from Russia despite the sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine.
Earlier in July 2020, Iran decided to proceed independently with a rail link project between Chabahar and Zahedan and beyond, for which there was a prior agreement with India, signed in 2016 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Iran. That decision of Tehran must be seen in the context of the growing geopolitical clout of China which in June 2020 offered to invest $400 billion in Iran over a period of 25 years. That there was a delay on India’s part, partly owing to US sanctions against Iran, needs to be noted.
China’s geopolitical influence in Central Asia has grown, particularly following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. China’s role in facilitating a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran further demonstrates its clout in the region.
The Delhi Declaration of 2023 highlights India’s marginalization within the SCO. While the declaration supported China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), India was the lone dissenting voice. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s argument that connectivity projects should respect the territorial integrity of member-states was not heeded by the rest. Another point made by Prime Minister Modi and not fully agreed to was that SCO should not have any hesitation in condemning cross-border terrorism.
The Delhi Declaration makes it clear that India did not approve the 2030 Economic Development Strategy endorsed by others. While we still do not have the text of the program in the public domain, it is reasonable to presume that China will endeavor to subsume the 7,200-km-long International North-South Corridor linking South and Central Asia to Europe under the BRI. Since India has not approved the 2030 Program, it will not have any say in the matter.
In conclusion, it appears that India has not derived significant benefits from its SCO membership. However, it remains in India’s interest to be part of the organization, considering the potential increase in its geopolitical weight in the future.
A policy recommendation to the Ministry of External Affairs of India would be to review and adjust the country’s policy towards Afghanistan and Iran as necessary.
Views are personal.
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