For the first time, India hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) heads of government meeting after it joined the eight-member grouping in 2017.
India assumed the chair of the SCO Council of Heads of Government on November 2 last year as per rotation from the previous chair – Uzbekistan.
In November, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in the SCO Council of heads of state (SCO-CHS), the highest forum of SCO, meeting hosted by Russia in a virtual format.
It is the first time that a summit-level meeting is held under India’s chairmanship, since it gained full membership of the organisation in 2017.
According to the reports, India has usually been represented at meetings of the SCO council of heads of government at the level of the external affairs minister, while defence minister Rajnath Singh had attended last year’s meeting in Uzbekistan.
India hopes to further strengthen cooperation in trade, economic and cultural spheres within the bloc.
What is SCO?
The SCO is an economic and security bloc in which India and Pakistan were admitted as full members in 2017.
Its founding members included China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Its driving philosophy is known as the “Shanghai Spirit” which emphasises harmony, working by consensus, respect for each other's culture, non-interference in the internal affairs of others and non-alignment.
The SCO Summit is the grouping’s main body that sets the agenda for the coming year.
After the collapse of 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 Tajikstan.
The SCO was formed in 2001, with Uzbekistan included.
It expanded in 2017 to include India and Pakistan.
Key-takeaways of the Meet
Participants: The meeting was attended by prime ministers of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan while Pakistan was represented by its parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs.
Overcoming COVID challenges:The focus of the 66-point joint communiqué at the end of the virtual conference was in developing a “Plan of Priority Practical Measures for 2021-2022 to overcome the socio-economic, financial and food consequences of COVID-19 in the region”.
Strengthening multilateralism: Members committed to strengthening multilateralism and the UN charter while welcoming the fact that the grouping is now being seen as an “influential and responsible participant in the modern system of international relations”.
On ‘One Belt, One Road’
A joint communique issued at the end of the 19th summit of SCO Council of HoG meeting said Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan reaffirmed their support for China's 'One Belt, One Road' (OBOR) initiative and noted the ongoing work on joint implementation of the project.
India has been opposing the project as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of the OBOR, passes through Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK).
India and Pakistan: The meeting also showed up persisting differences. Although the HoG Council consists of the Prime Ministers of all SCO countries, neither Prime Minister Narendra Modi nor Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan attended the meet.
Modi was represented by Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu, who made strong observations on cross-border terrorism; he called it the SCO region’s “biggest challenge”, in comments aimed at Pakistan.
Pakistan’s representative too spoke of the need to combat what she called “state terrorism” in disputed areas, in a reference to Jammu and Kashmir.
India and China: India also marked its differences with China over the BRI by not joining other SCO members in a paragraph endorsing the BRI.
Naidu made a pitch for “transparent and trustworthy” trade practices, seen as a sidebar aimed at China.
Regardless of the differences, the Modi government has consistently maintained the importance of the SCO grouping, referred to as the “Asian NATO” although it does not mandate security alliances.
The SCO is one of the few regional structures India is a part of now, given a decline in its engagement with SAARC, BBIN and the RCEP.
The SCO provides India a convenient channel for its outreach — trade and strategic ties — to Central Asian countries.
While the government has eschewed meetings with Pakistan for the last five years, it has used the SCO for talks with China, including this year amidst the LAC stand-off, when Rajnath Singh and S. Jaishankar met their counterparts on the sidelines of SCO meets.
How can the SCO help India?
India’s connect to Central Asia: The SCO has another strategic importance in Asia due to its geography, which enables the bloc to have a strong connection with Central Asia, limiting the US' influence in the region. SCO is also a potential platform to advance India’s Connect Central Asia policy.
India does not need the format to take care of its relations with countries like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan.
But a primary obstacle to New Delhi’s cooperation with Central Asia is the geographic reality that it is separated from the region by a hostile Pakistan and unstable Afghanistan.
Wider coverage: The SCO covers around 40 percent of the global population, nearly 20 percent of the global GDP and 22 per cent of the world’s land area.
Anti-terrorist structure: Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), established in 2002 under the aegis of the SCO, is mandated for counter-terrorism activities, collecting military intelligence and security of the SCO region.
Stronger economic relations: Arguably its interests are to have its economic relations with the region flourish, to find ways to enhance the connections, and to cooperate in combating terrorism.
Bilateral discussions: It has afforded a platform, when needed, for bilateral discussions with the two countries India has the most tense ties with: China and Pakistan.
Geopolitical balance: Above all, the SCO has been seen as a grouping worth pursuing as it retains India’s geopolitical balance, a useful counterpoint to New Delhi’s otherwise much more robust relations with the western world, and hosting the SCO meeting was one more step towards developing that engagement.
What are the challenges for India in the grouping?
One of New Delhi’s most important challenges is to hold the threats posed by Pakistan and China at bay. And yet New Delhi joined the SCO, which has Beijing as one of its founding fathers and guiding spirits.
New Delhi’s policy toward Beijing in the last few years has been cautious.
India avoided direct confrontation (apart from the Doklam moment), but involved itself in proxy wars of influence with China in the region (in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives) and enhanced cooperation with friendly nations of the Indo-Pacific (clearly, though not outspokenly, against China’s rising presence), all while extending a highly-raised diplomatic hand of friendship in bilateral relations with China (the Wuhan and Mamallapuram summits).
Perhaps it can be said that New Delhi wants to keep talking to Beijing and avoiding direct conflict as much as possible (as it can’t win).
But at the same time, India attempts to contain China’s influence in the region by cooperating with its South Asian neighbors and like-minded states (like the United States, Japan, and France).
Will India achieve its goals through SCO?
No desirable goals: Afghanistan is certainly important for India. But, it is Pakistan that is part of the SCO, not Afghanistan. This means that Islamabad will take care of its own goals in the same region within the SCO.
Only dialogues: Any form of joint containment of Chinese influence in the region would not happen within the confines of the SCO. We are therefore left with dialogue: The SCO is one more avenue of dialogue with Beijing, but that is all it is.
Questionable anti-terrorist structures: It also raises the question of intelligence sharingwithin the SCO’s anti-terrorist structures, as these could lead to India sharing data with Pakistan and China.
Uncertainty: The SCO is not an “alliance of the East,” or an “anti-NATO” as some predicted it would become years ago. Had it been going that way, India would not have even wanted to participate. It is a hardly influential format of divided states, an international organization with negligible achievements and uncertain future.
Rivals: From the perspective of India’s major objectives, any larger benefit of taking part in the bloc will be cancelled by the fact that the organization includes India’s key rivals as members.
Will the platform help to find route to Afghanistan?
One of India’s grand strategic plans to find a land route to Afghanistan (and hopefully beyond to Central Asia) is to establish a connection through Iran’s Chabahar port.
Thus, one of the most important initiatives that may open a new road from India to Central Asia depends on trilateral India-Afghanistan-Iran cooperation (whether it will work or not is another issue).
The SCO is not helpful in this regard as Afghanistan and Iran are merely observers.
In less than two decades, SCO has emerged as an eminent Eurasian construct. Its geostrategic pillar, which prioritises tackling security threats, remains the most enduring fulcrum of its membership. India now needs to take strong initiatives to not only strengthen regional cooperation but also utilise SCO summit meetings to cement bilateral engagements with SCO member states. Looking North is now more imperative than ever before.