India’s diplomatic outreach and SCO

Dr Ganesh Malhotra
The SCO began in 2001 as a forum in Central Asia and has been expanding ever since to include more countries and cover other issues like trade. This year’s summit was special for India as it tried to engage the wider Central Asian region and other important issues through SCO as a full member of the grouping. Membership of the SCO includes China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and countries with observer status in the bloc include Afghanistan, Iran, Mongolia, and Belarus.
Chinese media was euphoric with the success of 18th summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), held in Qingdao, China, considering that it would write a new chapter for India-China relation. India stayed clearly away of the joint communique by the member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Summit (SCO) supporting China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which connects China’s Kashgar in Xinjiang with Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Balochistan, is a key artery of the OBOR project and is progressing at a fast pace. India firmly opposes the over $50 billion economic corridor of the Belt and Road project which cuts through POJK because there are sovereignty issues involved in it.
The two agreements were signed between India and China – a memorandum of understanding on the Chinese side providing hydrological data on the Brahmaputra river in flood season from May 15 to October 15 every year and an amendment to a 2006 protocol for exporting rice from India to China to include the export of non-Basmati varieties of rice from India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the platform to enhance India’s regional outreach to the wider Eurasia. Coining another acronym – SECURE – in order to facilitate comprehensive security in the SCO region, Modi argued that “there are six dimensions summed up in the English word secure. S stands for the security of citizens, E for economic development for all, C is for connecting the region, U is for uniting our people, R is for respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and E is for environmental protection.”
He emphasised on greater people-to-people engagement between India and other members of the SCO and underlined India’s desire to double the number of tourists from the region. India is planning to organize a food festival of cuisines of SCO countries as well as a shared Buddhist heritage exhibition in India.
India made it clear that it is supportive of connectivity projects but only those that respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations. “Connectivity in SCO region and in our neighbouring countries is a priority for India. We welcome such new connectivity projects that are inclusive, sustainable, and transparent and which respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations,” Modi said in his plenary address at the SCO summit.
For India this summit was largely an attempt to enhance its profile in wider Eurasia and Central Asia. New Delhi would also be keen on enhancing regional cooperation for countering terrorism, religious extremism, and separatism. India’s engagement in Afghanistan is also key in this regard. Modi highlighted this when he suggested that “the situation in Afghanistan is an unfortunate example of terrorism and extremism in our region…. It is our responsibility that causes which threaten Afghan unity, sovereignty, integrity, diversity and democracy in the past will not be repeated.”
Russia, which facilitated India’s entry, remains the most dependable ally in the SCO given India’s conventional hostility with Pakistan and long-existing differences with China. A section of India’s strategic community may celebrate India’s diplomatic elevation as one of the “major players” of the SCO including China and Russia, but it remains unclear what tangible benefit this ‘promotion’ would bring for India other than causing some indignation in Pakistan. Other than getting a foothold in Central Asia, India’s other primary focus inside SCO has been to voice its grave concerns on the issue of terrorism. In fact, anti-terrorism resonates well with many of the SCO members, almost all of whom have been struggling
Pakistan’s admission adds to India’s potential difficulties with this forum. Despite China’s many commitments, the chances of it putting authentic pressure on Pakistan to stop fortifying cross-border terrorism remain dubious. It is certainly in India’s fascinates if the SCO becomes a confidence-building mechanism between Incipient Delhi and Islamabad, but these trepidations are not entirely unfounded that Beijing might utilize the SCO platform to pressurise Incipient Delhi to negotiate with Islamabad on Kashmir issue. As Pakistan’s temptation to carry its baggage of truculence with India to the SCO would remain high, engaging Islamabad in this multilateral organisation will authoritatively mandate skilful diplomacy from the Modi regime. Since the SAARC platform has not been prosperous due to several reasons including Pakistan’s obstinacy, the SCO as a body for regional cooperation provides a very different setting where Pakistan’s all-weather friend, China, is the ascendant player. Modi regime has been insisting that talks and terror cannot be held simultaneously. However, India will find it tough to make authentic contribution to the anti-terrorism format of the SCO given the requisite that astuteness must be shared with all members.
The Modi regime is aware of fact that China is in no mood to lose Pakistan. China refused to recognise either Masood Azhar or Hafiz Saeed as international terrorists. Albeit Beijing’s surprising move at the Financial Action Taken Force (FATF) in February plenary in Paris has given Incipient Delhi some plausible hope that China may be amenable to make a subtle shift in its stance with Pakistan. During that FATF meet, China along with Saudi Arabia had voted to greylist Pakistan for terror financing. It gave Islamabad four months to do more to rein in terrorist groups operating from its soil or face the consequences. But nothing concrete has transpired so far. If blacklisted, Pakistan will join Iran and North Korea in a group of only three countries gainsaid international financing. Pakistan’s peregrine exchange reserves have already fallen below $10 billion and an IMF bailout seems imminent. When the FATF meets at the cessation of June, Pakistan faces going onto a ‘greylist’. It consequently remains to be optically discerned how intellectively India plays its cards with China at Qingdao summit to put forth its message in unequivocal terms: those who back countries engaged in terror financing are additionally complicit.
It has been rightly argued that India’s participation in the SCO will avail it further expand Indian footprints in Central Asia, a region which is abundant in energy resources. But the most immensely colossal quandary is posed by geographical constraints as India has no land boundary with any Central Asian country. India’s land connectivity to the Central Asian region can be made possible through Pakistan, which perpetuates to gainsay India access to the region. India’s geographical isolation is further compounded by the presence of two ascendant powers – Russia and China – which leaves little space for a distant third potency. Incipient Delhi may have endeavoured its best to find alternate routes, most eminently by endeavouring to construct a North-South Connectivity Corridor from Iranian port of Chabahar up to Central Asia through Afghanistan, the progress however remains excruciatingly slow. India needs to push other Central Asian Republics to make this route an authenticity, otherwise the SCO is liable to lose priority for the Indian diplomacy.
(The author is J&K based strategic and political analyst)


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