Column | Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: An edifice without mortar

Within the SCO framework, India can better evaluate China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Photo: AFP

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was prescient when she was not in favour of setting up a regional organisation in South Asia when it was proposed by Bangladesh. It was after a considerable amount of persuasion, pressure and blackmailing that she eventually joined the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1987 with various caveats like no discussion on bilateral issues, no voting, no meeting without all members being present, etc. But after 30 years of largely unproductive existence and Pak terrorism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually suspended SAARC by not attending summits till Pakistan abandoned terrorism and stopped raising Jammu and Kashmir in the Association.

This is what happens when international organisations are set up by some countries to serve their own agenda and other countries join for certain expected advantages. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which includes India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and now Iran, was founded in 2001 to focus on regional security and cooperation and was spearheaded by Russia and China. It is now an edifice without sufficient mortar to hold it together. The logic of our joining the SCO was our interest in the Central Asian countries, but it has become increasingly divisive, particularly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

This year, the host country, India, anticipated a number of problems arising out of the uncertainties of participation and decided to opt for a virtual summit – an arrangement that may have also suited the SCO’s two leading members, Russia, China and also Pakistan.

The summit lasted roughly three hours and culminated with the release of a joint declaration some 5,000 words shorter than the one released at the previous summit in Samarkand. It also avoided the demonstration of protocol problems relating to bilateral meetings and group photos and dinner.

India did not  give a specific explanation when it announced last month that it would hold the event online, and recently said the format “in no way signifies, hints, insinuates the dilution in the objectives that we are trying to see of the SCO summit.” But the reasons were too obvious to be stated. It did not also suit India to parade Putin and Xi in Delhi so soon after the Washington Summit of Modi and Biden which marked a new high in bilateral relations on account of the agreements on the supply of crucial defence technologies, which were denied to non-allies till now.

SAARC and SCO are not the only regional organisations that do not have the political glue to facilitate cooperation effectively. BRICS, for instance, was invented by an American economist, who identified common characteristics in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa and as an organisation, it still has issues, particularly China hijacking it to counter Western economic influence.

In its new spirit of multi-alignment after the non-alignment era, we tend to join several organisations without any concrete benefits. We joined the Australia Group on chemicals and an arrangement on conventional weapons, which we had not done earlier. At the same time, we are denied entry into groups like APEC and Nuclear Suppliers Group on technical grounds even after India adopted liberal economic policies.

Membership of groups also entails Chairmanships of these bodies by rotation, which imposes certain onerous obligations on us without much benefit. The role of the Chairman, like in the case of SCO, was ill-timed this time. We made much of the Chairmanship of G-20 by turning it into a showpiece, but if it cannot reach a consensus document, part of the blame may fall on us. It is also embarrassing that, as Chairman, we are constrained to dissociate ourselves from parts of the declarations attributed to the Chairman. This time, we refused to endorse the Belt and Road Initiative, which others endorsed.

On the other hand, it has been pointed out that India has many strategic interests in the SCO: India is a major Asian country, comparable to China in many dimensions and must be involved in Eurasian geopolitics; it has historical connections and affinities with Central Asian countries, with our leaders maintaining close contacts with them since their independence; India’s economic rise gives us more means to contribute to the economic growth of these countries, makes us more attractive as an economic partner as they seek also to balance their external ties and reduce over-dependence on any particular country.

Within the SCO framework, India can better evaluate China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The envisaged FTA between India and Eurasian Economic Union that Russia supports can be facilitated by our engagement with the SCO. India is pursuing regional connectivity projects linking it with landlocked Central Asia. Most importantly, terrorism, religious extremism and separatism that threaten this region are shared concerns, as pointed out by a former Foreign Secretary, Kanwal Sibal.

Nevertheless, there is a clear need for India to assess the true value of membership in certain groups and adjust our participation in a measured manner. When we get invitations for new groups of limited value we should bargain to get APEC and NSG as against organisations without political glue.

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