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The Great Game Version 2.0

The member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation have rarely shown any understanding for India’s security and energy needs, writes P Stobdan.

india Updated: Aug 08, 2007 00:23 IST
P Stobdan

On August 16, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, will bring together ten countries to focus on the global rebalancing of power. Initially an axis of communist dictators, the SCO became diverse after it allowed the entry of lesser but important players like Mongolia, India, Pakistan and Iran as observers in 2005. Since then, the key promoters — Russia and China — have nurtured the group as a nucleus to control global energy resources and undercut the US’s strategic reach. They have used their soft power to salvage regimes threatened by the US. China’s multi-million dollar aid and Russia’s military commitment saved Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s government, who was under fire from the West for killing thousands in Andijan in May 2005. In 2005, the SCO called for shunting out the US from Central Asia. In June 2006, there was postulation about the SCO shielding Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dashed to Shanghai, but his desire for a full membership was nixed by China to avoid an open confrontation with the US.

Is the SCO emerging as a distinct body or is it a marriage of convenience for desperate States seeking readjustments? Where does India stand in this configuration? So far, there has been little indication of the SCO turning into a separate entity. In Central Asia, the SCO’s playground, the states suffering from security dilemma seek varied goals and play the major powers against each other. The SCO, so far, has not been able to insulate itself from the gravitational pulls of others. Notwithstanding the spirit, some SCO members, despite being wary of the US, still favour counterbalancing China and Russia and seek the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (Nato) support under the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme.

For the SCO, it is time for a reality check. Central Asia, for example, faces myriad problems. Its intrinsic clan-based power play and personality driven politics hamper integration. Most critical is the ostensible mismatch between Russia’s liberal and China’s expansion approaches. Evidently, the SCO is a product of Moscow’s concession to China in Eurasia — whether it is tactical or strategic would be clear only once Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves office next year. Tellingly, Russia’s desire of retaining its Euro-Atlantic identity is loud and clear.

Conversely, the US views Eurasia in the context of its strategic goals: the anti-terror war, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. It also seeks to encourage democratic transformation and promote pluralism in the region. Obviously, this is against the interests of current regimes, who have now started favouring Russia and China. Chinese economic forays through charm offensive have killed the local industries but helped boost authoritarian regimes. However, China’s advance in Central Asia is unlikely to be a benign phenomenon. There are several emotive issues like disputes over territory and water resources with China.

All in all, Central Asia would inevitably witness more Islamic, democratic and even violent expressions. While the region’s radical elements are preparing themselves in Pakistan’s tribal areas under the Taliban patronage, entry of Pakistan and Iran in SCO would add a new dimension to the sectarian growth. The region is also facing WMD proliferation. These challenges have pushed the SCO towards the securitising drive. But, the SCO’s creation of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (Rats) and frequent trans-border military exercises only serve to mitigate internal dissents.

India’s initial enthusiasm for the SCO (notably to push multipolarity, cooperation with Central Asia, strengthening Russia-China-India trilateral efforts and securing strategic energy resources) seems to have watered down thanks to the new trends in the Indo-US relations. In fact, India’s Central Asia policy never worked well and joining the SCO is not going to improve things further. Over a decade of negotiations with Kazakhstan for oil blocks failed to produce any results. It was only when President Karimov found himself isolated that Uzbekistan enticed India in 2005 for a limited entry in its gas-processing sector. Indian businesses have stayed away from the region on several pretexts. Political apathy too is a problem. In the last eight years, barely four questions pertaining to Central Asia have been asked in Parliament. Trade with the region is merely $ 242 million. There is little that things would alter for India in a major way though SCO could reinforce bilateral efforts in Central Asia. India’s trade with Russia, China and Kazakhstan is growing independently of the SCO.

Curiously, there is talk about India raising its force projection capability in Tajikistan. On the terrorism front, India’s Joint Working Group with three Central Asian States has no significance. The Rats’ mandate only includes measures to counter Chechens, Uighurs, Hizb ut-Tahrir and others, but not the operatives — Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, for instance — that concerns India.

A secular SCO suits India’s interests. But its members have rarely shown any understanding for our security and energy needs. The Shanghai-Five earlier denounced India going nuclear. In 2005, SCO

refused to support India’s proposal for United Nation’s Security Council expansion.

What concerns India are the rights and obligations for observers, hitherto not spelled out by the SCO. For the moment, India like Mongolia may opt for a ‘wait-an-watch’ approach.

But an emerging power like India should ideally develop itself into a distinct power centre by allowing an array of power constellations around it. Just as we have concluded the nuclear deal on our own terms, it would do well to secure interests in Eurasia on its own strength. Nonetheless, the Bishkek Summit would be significant and should draw our attention.

P Stobdan is Professor, Centre for Strategic

& Regional Studies, University of Jammu.