Changing dynamics of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
This article is authored by Pravesh Kumar Gupta, associate fellow (Central Asia), Vivekananda International Foundation.
The 22nd summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was presided over by India, recently took place virtually. SCO has gone through substantial changes since its founding in 2001. As a result, the dynamics of this organisation have also been affected, which needs to be examined. Since 2005, India has been a member of this organisation in the capacity of an observer. At the Astana summit in Kazakhstan in 2017, India was admitted as a permanent member of the SCO. Pakistan was given full membership in the SCO along with India. Strategic analysts have emphasised what India can gain from joining this organisation since it became a permanent member. The key reason for raising concerns about India's position in SCO is China's dominance in this organisation. However, the primary objective for New Delhi joining the SCO was to connect with Central Asian nations, as the SCO provides a regular platform for bilateral contact. India's admission was also critical since Central Asian nations wanted India to join to balance Russia and China's dominance inside the organisation.
As a result of its permanent membership, New Delhi has been striving to make constructive contributions to the SCO. In this context, India's presidency of SCO this year has been very important. The New Delhi Declaration was signed by the member-States at the conclusion of the summit. The declaration stated that the international community should "come together to combat the activities of terrorist, separatist and extremist groups. In addition, special attention must be paid to prevent the spread of aggressive nationalism, religious intolerance, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and fascism." The leaders also approved two other thematic joint statements presented by India: One on cooperation in combating separatism, extremism, and radicalisation that leads to terrorism and the other on cooperation in digital transformation. Since it has been India's goal to combat terrorism and share Indian skills with other like-minded nations of SCO, these joint statements, together with the New Delhi Declaration, are of the utmost importance.
India's presence in SCO is important for two main reasons. Firstly, India has good relations with the western world and being a part of this organisation helps not show SCO as an anti-West organisation. Similarly, the Central Asian nations have also been working to diversify their foreign relations, and the United States and the West have been important partners for these countries. Hence, they are also uncomfortable with SCO being labeled as an anti-west organisation. The statements made by some of the leaders of Central Asia at the New Delhi Summit of SCO emphasised non-alignment and multipolarity. On the contrary, China and Russia keep promoting it as a group of anti-western countries. Another reason is that the Indian presence is important to maintain power asymmetry within the grouping. Central Asian countries want India to play a bigger role in SCO. While on the contrary, Indian strategists insist that India should not be too optimistic about this organisation because of China.
With the rapidly changing geopolitical environment, Central Asia has become more critical for China not only for hydrocarbons and connectivity but also for security. As a result, China is now focusing more on keeping Central Asian countries under its influence. Beijing has institutionalised its political ties with these countries through the recently conducted China-Central Asia Summit. However, it should be highlighted that while China has influence among the political elite in Central Asia, there is also anti-China sentiment among the local population. Despite its limited presence in Central Asia, India enjoys widespread support in these countries. The primary reason for this is the civilisational, historical, and cultural ties between India and Central Asia.
With the entry of India and Pakistan into the SCO, the doors have been opened for other like-minded countries to join as full members. In this sequence, under the presidency of India, Iran has become the newest member of SCO, which was observer since 2005. In addition, Belarus has also started formalities to join the Eurasian organisation as a permanent member. Some other countries in the West Asian, South East Asian and South Asian regions have joined the SCO as dialogue partners. Thus, the geographical and economic capabilities of the SCO are expanding. And this expansion will also have a greater impact on the dynamics of the group.
Russia and India are two countries that seem to be benefiting from the expansion of the SCO. Iran's entry will give a boost to the connectivity initiatives of which India and Russia are also an important part, such as the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). In addition, relations between Iran and Russia have been developing significantly since the start of the Ukraine crisis. Belarus is also an ally of Russia. The admission of these countries as permanent members is expected to strengthen the position of Russia in the SCO, which is considered a junior partner of China. Although the term "junior partner" is a Western creation, it can be deemed contextual. Russian opposition to China's expansion into Eurasia will be displayed whenever the favourable settings are present.
Finally, it would be fair to say that since joining this organisation, India has successfully made its presence felt in SCO. It is the only country in this organization which has refused to support China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It also refused to sign the Economic Development Strategy 2030 mentioned in the Delhi Declaration, on which Chinese influence was clearly visible. These examples show that the Indian presence in SCO is very important and counterbalance to Beijing. Therefore, India should continue to engage with the organization by presenting the best propositions suited to its Eurasian strategy. Despite remaining in the SCO, India needs to put more emphasis on ways to develop its relations with each Central Asian country.
This article is authored by Pravesh Kumar Gupta, associate fellow (central Asia), Vivekananda International Foundation.