India and SCO Summit at Bishkek and Beyond
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

India has completed two years as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and therefore it would be useful to assess the worth and utility of being a member of such an organization. There is no gainsaying in the fact that it is useful to be a member of a multilateral grouping rather than staying outside of it. If one were not a member of SCO it would have been difficult to either articulate or secure and guard against India’s interests whether political, economic or security concerns. Central Asian region, an extended neighbourhood of India, is of abiding strategic importance to India.

Being a member of the SCO grouping India has been part of the ministerial level and official level meetings which enable regular interactions with their counterparts in the four Central Asian countries and Russia, China and Pakistan. Thus, perforce such mutual exchanges promote government-to-government and even people-to-people relations. For instance, Russia has planned 90 events leading up to the next summit in June 2020 which would help promote multi-faceted exchanges between the group members.

Through its membership of SCO India aims to realize its objectives of its ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’ of 2012 to an extent. While it has connectivity projects like International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and is member of Ashgabat Agreement besides developing the Chabahar Port of Iran, yet, India’s connectivity to Central Asian countries remains poor. This impacts negatively the business and economic linkages. Ashgabat Agreement provides for a transit corridor across Central Asia and the Middle East through linkages between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran before reaching the Persian Gulf and into Oman. If suitably exploited and well executed such projects have potential to give multifold returns.

While bilateral trade between India and Central Asian countries is around 2 billion US dollars, China’s bilateral trade with these nations is around twenty five times this figure. India’s trade with Russia in 2018 was 10.69 billion USD with very ambitious projections of achieving a target of 30 billion USD by 2025. China’s overwhelming economic influence and its connectivity initiatives under the Belt and Road rubric make India a secondary or tertiary player in the region.

On the other hand, all the Central Asian countries, Pakistan and Russia once again endorsed the Belt and Road Initiative of China in the joint declaration. India, on its part, stayed away from joining the SCO group on this issue like it did in the last year. While India supports principle of connectivity its objections to China Pakistan Economic Corridor that violates India’s sovereignty as it passes through Indian territory occupied by Pakistan are well known.

However, Central Asian countries welcome India as a benign player in the region and have endeavoured, as a part of their multi-vector foreign and security policies, to strengthen their relationship with India in political, economic and security fields at the bilateral level. SCO’s multilateral platform provides India and Central Asian another avenue to pursue such policies.

Terrorism remains an abiding concern for the SCO members though they might have different approaches to it. The joint declaration of Bishkek Summit stated that they ‘condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations’. Another interesting formulation included in the Bishkek Declaration was “interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs under the pretext of fighting terrorism and extremism as well as using terrorist, extremist and radical groups to achieve one’s own mercenary ends is unacceptable”. It was not very clear as to whether this was meant as a criticism of Western interference in Xinjiang or Pakistan’s such activities in India and Afghanistan. However, PM Modi in his address at the SCO Summit, left no one in doubt as to whom he was referring to when he stated that ‘countries sponsoring, aiding and funding terrorism must be held accountable’ without naming Pakistan.

China, being an ‘all-weather friend’ and ‘iron brother’ of Pakistan, had cautioned, before the start of SCO Summit that security and development are two major issues focus of the SCO but establishment of the SCO is not to ‘target any country’ which implied that India should not target Pakistan. However, PM Modi has used all the multilateral platforms like ASEAN Summit, BRICS, RIC, G-20 and other forums to highlight the menace of terrorism and especially so of the state sponsored terrorism. Pakistan continues to stay in the doghouse also because of the terms and conditions imposed by Financial Action Task Force (FATF) that require Islamabad to show substantial action taken against terrorists groups accessing funds.

Further, while SCO’s Contact Group on Afghanistan has been in existence since 2005 it has not been able to contribute much towards addressing instability and security in Afghanistan. During Contact Group’s meeting in April 2019 a roadmap for steps to be taken was signed but obviously such anodyne exercises do not inspire much confidence. Of late, Russia, China and Pakistan appear to be on the same page in their approach to talks with Afghan Taliban on the question of peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Reiteration of Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process, as articulated in Bishkek Declaration or for that matter in many earlier SCO Declarations seems to have become an empty slogan. Additionally, besides SCO’s Contact Group, the Moscow format for consultations has been particularly mentioned in the joint declaration. India has a nuanced approach to talks with Taliban and has been supporting the involvement of Afghan government in all such initiatives.

Two bilateral meetings of Prime Minister Modi with Russian President Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of SCO Summit were quite significant as these occurred during a rapidly changing global situation both in terms of strategic and economic environments.

With PM Modi returning to power with a massive mandate, he along with President Xi Jinping emphasized on carrying the momentum of ‘Wuhan Consensus’ forward. Removal of technical hold by China on UN designation of Jaish-e-Mohamed’s group leader as a terrorist, has added to the positive atmosphere between both the sides. Nevertheless, PM Modi apprised the Chinese leader as to how Pakistan has done little to stem the cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Maintaining peace and tranquility along the border and managing differences were some of the other themes that were touched upon. While PM Modi underscored the requirement of being sensitive to each other’s concerns it is unlikely that fundamental differences between the two would be solved in an earlier timeframe. To strengthen the bilateral relationship both sides would be celebrating 70th anniversary of their diplomatic ties by holding 70 events. The next informal summit between both sides is likely to be scheduled in October for review of the progress made.

Additionally, President Xi brought up the development of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM) in mutual discussions. Though BCIM’s was not listed in the 36 Economic Corridors mentioned in the outcome document of Belt and Road Initiative Forum of April 2019. In any case, India’s enthusiasm for BCIM has waned because of several contextual reasons.

Similarly, PM Modi during bilateral meeting with President Putin reviewed the trade and investment ties. Putin’s invitation to PM Modi as main guest at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia in early September was particularly noteworthy. Cooperation between the two in Russia’s Far East and Arctic region would be interesting as Russia remains apprehensive of rising Chinese influence and demographic invasion in this region. Maintaining strategic communication between Russia and India remains very important as the US has been pressing India to abandon its S-400 missile Defence System deal with Moscow.

PM Modi also used the opportunity to pay a state visit to Kyrgyzstan; among signing of many documents/agreements a joint declaration on establishment of strategic partnership was also signed. Bilateral defence cooperation received a fillip with the signing of a memorandum of understanding on establishment of cooperation between the High-Altitude Warfare School of India and the Joint Mountain Training Center of the armed forces of Kyrgyzstan. Signing of strategic partnership is of some significance as Kyrgyzstan shares borders with China and is under considerable economic and strategic influence of China. On the other hand, it is the only country in Central Asia that has a functioning democracy.

Overall, from Indian perspective it can be said that India’s participation in the SCO summit was helpful in advancing India’s objectives and agenda in the Central Asian region to an extent. Yet, India needs to do much more substantially to become a player of some significance in ongoing power play in the region.

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