Politics and diplomacy make strange bedfellows. A cliché, perhaps, but a truism too, and one that was on open display in Kazakhstan as both India and Pakistan entered the China — and Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as full-blown members.
If you just did a double take at this list of unlikely partners, you wouldn’t be alone. The inclusion of two sparring neighbours into a grouping led by India’s regional nemesis is enough to make any head turn and ask whether individual nations will be able to leave aside bilateral differences for the greater good, or whether, like SAARC, cooperation here too will become hostage to the India-Pakistan dispute. The main difference of course is that at the SCO, India isn’t the primary power. It also begs the obvious question today — just how does India plan to manage its open opposition to China’s mega Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the international cooperation that is expected at this forum? India made its opposition to China’s attempts at regional hegemony extremely clear last month by officially boycotting a recent conference in Beijing to discuss the BRI’s scope and influence.
The BRI’s China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, and Delhi’s position is uncompromising because of questions of territorial sovereignty. Confusing diplomatic signals further, India finds itself in an unusual spot — of deepening security and military alliances with the United States while also joining forces with both of America’s biggest military and strategic rivals, Russia and China. The prospects of what this could mean for future joint military exercises, and how India will manage this diplomatic tightrope, are mind boggling to say the least.
India’s entry into the SCO, which originated as the Shanghai Five at the turn of the century essentially to settle border disputes between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, has been long coming. Once the border disputes were settled, the Shanghai Five expanded into its current form, essentially as a security organisation aimed at a) providing stability in the region in the face of violent ethnic conflicts and terrorism, and b) keeping in check the Americans, who had used their invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 in 2001 to forge bilateral security arrangements with many Central Asian republics. But for the regional grouping to stick together, just common security challenges for two of its biggest players wasn’t enough. Together, the SCO’s member states that cover 60 percent of the Eurasian landmass are an energy powerhouse, and security and economic interests naturally converged.
Enter India. Admitted in 2005 as an observer along with Iran and Pakistan, Delhi has been consistently seeking the full membership it was granted yesterday in order to safeguard its economic and security interests in and with Central Asia. And China’s backing of Pakistan which also entered as an observer has ensured the same for its all-weather friend.
Delhi regards Central Asia as part of India’s extended neighbourhood — Prime Minister Modi was the first Indian leader to visit all five ‘Stans’ early on in office to drive home their primacy for India. But as has become a pattern with Indian foreign policy lately, there was more style than substance. (India failed to send a representative to Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s funeral in 2016, much to their alarm and disappointment). SCO membership gives India a chance to revive, or rather, really begin that interaction.
But world politics since 2005 has taken many twists and turns. India-Pakistan ties are worse than ever before. Even worse than in 2015, when Prime Ministers Modi and Sharif met at the SCO summit in Ufa, and decided to attempt a resumption of bilateral dialogue. Pathankot, Uri and the continuing unrest in the Kashmir Valley have become reasons for zero interaction and loud calls for Pakistan’s isolation globally. Sino-Indian ties too are at an all-time low. Border incursions and ensuing rhetoric are one part of the problem. The other is that India is the only SCO member that is not part of Belt and Road Initiative that aims to revive the old silk route and create networks of economic connectivity throughout Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Analysts now argue that the apparent contradiction in its position notwithstanding, SCO membership could work to legitimise any commercial benefits to India via trade and infrastructure projects with its member states, even if they may occur under the BRI. The trade and transit routes it hopes to use for Russia and China pass through the Central Asian Republics and are also a part of the BRI. The question is whether India, working both together and separately, will be able to use its presence in the SCO as a counterweight to China’s growing clout in its backyard and pursue its own regional interests.
Given these strained equations, all eyes were on the Astana meeting. Modi and Sharif exchanged nothing but pleasantries even though they could have used the forum to thaw some ice. But the meeting between Modi and Xi was perhaps much more critical. After the ratcheting up of rhetoric on everything from Tibet to regional hegemony, stabilising ties with Beijing is paramount if India’s interests are to be maintained at the SCO. In May, even though the Chinese Foreign Ministry had dismissed the remarks, major newspaper editorials in Beijing, much to India’s alarm, suggested China could mediate between India and Pakistan in the interest of regional growth, with the BRI as the engine of both growth and friendship. Russia and China have both expressed hope that India and Pakistan will follow the SCO’s charter.
True to type, PM Modi’s speech in Astana while accepting SCO membership was targeted as much at his alliance partners as it was to domestic audiences — talking about connectivity while identifying terrorism and radicalisation as key threats and seeking SCO unity in dealing with them.
But with the massive scope for connectivity, regional security and economic cooperation with two of the world’s biggest powers, Delhi would do well to remember unequivocally, that the SCO is not another SAARC, and its member states will most likely not sit by and watch their agenda hijacked by a bilateral dispute. Delhi will also need to step up to its role as a regional player and use the opportunity to show it can rise above its own differences with major powers in the region in the interest of growth and stability, and stay the course in the face of the flux in global geopolitics.