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India in SCO: Opportunities and challenges

June 22, 2016 11:58 IST

It is important the SCO focus strongly on economic development and regional integration that leads to greater benefits for the least developed regions of member-countries, writes Sana Hashmi.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi (7th from left, back row) with heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation member countries, observers and dialogue partners at the summit in Ufa, Russia, on  July 10, 2015. Photograph: PIB.

On June 23-24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to participate in the 16th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, the second time Prime Minister Modi would be in attendance for the SCO summit.

Prior to the 15th SCO summit in Ufa, Russia, in July 2015, the summit used to be attended by India's minister of external affairs. The PM's presence indicates how much importance India has started attaching to the SCO, which is arguably the premier institutional mechanism of the Eurasian region.

The SCO is a regional grouping comprising China, Russia and the four central Asian Republics namely, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This summit holds immense significance as for the first time, the SCO will be expanded to accommodate new countries and make them permanent members of the group.

With both India and Pakistan up for membership, it is evident that the geographical scope of the SCO is going to expand from the Eurasian space to the Indian subcontinent. It may be mentioned that Afghanistan, Iran and Mongolia still retain the status of observer states in SCO.

The SCO was started as the 'Shanghai Five' by China and four post-Soviet states -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The primary objective behind the establishment of Shanghai Five was to 'peacefully resolve the boundary dispute, which existed among China and the five countries and; to ensure stability along the borders'. After the peaceful resolution of the boundary disputes, Uzbekistan was brought into the grouping and the member countries adopted the 'Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism', and rechristened the Shanghai Five as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2001.

In 2005, India was granted the status of observer and in 2014, after nine years, a formal application to become a full-fledged member of the SCO was submitted by India which was accepted by the grouping in the 15th SCO summit. Apart from India, Pakistan was also inducted as the eighth member. However, a few procedures need to be undertaken before the formal induction of these two south Asian countries.

Before going any further, it is noteworthy to highlight the importance of the SCO for India.

First, being one of the most important groupings of the region, membership in the SCO will take India closer to the countries of the central Asian region. Proximity to these countries will allow India to step up its economic, security and, most importantly, energy cooperation with the central Asian members. It might also expedite the construction of TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) pipeline.

Second, one of the major objectives of the SCO has been to fight 'three evils', a term given by the Chinese government to terrorism, separatism and extremism. India's inclusion in the SCO will enable her to gain the support of the countries of the group for tackling the menace of terrorism at the regional level. The SCO has a council to deal with these three evils, known as the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure. From time to time, under the aegis of RATS, member countries engage in counter-terrorism exercises. In October 2015, they held the first-ever joint online counter-terrorism exercise in Xiamen, China.

While the membership in SCO looks promising for India, there are still a few inherent challenges.

First, the focus of the upcoming summit will be on strengthening regional connectivity and it is evident that all other member countries have endorsed China's One Belt, One Road, a key policy to connect trading partners along the ancient Silk Road.

However, India has not yet given its consent to be a part of OBOR. One of India's major concerns has been the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through the disputed territories between India and Pakistan. The proposed corridor will link Kashgar in Xinjiang, China, to the Gwadar port. Being in the SCO, India would not be able to stay out of China’s proposed connectivity and infrastructural projects. India needs to devise a plan which neither hampers the functioning of the grouping nor snub its apprehensions vis-a-vis OBOR and the CPEC.

Second, differences between India and Pakistan on the issue of connecting south Asia with central Asia might hamper the functioning of the SCO as it has halted the growth of south Asia’s own regional organisation -- the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC. Pakistan has not been supportive of India’s attempts to physically link with Afghanistan for trade and humanitarian assistance purposes. Under such circumstances, it would be difficult for India to overcome the 'burden of geography', and make tangible gains in terms of trans-regional connectivity.

While there are still some concerns over the issue of membership, which might slow down the process, it is clear that India’s entry will eventually prove beneficial for other members and the group. For instance, the growth of the SCO is not as satisfactory as other groupings of which China is a major member. For instance, the implementation of the SCO bank is utterly slow, while other China-led initiatives such as Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and BRICS's New Development Bank are growing at a rapid pace.

Keeping in view the necessities of the SCO and its member countries, it is important that the focus be strongly on economic development and regional integration, which leads to greater benefits for the least developed sub-regions of these countries. Trans-national projects on issues such as energy production, infrastructure linkages, human resources development etc are vital in that regard.

On security issues, it is of vital importance that trans-national issues are given due attention. More counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency exercises would be a welcome step. China’s refusal to support India on nabbing the 26/11 terror mastermind Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi did not go down well with the Indian government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already voiced concerns over China's move to veto UN action against Pakistan for releasing Lakhvi. It is highly likely that he would raise the issue again during the SCO summit.

In that context, it is essential that China looks at the issue of terrorism from a broader perspective rather than being too focused on its own domestic challenges. It is equally important for the SCO to change itself with the new geopolitical and economic realities of our times.

The writer is a research scholar at Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Sana Hashmi