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India's entry into the SCO may bring it closer to China

By Sana Hashmi
July 06, 2015 13:41 IST
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Narendra Modi with Xi JinpingIt seems China is ready to cooperate with India in the central Asian region through the SCO framework, the reasons for which are manifold, says Sana Hashmi.

Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s foreign policy overtures have been remarkable in the past one year attracting attention of both domestic and international critiques. India’s entry in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and significant presence in the East Asia Summit and G-20 have demonstrated Modi’s comfort level in presenting India’s case at bilateral, regional and multilateral fora.

The 2015 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit, to be held on July 9-10 in Russia will be yet another test case for Modi’s diplomatic skill probing whether he can get New Delhi its due place at the international stage. It may be noted that Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan hold observer status in the grouping. The focus of the summit is likely to be on enlarging the scope of membership and widening economic cooperation, regional connectivity and security issues that make SCO more significant than ever for India.

India achieved observer status at the fifth SCO summit in June 2005, and is now striving for full membership. A formal application for the full-fledged member status was submitted in September 2014 during the last SCO summit. Pakistan’s application for the full membership is also being taken into consideration.

Though India has always showed interest in the grouping, eligibility criteria set for membership led to delays. It is worth mentioning that an applicant country has to meet a few conditionalities before it is accepted as a member. The conditions include: First, the applicant country should be geographically contiguous to one of the SCO members; Second, it should not have United Nations sanctions imposed on it; Third, it should have diplomatic relations with all SCO members; Fourth, it should have the status of an observer or a dialogue partner in the grouping before applying for the full membership; Fifth, it should have active trade, economic and humanitarian linkages with SCO members and; Finally, the applicant country should not be involved in any armed/territorial disputes with either of the member states.

While India has seemingly been active in engaging the SCO and its member countries, such attempts have been feeble to say the least. For instance, while most of the earlier summits witnessed India’s minister of external affairs in attendance, the forthcoming summit will be attended by Modi. Modi’s vigorous moves are complemented by emerging shifts in the grouping also.

For instance, China, which has been reluctant in approving of India’s candidature, is now backing India. China’s assurance to support India’s full membership in the SCO in the joint statement during Modi’s China visit in May is a testimony to that. It seems China is ready to cooperate with India in the central Asian region through the SCO framework, the reasons for which are manifold:

  • First, with the US draw down in Afghanistan, a security vacuum is looming large in the region. Moreover, speculations are rife that the Islamic State is looking for recruits from the central Asian region. Given that central Asian republics, Afghanistan, China, India and Russia are geographically contiguous, vulnerability of the region to such threats is profound. The SCO, if equipped with necessary wherewithal, can play a pivotal role in maintaining security in the region and rebuilding Afghanistan. For the realisation of this objective, counter-terrorism cooperation from the countries of the region is a necessity -- a fact that China is also cognizant of.
  • Second, as of now, India has not extended its support to China’s proposed ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, of which the central Asian region is a key component. While China and Russia’s interests in the central Asian region converge China’s ‘One, Belt, One Road’ is also likely to be combined with Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union to improve the connectivity between Asia and Europe and give a fillip to Russia-China cooperation agenda. It is highly likely that China will use SCO to promote the initiative. For China, to get India’s support for OBOR has become imperative and India’s membership in SCO will work to China’s advantage vis-à-vis OROB.
  • The 2015 SCO summit is likely to coincide with the BRICS Summit, scheduled to be held in Ufa on July 8-9. Though the objectives of the two groupings do not overlap, seemingly, China and Russia are working in tandem to pool the energies of the SCO and BRICS in order to maximise economic benefits and achieve greater regional and inter-regional connectivity.
  • Finally, China is anxious of India being used as a counterweight against China especially in the context of changing security dynamics in the South China Sea, rising bonhomie with Japan and the US. China is aware of the fact that the inclusion of India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia in the SCO will not be akin to the US’ interest. China is aware that the US exclusion and India’s inclusion in the SCO will open up avenues for greater engagement between the two Asian giants and possibly blunt US’ ‘pivot’to Asia. Moreover, the inclusion of more members would add credibility to the stature of the grouping regionally as well as globally.

India’s full membership to the grouping is vital considering that it aspires to extend its reach to the central Asian region. India’s pursuit to connect with the region is a reflection of its ever-growing interest in the region. The time is ripe to add substance to India’s desire to play a constructive role in the heart of Asia.

To reinforce New Delhi’s commitment to the region, Modi would be paying state visits to the five central Asian countries this month. Modi’s subsequent visits to central Asia would also provide India with an opportunity to engage the countries of the region in a systematic fashion and advance India’s ‘connect central Asia’ policy.

That, of course, comes with the caveat that New Delhi has to overcome the diplomatic and perceptional pessimism that might creep in with China-Pakistan bonhomie and Pakistan’s entry in the grouping.

Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in last July. Photograph: PTI

Sana Hashmi is associate fellow, Centre for Airpower Studies.


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