SCO Summit: An Analysis
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The 22nd Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) took place in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on 15 September 2022. This was the first in-person event since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Summit took place against the backdrop of tumultuous geopolitical flux, including the war in Ukraine. The main focus of the Summit was on strengthening regional cooperation and trade connectivity in Eurasia.
Also, during this summit, India took over the rotating presidency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. During this summit, member states discussed global challenges and threats, including the Russia-Ukraine conflict, challenges of economic recovery, obstacles in global supply chains, and energy and food crises.
The SCO member states include Russia, China, Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, along with India and Pakistan. While Turkmenistan is not a member due to its policy of neutrality, it continues to be a permanent invitee. The organization also has several observer states such as Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia, apart from dialogue partners such as Nepal, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Sri Lanka, amongst others. The SCO is the largest regional organization in Eurasia. Its members encompass one-quarter of the Earth’s surface and 40 per cent of the world’s population (Map 1). They also contribute one-third of the world's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).'
Map 1: Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Member States
The SCO’s predecessor, the Shanghai Five Organisation, established in 1995, initially consisted of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Its primary purpose was to settle border disputes between China and the Central Asian Republics. Russia was a part of this organisation mainly due to its strong influence on the former Soviet states. With the addition of Uzbekistan, the Shanghai Five morphed into the SCO in 2001. Thus, The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was established in 2001.
Over the years, the organisation’s role has evolved from resolving border disputes to addressing regional security and economic concerns. Recently, there have been debates on environmental issues as well.
The Organisation seeks to promote ‘Confidence Building, Good Neighbourliness and Friendship, Develop and Strengthen Political and Economic Cooperation, Maintain Peace and Security in the region, Combat Terrorism, Human Trafficking and Protect the Stability of Member States’.
Since inception, SCO’s first expansion took place in 2017, with the inclusion of India and Pakistan as permanent members. The group is due to expand further with incorporation of Iran as a permanent member in 2023.
India and SCO
India became SCO’s observer state in 2005. The first sign of India’s “readiness to enhance its engagement with the SCO” came in the year 2010 in the Tashkent Summit when its members “lifted the moratorium on new membership and paved the way for expansion of this regional grouping”. However, the doubts on the “rules and procedures” for expansion of this (SCO) body” continued. It is only when “SCO finalized procedures for taking in new members” that India could submit its “formal application for the full membership of the SCO” in 2014.
India applied for full membership of SCO with various geostrategic, security and economic considerations. These considerations include “the evolving security situation in Afghanistan, capacity building in the central Asian region, connectivity with the Eurasian region, counter-terrorism and anti-narcotics, and energy cooperation.” SCO, as a platform for discussion, can elevate trust and cooperation between India and the other SCO members. Thus, this regional organisation can help serve India’s geostrategic, security and economic interests in the Eurasian region better.
Samarkand Summit 2022
Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s cultural capital, hosted the annual Summit this year. The major highlight of the Summit was the nomination of Varanasi as the first SCO Tourism and Cultural Capital (2022–23). The organisation also welcomed Maldives, Myanmar, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain as dialogue partners. Meanwhile, Belarus's initiation of permanent membership also took place during this summit.
In his remarks, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed on the efforts needed to bring about stability in a changing world. He also highlighted the need to prevent colour revolutions, apart from highlighting SCO’s potential to promote peace and be a net security provider. This was seen as a show of support to Russia and a signal to the West to shield Central Asia from perceived Western machinations.
Iran's addition to the permanent membership of the organisation would strengthen its energy security, given its proximity to the world's largest hydrocarbon fields in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted the organisation’s potential of being a counterweight to the West. He also focused on food security and the contribution that Russia could make, particularly in the field of fertilizers and grain exports.
Notably, the Samarkand Summit differed from last year's Dushanbe Summit, as the focus of the previous summit was mainly on Afghanistan and regional security. This was not surprising since the Dushanbe Summit took place against the backdrop of US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
India and Samarkand Summit
Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted the importance of robust connectivity, food security, resilient supply chains and enhanced regional cooperation and trust. He held bilateral meetings with Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
During the meeting with President Mirziyoyev, the two leaders discussed areas of cooperation like trade, economics, connectivity, Afghanistan and terrorism.
Similarly, President Raisi, in his meeting with Prime Minister Modi, urged greater regional connectivity, and stressed on the importance of Chabahar Port, which resonates with India’s vision for the SCO. The two leaders also discussed their shared hopes about a secure and inclusive Afghanistan. India reiterated its continuing support to provide humanitarian assistance to all Afghans.
Prime Minister Modi’s remarks during his meeting with President Vladimir Putin, when he stated ‘today is not an era of war’, stood out.
India reiterated its stand for dialogue and diplomacy for a peaceful end to the Ukraine conflict. The Indian and Russian leaders also focused on cooperation in trade, energy, defence, and fertilizers.
Notably, Russian fertilizer exports to India have risen exponentially since the start of the Ukraine Crisis in February 2022. The possibility of introducing visa-free exchanges between India and Russia was also discussed.
Areas that India emphasized upon
India pressed on the need to address the major disruptions caused to trade, supply chains, food security, and the energy sector as a result of the Ukraine crisis and Covid-19. India’s interests in having stronger supply chains coincide with the country’s ambitions to become a manufacturing hub, which, therefore, requires it to collaborate with the region’s major economies. In this vein, India pressed for transit rights at the summit in order to facilitate stronger supply chains through enhanced connectivity; previously, India has struggled to access Central Asian markets without transit rights across Pakistan’s territory.
India boasts over 70,000 startups today, a number on par with the United States, of which 100 are unicorns—startup companies valued at $1 billion. This experience of ours can be of use to many other SCO members as well. For this, India is going to start a special working group on Startups and Innovation.
India’s SCO Calculus
India's outreach to SCO is anchored in SECURE: Security of Citizens, Economic Development for all, Connecting the Region, Uniting the People, Respect for Sovereignty and Integrity, and Environmental Protection. Moreover, the following positives also flow from India engaging with the SCO.
Access to the region
SCO has the potential to provide India with direct access to Central Asia, a region which is considered to be a part of its extended neighbourhood. It also provides a platform to engage the member states bilaterally.
Access to Resources of Central Asia and Iran
Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan are some of the major energy suppliers in the world, while India is a major energy importer. These countries retain the potential to meet India’s energy security. Meanwhile, Iran is a key pillar of the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which seeks to circumvent Pakistan’s strategic denial of a direct land access between India and Central Asia.
Space for Dialogue on Various Regional Issues
The Eurasia region has been at the epicentre of crucial developments, including Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, and protests in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Resultantly, SCO is vital for India to be a part of conversations linked to these areas of continental interests and concerns because such regional occurrences directly impact India due to their territorial proximity.
Forum for Engagement
The organisation provides a space for India to diplomatically engage even neighbours like China and Pakistan at a time when bilateral relations remain difficult. These meetings could provide an opening to improve relations.
Regardless of the benefits accruing from its SCO membership, India faces several obstacles.
There exists a perception of China calling the economic shots in SCO with all roads leading to and from Beijing, anchored to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Notably, Afghanistan’s willingness to become a part of the BRI via the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would entail direct connectivity for Central Asia to access the Indian Ocean. However, this would likely exclude India due to its objections towards the CPEC. Ultimately, India’s exclusion from any connectivity projects would likely strengthen Chinese regional influence.
India's biggest hindrance in the SCO is the lack of direct land connectivity, with the closest transit route via Pakistan being blocked. Prime Minister Modi’s emphasis on transit rights to ensure connectivity highlights the limitations facing India.
Anti-Terrorism Cooperation Limitation
The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) is an integral part of the SCO as it seeks to build regional counter-terrorism cooperation. However, an inherent limitation of RATS is its narrow focus on tackling threats largely emanating from Central Asia as against South Asia. These include Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HUT).
This had led to a perception of the organisation adopting double standards. The overwhelming focus on terrorism in Eurasia could affect India, as the latter’s main threat of terrorism stems from the Af-Pak region. However, the SCO’s emphasis on creating a unified list of terrorists during the Samarkand Summit could indicate some progress in adopting a common approach.
SCO and Future Prospects for India
Since its admission to the SCO, New Delhi has steadfastly campaigned for the strengthening of collaboration on issues pertaining to regional security, defence, combatting terrorism, the illicit drug trade, etc. India, as the world’s largest democracy, has not only placed its perspectives and vision over these issues but has also been successful in motivating others to support the formation of an inclusive government in Afghanistan and aid the restoration of peace and the economic recovery of the country.
The SCO also gives India the chance to start global and regional counterterrorism measures as well as regional efforts to combat the illicit drug trade, which is currently being utilised by India’s hostile neighbours to do social harm and target its youth. For example, New Delhi can sensitise the SCO member countries not only on Pakistan’s narco-terrorism but also its mindless use of terrorism in the extended neighbourhood of the Eurasian region. In this regard, New Delhi can use SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) to boost cooperation and coordination for combating regional security challenges and information gathering and sharing. RATS maintains a database of terrorists and terror organisations from across its member countries. Furthermore, through joint counterterrorism exercises under RATS, member countries train armed personnel to strengthen their counterinsurgency grid and increase coordination amongst the group. The presence of dreaded global and regional terror outfits, such as the al-Qaeda, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), can be a binding force for SCO member countries to counter these terror outfits for regional peace and security.
India has made serious efforts to promote peace, prosperity, and stability throughout the whole Eurasian area, in general, and amongst the SCO members, in particular, since it gained full membership.
As a loud advocate for regional and transregional connectivity, India may use the SCO to pressure Pakistan to change its position and strategy on tying together Central Asia and South Asia.
Pakistan has previously obstructed India’s interests in the geopolitical, economic, and cultural spheres by refusing to allow connectivity and energy projects such as The Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) Pipeline (TAPI) to pass through its borders. Additionally, India can utilise the SCO to promote the International North-South Transport Corridor and the Chabahar Port Project (INSTC). A trilateral working committee was also established in 2020 by India, Iran, and Uzbekistan to collaborate more closely on the Chabahar port and other connectivity initiatives.
In an era of multilateral and multi-vector foreign policy, SCO can be harnessed to ensure greater harmony amongst the member countries to meet common challenges and geostrategic concerns. So far, Russia and China seem to be in the driver’s seat of SCO; however, India, with its growing regional and global economic clout and strong intellectual capital, has to think in terms of investing its diplomatic capital in evolving SCO’s agenda and progressive programme.
Indian sovereignty is violated by CPEC’s passage across Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which forced India to remain aloof from Belt and Road Initiative.
In order to strengthen its position within the forum, India can also take advantage of its long-standing bilateral ties with Russia, Iran, and the Central Asian Republics (CARs). China pursued imperial goals using the animosity between India and Pakistan. Additionally, it made use of the highly publicised Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to increase its commercial presence in Central Asia, which is strategically situated at the intersection of Asia and Europe. A key BRI initiative, India’s geostrategic, geoeconomic, and security worries have grown.
India can use its age-old relations with Iran, Russia, and the CARs to confront and neutralise the China-Pakistan axis. India and the Eurasian region have a long-standing cultural connection. In addition, its rising economic clout and its young demographics can help boost its position within the grouping. India, for its part, has so far chosen to take the ‘constructivist’ approach that can be leveraged to make the SCO a platform of agreements rather than disagreements.
Despite these challenges, SCO remains a key vector in India’s Eurasian calculus. Moreover, the potential of SCO remains untapped. These include assistance on humanitarian grounds, disaster relief, health, and climate change (an issue affecting the majority of SCO states). At a time when the region remains in flux, it makes more sense to be a part of this organisation rather than outside it.
In a win for the country, India will take over the rotating presidency of the SCO and host the 2023 summit. India is carefully moving its way up the global leadership ladder strategically and diplomatically.
India recognizes the potential that collaboration with SCO members holds for improving India’s trade relations in the region and cementing itself as a reliable trade partner, especially since East Asia is poised to become the new center of development of world economy..
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