India’s path to membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) now seems certain. It is not clear that the Ufa Summit will conclude with the organization admitting both Pakistan and India, but the next step in membership will be taken with Delhi formally being admitted into the SCO structures next year.
But what will this new membership actually mean for India?
The short answer: not much.
An often misunderstood and overblown entity, the SCO was founded in 2001 and evolved from a grouping born out of the end of the Cold War to define China’s western borders. Over time, the grouping discovered a common set of interests in countering terrorism, agreeing broadly on what constitutes terrorist activity and then developed structures to try to counter it collectively.
In reality, the organization has done little in practical terms to counter terrorism, except for holding regular meetings, establishing the unfortunately-achronymed RATS (Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure) center in Tashkent – really just a repository of information of proscribed individuals – and organizing large-scale joint military exercises under the rubric of counter-terrorism. There has been discussion of a number of other entities being created (like an SCO Bank, most recently raised again by the Kyrgyz leadership), as well as an SCO University (a constellation of universities across the member states where students can earn joint degrees), and various other forms of cooperation.
Little has been practically done, however, with the most visible contribution of the SCO being that at least once a year the leaders of the Central Asian countries will have to sit down with each other. This is not, in itself, a bad thing given how toxic relations are between some of the regional leaders. But considering that it appears to be the grouping’s central achievement, there is a somewhat questionable return on investment in the effort.
There is some benefit to this for India. The regular leadership and other meetings around the SCO now means that both Indian and Pakistani officials at a senior level (from Prime Minister and head of state meetings to Health Ministers, Foreign Ministers and Interior Minister meetings) will now have to encounter each other at least once a year, away from the glare of the annual September UN General Assembly meeting. This is not negative as it will provide another neutral forum in which the two rival powers have an opportunity to interact. Participation in RATS may bring some new levels of intelligence sharing, as well as help the others develop counter-terrorism strategies based on India’s long experience of it.
Beyond this, India’s principal benefit from joining the SCO will be geopolitical. It will help bring India closer to China by supporting the only multilateral security entity outside the United Nations that China has both created, is a part of and refuses India entry into. It will also help clarify India’s growing interest in Central Asia – something already highlighted in President Modi’s visit to the five countries on the fringes of his visit to Russia.
This may be the longer-term gain for India. The sometime fractious China-India relationship has been on a broadly positive trajectory for a while, notwithstanding the periodic border spats, thanks to a concerted charm offensive by the Xi Jinping administration. China and India are able to hold constructive conversations on a wide range of issues, from AIIB membership to joint counter-terrorism exercises. The relationship is moving in a positive, though still slightly tentative, direction. Perhaps the principal exchange emerging from India’s accession to the SCO, will be a new push by China to be admitted into SAARC.
The relationship with Central Asia, however, is one of India’s untapped opportunities. Indian soft power already has considerable influence in Central Asia, far more than China. Bollywood movies are much enjoyed, compared with Chinese entertainment, for instance. But it is unclear whether India has really found ways to profit beyond that. In Tajikistan, Indian doctors and military support play an interesting bilateral role, but Indian companies have not participated in the way they should have in the region.
The main problem for India is the physical impediment of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This reality complicates relations, but India has sought to overcome it by developing the Chabahar Port in Iran – an alternative route for Indian products from Central Asia.
The bigger issue is political attention. The Central Asian powers are sandwiched between China and Russia and find themselves increasingly drawn into China’s economic thrall, in the face of a declining Russia to which they are still bound by history and physical and linguistic infrastructure. They constantly seek new partners and India offers an alternative they can appreciate and work with.
India can surely gain from access to Central Asia’s minerals and energy, as also market access to Russia and ultimately Europe. Central Asia is still deeply underdeveloped, offering an entree for Indian construction firms and others. This will require formal support, something that Chinese leaders have long recognized through their regular visits to the region. Indian leaders seem not to have recognized that yet.
SCO membership will go some way towards changing this, though it will still need a concerted effort by New Delhi if India is to capitalize effectively on the opportunity that Central Asia offers. Indian membership of the SCO will undoubtedly be trumpeted as a major change in regional geopolitics; it will only become A reality if India follows through with its offers to Central Asia.
Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute
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