The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is a unique plurilateral grouping that holds two summits a year, one at the Heads of State and the other at the Heads of Government level. India will host the Heads of Government summit on November 30, following Moscow’s hosting of the former summit on November 10 — both conducted virtually. This will be India’s first time as host of a major SCO conference, having joined it as a full member in 2017.
SCO holds special fascination for India as the host nation. The grouping comprises India’s strategic partner and friend, Russia, two adversarial neighbours — China and Pakistan — and four important Central Asian Republics (CARs) — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. A rare blend of history, geopolitics, cultural, civilisational and economic imperatives connect India to Central Asia. New Delhi has a clear three-pronged policy approach — deepen ties with Russia; monitor and counter the influence of China and Pakistan; and expand cooperation with CARs. The Heads of State summit released a 19-page-long Moscow Declaration. It covers political and security issues; trade and economic cooperation; cultural, humanitarian and public exchanges; and international contacts. What, then, is left for the Council of Heads of Government to do at its November 30 meeting? This is the second-highest organ of SCO, with a dual mandate to decide on budgetary matters and devise details of economic cooperation.
The lack of adequate connectivity with the CARs has been a major constraint for India, especially due to Chinese dominance through the Belt and Road Initiative and a thick cheque book. So it is necessary to conceive creative measures that enable India Inc to expand its footprint in the region’s markets.
Accordingly, India’s economic diplomacy in SCO is focused less on Russia, China and Pakistan and more on CARs. India’s trade with them rose from $1.4 billion in 2017-18 to $2.7 billion in 2019-20. So did investment by India’s private and public sector companies — in gold mining, uranium, power and agro-processing. But a better performance is desirable through new steps.
First, the country’s start-up companies should be encouraged to lead the charge for creating new linkages. According to Niti Aayog, India is now “the third-largest tech start-up globally”, with 38,756 officially recognised start-ups. At SCO, India has proposed setting up a special working group on innovation and start-ups. Second, traditional medicine is of considerable interest to the region. As a leader in the field, India is ready to collaborate with interested parties. A working group on this theme has also been proposed so that, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi put it, “the knowledge of traditional and ancient medicine is spread across SCO countries and the headway in contemporary medicine” can complement it. The third measure is to encourage cooperation in the micro, small and medium enterprises sector in agriculture, energy, education, pharmaceuticals and information communication technology. Fourth, given the salience of Buddhist connections, priority should be accorded to tourism. The SCO Heads of State have already expressed their admiration for India’s joint digital exhibition on Shared Buddhist Heritage, which runs from this month till next February in New Delhi.
Fifth, a granular dialogue on a trade and investment promotion programme is essential through sectoral working groups of the SCO Business Council. Hosting of the SCO Business Conclave by FICCI on November 23 was a welcome step. A final suggestion – the SCO Secretariat should overcome its exclusive reliance on Russian and Chinese languages. Having admitted India and Pakistan as members, the grouping should include English as a working language. This will ensure smooth communication and ready availability of documentation. India Inc aims to focus on practical and targeted steps. Its goal is to connect the past of Central Asia and India to their present and future. The sweep of medieval history will then join the 21st century to bring prosperity to both regions.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House. He is a scholar-diplomat who served as India’s Ambassador in five countries.
This article was originally published in Hindustan Times.