The Shanghai Cooperation Organization looks all set to open its doors to India as well as three other countries – Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan. India, like Pakistan, currently enjoys the status of observer in this influential strategic grouping – projected as a counter to NATO. India has for long indicated its willingness to join the SCO, but received little support from China, which alongwith Russia is among the two main powers behind the group. That position has changed over the last few months following the meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi in Brazil ahead of the BRICS summit, as well as India’s acquiescence to China’s bid to host the headquarters of the New Development Bank. While it has not been openly declared, it is likely that India’s inclusion in the expanded SCO is a trade-off for its stance vis-a-vis the NDB.
The inclusion of India as a full member will have multiple benefits – for India as well as the SCO which is concerned with security and stability in the Eurasian space. India’s presence will help moderate the anti-West bias of the grouping, which will calm Washington’s nerves to a considerable extent. Greater engagement with India will also aid the organisation’s capability to improve regional economic prosperity and security.
However, India will have to balance the geopolitical ambitions of China and Russia to evolve a mutually beneficial framework.
Membership will give India an opportunity to play an active role in China’s Silk Road initiative which plans to link a new set of routes from the north and east of the country to an old network of routes in the greater Eurasian region. Russia has already been invited to be a part of this initiative. The network of roads will help promote regional integration as well as develop coordination to fight problems of extremism.
India has long historical and cultural ties with countries in the Central Asia region but economic relations lack substance – a gap that membership in the SCO could help address by opening up avenues for trade in the region. China has substantial investments in the development of infrastructure and pipelines in Central Asia. There is talk of establishing a north south transport corridor from Russia to India and pipelines from Russia to India through China. India can become a part of such initiatives. There are already frameworks like the Russia-India-China (RIC) triangle and BRICS, in which India works closely with China and Russia to address issues of global importance.
India’s entry is also likely to tip the balance of power in favor of peace and stability in Afghanistan. India, like Russia and China, is at the receiving end of religious extremism, and all three countries will want to avoid the possibility of Afghanistan sliding into further chaos after the U.S. drawdown. India’s membership will help strengthen secular politics in the Eurasian space. The Muslim-majority Central Asian countries have shunned religious extremism as a state policy and professed secularism in their constitutions. Despite inroads by extremist elements from Afghanistan, these countries have resisted the onslaught, and some like Kazakhstan have promulgated special laws to fight terrorism. Like India, China and Russia are multi-ethnic and pluralistic countries. The organisation will become better equipped in terms of sharing intelligence and developing a common framework to fight extremism – the kind emanating from Pakistan and Afghanistan, or from the Middle East, particularly the ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The challenges, however, are daunting. It is naïve to expect that India’s differences with China regarding the border or its ties with Pakistan will magically disappear. The inclusion of Pakistan in the SCO will also make it difficult for India to enjoy a level playing field. Pakistan, which is embroiled in a domestic political crisis, may not be so willing to challenge hardliners in its country, and go along with India in promoting peace and stability in the Eurasian space. The clash of interests in a post -2014 Afghanistan makes prospects of cooperation difficult. There is also a possibility that China may collude with Pakistan to suffocate India’s voice in the decision making process.
Challenges aside, the importance of the SCO cannot be emphasised enough for India. It covers almost 60% of the total Eurasian landmass, including some of the leading energy-rich nations – holding out immense economic and political potential for India.
Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is an Indian commentator. His areas of interests include conflict, terrorism, peace and development, South Asia, and strategic aspects of Eurasian politics.
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