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17 December 2020, Gateway House

India’s intricate Central Asian play

India hosted the SCO summit on 30 November. Fueling its diplomatic drive is the region’s strategic importance and an enhancced focus on Central Asia with its strong civilizational, cultural and emotional bonds with India. Despite the daunting regional challenges, old and new, a seat at the SCO table strengthens India's hand in shaping the grouping’s - and region’s - future.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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Of the six summits in which Indian leaders participated during November 2020,[1] the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Heads of Government, held on 30 November, was the only one hosted by India. Therefore, it attracted the attention of Indian industry and the strategic community, despite their limited interest in Central Asia. This summit largely focused on economic cooperation.[2] Four Central Asian Republics (CARs) – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – are members of the SCO, together with the other players – China, Russia, India, and Pakistan. With this polarisation, SCO necessarily needs India to adopt a delicate and calibrated approach.

Latest research and conversations with area experts established that New Delhi’s defensive-assertive strategy for promoting its interests has produced some good results, although daunting challenges persist.

The SCO’s adverse strategic context for India is apparent: China and Pakistan – the key adversarial neighbours – are engaged in challenging this nation’s determined effort to nurture ties with the CARs. Russia, which was instrumental in India’s entry into the grouping, continues to be a positive partner, but its deepening dependence on China has become a serious concern for Delhi. The lack of progress on connectivity, especially through the Chabahar Port in Iran, is a further frustration. But what fuels India’s diplomatic drive is the recognition of the region’s strategic importance; the CARs’ strong civilizational, cultural and emotional bonds with India; and South Block’s assessment that a place at the SCO table strengthens its hand in shaping the grouping’s – and region’s – future.

This mindset influenced the preparatory phase, summit deliberations and their outcome. A new protocol innovation was to request the Vice President of India to chair the conference attended by six prime ministers and a representative of the Pakistani Prime Minister. Vice President Venkaiah Naidu’s speech[3] was crafted with special care to project India’s key achievements and concerns – and to be blunt. Without naming China and Pakistan, the Vice President cited attempts to deliberately bring bilateral issues into SCO as a violation of its charter. “Such acts are counterproductive to the spirit of consensus and cooperation that define the SCO as an organisation.” India, in contrast, he stressed, was committed “to take our cooperation with SCO to new heights by playing a proactive, positive and constructive role in the organisation.”[4]

The ‘assertive’ part of India’s strategy focused on fresh ideas and specific, well-defined proposals for cooperation with the CARs[5] within the SCO framework. At least six proposals were framed especially on the economy, innovation and technology, pursued and entered into the summit’s joint communique for future action. Their inclusion, however, has been couched in the grouping’s characteristic bureaucratic jargon. India’s ideas on startups and MSMEs have also been included in the SCO’s medium-term strategy.

India will now be able to host an annual meeting of a special working group on startups and innovation as well as the SCO Startup Forum. This can help engage the CARs with the startup revolution, currently unfolding in India. The MSME sector is another area of cooperation, where a special working group proposed by India will be established.[6] Traditional medicine too has possibilities, to be pursued actively through the proposed expert working group on it, under the SCO health ministers. The Ministry of External Affairs and the national industry body, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), working in tandem, will accelerate the momentum on these issues in the coming months.

Other proposals such as enhanced interaction among the youth, economic think tanks, experts engaged in the domain of science and technology, and the promotion of age-old Buddhist linkages[7] have also been incorporated in the SCO agenda. Rusty linkages mean they will require time and sustained endeavours to show results. Success will depend on India persuading Central Asia about tangible benefits for the region’s people.

The challenges are as large as the opportunities: First, the joint communique contained no reference to counter terrorism measures, even though the opening session had resounding denunciation of international terrorism by the host, India. Second, support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative was voiced by the seven member-states – except India, as in the past.

India can transcend the SCO by exercising other options to protect its interests – developing close cooperation with the CARs through an institutional mechanism that restricts interaction between them and India only, and the bilateral platform. The former, for instance, comprises the India-Central Asia Dialogue (comprising the four CARs and Turkmenistan), which held a session at the level of foreign ministers in October 2020 and the previous one in Samarkand in January 2019.

This dialogue aims to give a fillip to economic ties. It will be facilitated by India’s provision of $1 billion as concessional credit for development projects in connectivity, energy, IT, healthcare, education and agriculture.[8] In addition is the High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP) initiative, which worked in Afghanistan. It has been offered to the Central Asian states and is designed for participation in the areas of livelihood and income generation, health, education, gender and child empowerment, sports and sustainable development. Finally, the India-Central Asia Business Council (ICABC) was launched, with FICCI serving as India’s representative on it.

The bilateral channels too are adequately active. PM Modi’s virtual summit with Shavkat Mirziyoyev, President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, on 11 December was a step in the right direction. The focus was on strengthening economic cooperation through new measures such as the proposed establishment of an Uzbek-Indian free pharmaceutical zone in the Andijan region. Development cooperation, facilitated through a line of credit of $448 million for four projects on road construction, sewage treatment and information technology.[9] Similar interactions with other CARs will surely follow.

India’s enhanced focus on the Central Asian region, backed by its deployment of all practical means to raise the level and diversity of the relationship, comes none too soon. It is a credible approach, considering the challenges, old and new, including those presented by the pandemic, in 2020.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former ambassador. He comments regularly on multilateral groupings, including the SCO. 

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[1] Rajiv Bhatia, ‘India’s season of summiteering’, Gateway House, 29 October 2020.

[2] Rajiv Bhatia, ‘How India can benefit from SCO’, Hindustan Times, 25 November 2020.

[3] ‘Opening Remarks by Hon’ble Vice President at the SCO Council of Heads of Government Meeting on 30’, Ministry of External Affairs, 30 November 2020.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bhatia, Rajiv, Sifra Lentin, and Ambika Khanna ‘India and the SCO in the 21st Century’, Gateway House, 12 November 2020.

[6]The joint communique noted that special working groups proposed by India and other member-states were “an effective tool for promoting trade and economic cooperation within the SCO” and, therefore, it was considered “important to ensure their consideration in established order. ‘Joint Communique following the nineteenth meeting of the Council of Heads of Governments (Prime Ministers) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Member States’, Ministry of External Affairs, 30 November 2020.

[7] Lentin Sifra, ‘India and the SCO: Bound by Buddism’, Gateway House, 12 November 2020.

[8] ‘Joint Statement of the 2nd meeting of the India-Central Asia Dialogue’, Ministry of External Affairs, 28 October 2020.

[9] For details, see ‘Joint Statement on India-Uzbekistan Virtual Summit: Close Friendship, Strong Partnership’, Ministry of External Affairs. 11 December 2020.