India’s SCO Membership: A Mutually Beneficial Partnership – OpEd

By Ashok Sajjanhar*

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will be holding its 16th Summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan between June 23 and 24, 2016. India along with Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia became Observers to the Organisation at its 5th Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan in 2005. At the twin BRICS and SCO Summits held in Ufa, Russia in July, 2015 it was decided to admit India (and Pakistan) as full members.

Over the last several years India had made it known subtly that it would be interested in playing a more substantive role in development of the organisation. It was also felt by most members, particularly Russia and Kazakhstan, that the organisation and individual countries would benefit hugely from India’s active association with the Institution.

India’s membership will be a win-win proposition for the organization as also for all members of the organization. Central Asia comprises the extended neighbourhood of India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accorded high priority to India’s neighbourhood since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power two years ago. He recognized the importance of Central Asia and became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit all five Central Asian States in July 2015. This has enthused the leaderships of these countries to strengthen partnership with India.

In spite of historical, cultural and civilisational links with Central Asia, India has not been able to realize the full potential of this partnership because of infrequent meetings between leaders of India and Central Asia, as also due to absence of common physical borders between India and these countries. India’s membership of SCO will ensure that its leadership will meet and interact with leaders of Central Asia as also of Russia, China, Afghanistan and others to advance bilateral relations.

To obviate the lack of direct land connectivity with Central Asia, and Pakistan’s refusal to provide access through its territory, India is actively collaborating to develop the Iranian seaport of Chabahar with possible financial and technical support from Japan. India has also prioritized the construction of the International North-South Transport Corridor. India has allocated USD 150 million for developing Chabahar.

Security is an area in which India and SCO can collaborate to mutual benefit. Terrorism and radicalisation are two of the most serious challenges that confront the region and international community today. The continuing instability in Afghanistan, rising strength and reach of Taliban, expanding presence of Islamic State (IS), potential threat from Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, etc. make it incumbent that all countries collaborate and work together to defeat these scourges. India has an exemplary track record in dealing with these challenges over the last many years. It can share its experience and best practices with SCO members. All members can share intelligence to repel and defeat these forces.

India’s presence in SCO will help to advance deliberations on Afghanistan and get an expeditious regional solution to deal with the Taliban and promote peace and security. Economic cooperation will be mutually advantageous for all concerned. India is the fastest expanding major economy today with GDP growth of 7.5%. Its huge market would be of immense interest to SCO members. India’s proposed membership of Eurasian Economic Union will provide further energy to this partnership. India’s strength in textiles, information technology, medium and small industry, pharmaceuticals, agriculture etc will stand the region in good stead. India’s presence in the proposed SCO Free Trade Area will be a positive contribution to the grouping.

India is an energy-deficient country. Central Asia and Russia are extremely well endowed with fossil fuels including oil, gas and coal as well as uranium and hydro-electric power. India’s rapidly expanding energy needs will provide a stable and assured market. Commencement of construction of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline in Dec, 2015 is a long overdue step in the right direction.

Some analysts aver that since SCO and its predecessor were established to settle borders between neighbouring states and have been successful in achieving these objectives, induction of India and Pakistan will enable SCO to get involved in settling their border dispute. This appears to be mere wishful thinking. It is unlikely that membership of India and Pakistan will provide any leverage to SCO in resolution of their bilateral dispute till Pakistan decides to abjure the use of terrorism against India as an instrument of its foreign policy. Similarly the India-China border dispute can be resolved only through bilateral discussions between the two states.

The process of India’s accession to SCO has not been straight forward and smooth. It is no secret that China was reluctant, if not outright hostile to India’s membership of SCO. China introduced several obstacles due to which it took five years from 2009 to 2014 to decide on inducting new members. It can only be hoped that China will not put any further roadblocks in India’s path in the coming month.

*Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar is a former Indian Ambassador and is currently the President of Institute for Global Studies, New Delhi. He can be reached at: asajjanhar@gmail.com


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