The Shanghai Cooperation Organization was established (2001) to enhance multilateral cooperation in general and for strategic and economic in particular. The upcoming Qingdao SCO Summit (9-10 June, 2018) is anticipated to revisit the Shanghai Spirit i.e., enhancing good neighborly relations through strengthening the solidarity and mutual trust. But the irony is that the SCO has become a regional platform, wherein its members have been exhibiting opposite and contradictory views on various identified areas of cooperation. China, Pakistan, and Russia are popularly known as the ‘Trilateral Axis’, whereas on the other hand- India and the US. However, the US could not find any place in the SCO and, thus, it seems that India stands alone in the same. Moreover, given the myriads of bilateral and regional issues, it seems that upcoming Summit 2018, probably prove as a geopolitical Gordian knot for India?
SCO: Genesis and Rationale
The SCO is a geopolitical and geostrategic pan-Eurasian organization, came into existence through the ‘Shanghai Five’. The Shanghai Five was established under the two treatise – the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions (26 April 1996) and the Treaty on Reduction of Military Forces in Border Regions (24 April 1997). With the entry of Uzbekistan (2001), the Shanghai Five was rechristened as Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It is comprised of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan (1996) and Uzbekistan (2001). During the SCO Summit (Astana 2017), India and Pakistan have also been admitted as permanent members. With the inclusion of India and Pakistan, the SCO has become one of the major regional organizations in terms of not only demography, geography rather in the economy as well. This argument can be substantiated by the Mackinder, “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904), i.e., the most important part of the world in terms of geography and the geo-strategy. Also, Seiple (2004) has called this region as, “the greatest natural fortress on earth.”
Gate (May 4, 2001) has argued in one of his commentaries that the main rationale behind the establishment of the SCO was given the aggressive American foreign policy towards Asia particularly under President Bill Clinton (20 January 1993 – 20 January 2001) and President George W Bush (2001-2009). The airstrikes on Iraq, which were not approved by all the UNSC, had alarmed the emerging two powers like Russia and China. Economic sanctions, deployment of troops, quitting of the Kyoto Treaty, knocking down of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, refusal of talks with North Korea etc. were some of the strategic postures on part of the US, that have been denting the dream of Russia and Chinese’s multipolar world.
Internally, the region has also been pestered by some geopolitical and geostrategic issues like the exponential growth of terrorism, separatism, fundamentalism and of course New Great Game. In this backdrop, China had asked Russia and Central Asian neighboring countries’ support to protect stability, security and promote unity, integrity, and sovereignty against the separatist movements not only of per se rather the entire region through the regional organization –SCO.
In the beginning, the of SCO is committed to rooting out the terrorism, fundamentalism, and secessionism. However, during the Dushanbe Summit (2008), some other areas of cooperation have been identified like stand against the intervention by the external powers in the internal affairs in general and on the pretexts of ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘protecting human rights in particular.
India and SCO
Since the inception of the SCO, India has been trying to be a permanent member. India has been taken on board as an observer in the SCO (2005). Now the question is, why India has been trying to get engaged in the SCO? The first motivation is to get engaged with the SCO, is the Eurasian region rich in the mineral resources and untapped market. India has also been sharing common concerns like terrorism, fundamentalism, secessionism, and human and drug trafficking with the region.
Prima facie, it has been argued that the SCO was established for regional cooperation, but the West has alleged that it has come into existence to counter the US strategic influence in the Eurasian region. It is also argued that the SCO was established out of the geopolitical manoeuvers. In order to counter China, Russia had supported India’s membership. On the other hand, China made India’s membership conditional, subjected to the Pakistan membership. However, Russia and China came to an understanding that both India and Pakistan should join the SCO as permanent members. In SCO Summit (Astana 2017), both India and Pakistan joined the SCO as permanent members.
Additionally, it has been anticipated that the 21st century would be Asian Century. In the Asian Century, both China and India have been at loggerheads for the Asian leadership. PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s (1998 to 2004) argument for its nuclear tests given the strategic posture of China, substantiate the view of bilateral competition in the Asian politics. Moreover, both countries have been trying to expand their strategic influence in each other’s backyard.
SCO Summit 2018: A Geopolitical Gordian Knot for India?
The upcoming SCO 18th Summit (Qingdao) would be chaired by the Chinese President Xi Jinping. In his press briefings, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang pointed that the leaders of SCO member and observer countries, chiefs of various international organizations likely to attend the Summit. In order to execute the 18th Summit (2018) successfully, various preparatory meetings at various levels covering political, economic, security, justice, terrorism issues etc. have been organized.
In the electronic and print media, there is an anticipation of the issue of the Qingdao Declaration. The statement of the Chinese Foreign Minister clearly indicates that the Qingdao Declaration will revisit the Shanghai Spirit i.e., good-neighborliness friendship, mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, long-term multifaceted cooperation among the SCO member. In order to implement the provisions of the declaration, a three-year action plan would likely to be signed by the member countries.
Since the Eurasian region is highly infested by the three evils – terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Thus, from a security point of view, along with the terrorism, separatism, extremism, cybercrime and drug trafficking will also figure prominently in the Summit Agenda. Documents related to economic, humanitarian and many other areas will be signed. According to the Chinese Diplomat to Belarus, “China attaches great importance to the effective integration of the Silk Road Economic Belt with the Eurasian Economic Union. There are certain difficulties…. including of the participating states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, will be effectively implemented.” The statement clearly indicates that that OBOR project again would figure prominently in the Summits’ deliberations.
The SCO has organized about 160 preparatory meetings of various level for the upcoming SCO Summit 2018. The SCO Ministerial Meeting took place in April 2018 in Beijing. The same was attended by the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. However, no bilateral meetings took place between Indian and Pakistan respective ministers. The 13th meeting of the SCO National Security Council Secretaries was held in Beijing (21-22 May 2018), which was attended by India’s Deputy National Security Adviser Rajinder Khanna. Likewise, various other meetings were held, in which Indian delegations took part. The SCO Summit would likely to be attended by Indian PM Narendra Modi.
It has made crystal clear that the SCO has been highly overladen by the geopolitical maneuvers. There are many divergent issues likely to be discussed in the summit on which India may not find per se convergent. These issues may include terrorism and OBOR. India has already been registered its objections to the President Xi’s ambitious project OBOR. CPEC is another serious issue for India, which is a major part of the OBOR. Except for India, rest of all other countries have extended their strong support to these project.
What is the meaning of the SCO for India? Would it facilitate India to achieve its strategic and geopolitical goals in the Eurasian region? For this, one has to understand, how SCO is overladen by geopolitical maneuverings? Russia and China are the major dominant players of the SCO. The US is one of the factors for their convergences. Notwithstanding their convergences, Russia and China are also geopolitical competitors, which has been substantiated by the entry of India and Pakistan on a conditional basis.
The bird’s eye view of the relations between India on the one hand, and Russia, China and Pakistan on the other, clearly indicate that India is among the estranged partners. Despite their good economic cooperation, Indo-China relations have been haunted by boundary dispute, the 1962 War, divergent positions on Tibet, Kashmir etc. The list of bilateral irritants is further inflated with the inclusion of serious issues like South China Sea issues, String of Pearls Strategy, OBOR, CPEC, competition for Asian leadership, strategic forays in each other’s backyard etc. These are some of the issues that have dented their bilateral relations.
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russo-India relations have not been on the even keel as in the Cold War. Given the breakdown of the USSR and its economy, India had reoriented its Western world policy. India has become a strong partner of the US, perhaps given the China factor and disintegration of the USSR. From estrange partners, India-US have become strong strategic partners. It has been corroborated by strong strategic cooperation including the nuclear deal, the General Security Of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and R&D in joint equipment production. During the last one decade, trade, energy, industry, research and development cooperation have seen the exponential growth. Irked by this, perhaps Russia’s India policy has undergone a paradigmatic shift. During the BRICS Summit (Goa), both India and Russia have been remained divergent on the terrorism issue particularly in respect of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even when India urged Russia to cancel its military exercise with Pakistan soon after a terrorist attack in the former’s territory, was also ignored by the latter. On the other hand, Pakistan which was bête noire for Russia till date has turned into a strong strategic partners.
Terrorism and boundary issues are critical factors between India and Pakistan. The International Border is turbulent. All the Confidential Building Measures (CBMs) have been jammed. On the other, boundary issue, OBOR, CPEC, leadership competition, military modernization, nuclearization are some of the issues, that have been putting India and China at the loggerheads. The US factor in Indo-Russia relations has been putting India into a tightrope walk. It clearly indicates that Russia, China, and Pakistan had emerged as dominant partnership particularly in the SCO, whereas India has been put in marginalized mode. How with these divergent stands on haunting issues, India and trilateral axis can think of good neighborly relations and would these issues would remain major geopolitical Gordian knots for India to be with the estranged partners in SCO?
Qingdao Declaration could achieve good neighborly relations, if regional geopolitics, the difference in respect of terrorism and fighting strategy, the bilateral and regional irritants, mutual distrust and mistrust and turbulent international borders (Indo-Pak), would be taken care of. The trilateral axis members and India have been on different notes on the issues likely to emerge in the agenda of SCO Summit (8-9 June 2018). Divided SCO would fall and united it can succeed. Had Russia, China, India, and Pakistan united stand, the good neighborly relations, peace, prosperity, stability, overall development would search the SCO. Thus, SCO has the potential to change the existing world order, neo-economic order and can restrict the role of external power/s in the region provided the member countries remain on one board.
How can India remain onboard as an active member of the SCO? For that, India needs to re-strategize its foreign policy and may be reciprocated by the other member countries to overcome mistrust and distrust to open the internal existing geopolitical Gordian knots and make the SCO as the successful regional organization.
*Dr. Bawa Singh is teaching at the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India.