India’s Institutional Inclusive Engagement Approach Towards SCO: Takeaways From Theme ‘SECURE-SCO’ – Analysis

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India’s involvement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is of paramount importance in advancing its interests within the region. India can potentially improve regional connectivity, mitigate security concerns, secure access to energy resources, and counterbalance China’s regional influence by virtue of its membership in the SCO.

The convocation of foreign ministers from the eight constituent nations of the SCO in Goa on the 4th and 5th of May in 2023 holds noteworthy geopolitical ramifications. India, being the host nation, accords significant weight to the SCO’s function in enabling multilateral collaboration across diverse domains such as politics, security, economy, and people-to-people interactions within the region. India’s current Chairmanship of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2023, with the theme ‘SECURE-SCO,’ highlights its dedication to enhancing cooperation on regional security, connectivity, defence, counterterrorism, and other critical matters. India’s dual chairmanship of the G-20 and the SCO requires a careful balancing act amidst the current Eurasian turmoil, which is causing a shift in global power dynamics.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the latter part of 1991, the Central Asian Republics (CARs) that gained independence encountered significant challenges. The “three evils” are characterised by their transnational and cross-border nature, rendering China’s independent efforts to effectively combat them unfeasible. The establishment of the SCO was made possible by extensive border negotiations, military confidence-building measures, and the gradual development of mutual trust between China and its neighbouring countries in Central Asia and Russia. Beijing capitalised on this opportunity to assume a leadership role and bring the organisation to fruition. The establishment of the SCO was driven by the absence of a perceived suitable institution to address the emerging security challenges, rather than a sense of discontentment with an existing arrangement.

The concept of the SCO was formulated during a period of American hegemony, during which Russia and China expressed mounting apprehension regarding the expanding sway of the US in Central Asia, following the conclusion of the Cold War. The government of Moscow aimed to maintain its political sway in the “near abroad” and perceived that enlisting the support of Beijing would serve to destabilise the United States’ position in the area. Upon its establishment in 1996, China perceived the instrument as a means of capitalising on economic prospects within Central Asia. For Russia and China alike, this served as a means to prevent NATO from accessing a crucial area during a period when NATO’s appeal was at its peak in the post-Soviet era. The SCO’s charter was centred on the concept of the “three evils,” namely separatism, extremism, and terrorism. This highlights Moscow’s intention to maintain the remaining vestiges of regional influence by stabilising territorial boundaries in the post-Cold War era. 

The SCO was founded in June 2001 in Shanghai, China, by the original five border negotiation parties and Uzbekistan. Over the course of the last twenty years, Beijing has collaborated closely with Russia and the Central Asian members to advance the “Shanghai Spirit.” This ideology champions the principles of multipolarity and multilateralism in global politics, cooperation that is founded on robust member partnerships, and economic regionalization and globalisation that is regulated by the state. 

The trajectory of India’s involvement with the SCO has undergone a noteworthy evolution. This evolution can be traced from India’s initial inclination towards the United States following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, to its subsequent establishment of a balancing act through the Russia-China-India (RIC) trilateral group. This ultimately led to the formation of a more expansive coalition of BRICS nations, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. In order to effectively address the issues of terrorism and extremism within its borders, India has recognised the importance of maintaining active involvement with its northern periphery. As a result, India made the decision to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2017. As evidenced by the recent meetings of the defence and foreign ministers, New Delhi continues to face challenges in navigating its relationships with China and Pakistan, which have deteriorated in recent years.

The argument posits that China’s establishment of the SCO was motivated by a desire to achieve inclusive institutional balancing strategy, with the aim of assuaging its concerns regarding the potential growth of other powers in the region. The approach of inclusive institutional balancing aims to align the conduct of the state in question with the established norms and regulations of a given institution. The implementation of this approach is currently underway in the SCO, where Beijing is actively engaging and providing assurances to Moscow that China’s expanding influence in Central Asia is not intended to supplant Russia, but rather to collaborate in promoting their mutual interests.

Despite the expanding economic disparity between China and Russia and the increasing inclination of Central Asian nations to enhance their economic relations with China, Beijing’s approaches have remained relatively consistent. The on-going proliferation of institutional frameworks within the SCO framework serves to diminish Russia’s capacity and rationale for obstructing China’s involvement with the Central Asian member states of the SCO, while simultaneously furnishing China with valid justifications for such engagement. The decision of a country to adopt either an inclusive or exclusive balancing strategy is influenced by various factors such as gain-loss analysis, issue specifics, the level of existential influence of the state, and the state’s decision-making process. When a state prioritises its legitimacy and seeks greater public support and recognition of its objectives, while lacking sufficient influence over relevant matters, it is more inclined to adopt inclusive institutional balancing. The collaboration between Russia and China within the SCO exemplifies an institutional balancing strategy, whereby both nations aim to limit and leverage each other’s power resources to promote their respective and mutual objectives.

Hence, it is perceived that China’s approach of inclusive institutional balancing may result in heightened convergence and reliance of Central Asian countries on China, which could potentially marginalize India’s sway in the region. Given China’s extensive engagement and assurances to Moscow, it is possible that Central Asian nations may prioritize their economic relations with China, thereby constraining India’s ability to cultivate stronger partnerships in the region. India has implemented various diplomatic measures, including the India-Central Asia Dialogue and bilateral and multilateral engagements, to improve its inclusive approach towards the SCO. In May 2023, India, as the Chair of the SCO, introduced the theme ‘SECURE-SCO,’ which highlights its dedication to enhancing cooperation on matters of regional security, connectivity, defence, counterterrorism, and other significant concerns. The initiative has attracted a significant amount of attention and discussion regarding China’s approach to institutional balancing. The approach adopted by India towards the SCO has been termed as the ‘Institutional Inclusive Engagement’ approach by authors.

‘Institutional Inclusive Engagement Approach’: ‘SECURE-SCO’

India’s strategy towards the SCO is characterised by institutional inclusive engagements. The strategy entails India’s proactive involvement and interaction with the SCO, emphasising the advancement of inclusiveness, collaboration, and reciprocal advantages among all constituent nations. The Indian government’s approach to the SCO is grounded in its commitment to promoting regional connectivity, economic integration, and the promotion of peace and stability in the Eurasian region. India is currently engaged in multiple activities within the SCO with the objective of augmenting regional connectivity, mitigating security challenges, promoting economic cooperation, and facilitating people-to-people interactions. India’s objective is to contribute towards the objectives of the SCO and facilitate regional integration in the Eurasian region. 

At the 2018 SCO summit convened in Qingdao, China, Prime Minister Modi introduced the acronym ‘SECURE’ and expounded upon the semantic significance of each individual letter comprising the term. The speaker emphasised the significance of the six elements, namely S for citizen security, E for economic advancement, C for regional interconnectivity, U for unification of individuals, R for reverence for sovereignty and integrity, and E for preservation of the environment. At a recent gathering of the SCO, Rajnath Singh, the Union Defence Minister, highlighted the importance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘SECURE’ initiative, which showcases India’s commitment to advancing the holistic welfare and inclusiveness of the area (TOI, 2023). 

The SCO Foreign Ministers Council met as usual on May 4 and 5, 2023, in Panaji, Republic of India, under the leadership of S. Jaishankar, the Republic of India’s Minister of External Affairs. Within the framework of the SECURE-SCO theme, the foreign ministers have arrived at a consensus to augment their collaborative efforts on security matters and intensify their joint endeavours to counteract terrorism, extremism, separatism, drug trafficking, cybercrime, and other related concerns. The nation of Afghanistan was subjected to a thorough analysis, with a focus on identifying viable strategies to assist the country in its efforts to achieve stability and rebuild its infrastructure.

During a meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar emphasised to the members of the SCO that neglecting the issue of terrorism would have negative consequences for the security interests of the group. He further noted that despite the ongoing global efforts to address the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, the threat of terrorism persists without abatement. In the context of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, India explicitly communicated with China, emphasising that while connectivity can facilitate progress, it must not infringe upon the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states. In a broader sense, the current state of Sino-Indian relations is undergoing a challenging phase, with the unusual circumstances along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) posing a significant issue for both New Delhi and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The heightened interest in the bilateral engagements pertaining to India is justified, given the relatively subdued attention towards the SCO conference.

One of the key highlights of the summit was the establishment of mutual connectivity to bolster trade and commerce between India and the Central Asian nations. This development is particularly significant given the landlocked geographical terrain and inadequate overland connectivity infrastructure in the region. The leaders envisioned the connectivity projects as a means to enhance trade, economic cooperation, and interpersonal relationships between nations and individuals. As a result, these projects require immediate prioritisation for upgrading. The ministers exhibited particular focus on the enlargement of the SCO membership through the fulfilment of accession procedures for the Islamic Republic of Iran, expediting formal procedures to facilitate the Republic of Belarus’ membership in the SCO as a member state, and extending invitations to additional SCO dialogue partners. The conclusion of the meeting was marked by the execution of memorandums that conferred upon the Republic of Maldives, the State of Kuwait, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, and the United Arab Emirates the status of SCO dialogue partner.

The member states of the SCO exchanged information regarding the current status and future potential for collaborative efforts in the realm of environmental protection. Additionally, they reviewed the action plan aimed at implementing the 2022-24 concept of cooperation in this field among SCO member states. Furthermore, Union Minister Yadav expounded upon India’s experiences and Mission LiFE. It was noted that during the launch of the mission, Prime Minister Modi extended an invitation to the SCO community to participate in Mission LiFE, which focuses on individual, family, and community-based actions. The primary objective of Mission LiFE is to encourage and facilitate the adoption of a sustainable lifestyle. Also, India endeavours to promote economic collaboration among the member nations of the SCO by implementing diverse initiatives. The SCO region is bolstered by its endorsement of trade liberalisation, investment promotion, and business collaborations. India aims to utilise the SCO platform as a means to augment economic relations, encompassing energy collaboration, technology dissemination, and collaborative business ventures.

At the Fourth Meeting of the Heads of Ministries and Agencies of the SCO Member States Responsible for Environmental Protection Issues, held on April 18, 2023 in New Delhi, a Joint communiqué was adopted. This document outlines the results of the meeting and provides a summary of the discussions and decisions made by the participating member states. The Joint Communique has been formulated in accordance with the SCO Action Plan, which aims to execute the 2022-24 concept of collaboration in the domain of safeguarding the environment. Dr. Bharati Pravin Pawar is the chairperson of the Sixth Session of the Meeting of Ministers of Health of SCO member states. The theme of the meeting was “SECURE SCO”. It is seen that implementing robust surveillance systems to detect health emergencies early and encouraging collaborative research and development, along with the production of medical countermeasures among SCO nations, are crucial measures to accomplish these objectives.

In conclusion, India’s approach towards the SCO is characterised by institutional inclusivity, with a focus on regional connectivity, economic development, security cooperation, and sustainable practises. India aims to make a meaningful contribution towards the objectives of the SCO and facilitate regional integration in the Eurasian region through active participation and engagement. India is expected to maintain its involvement with the SCO by means of its institutional inclusive engagement approach, which aims to counterbalance China’s inclusive institutional balancing strategy. However, the extent to which India will invest diplomatic resources to this endeavour will be contingent upon the SCO’s ability to fulfil Indian objectives. The SCO, akin to other international and local organisations, is undergoing restructuring due to the swiftly changing balance of power. The nature of India’s association with the SCO will be influenced by the process of reconfiguration (Pant, 2023). The discernible consolidation and convergence of relations between India and Central Asia are evident. The profound dedication to advancing the developing partnership to unprecedented levels has the potential to bring about significant changes in preserving the geostrategic balance of the region and the world, particularly as India assumes the Presidency of the G-20 grouping in 2023.

About the authors:

  • Mr. Balinder Singh (PhD Scholar), Department Political Science, Central Univesity of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, India. Email: [email protected] 
  • Dr. Jagmeet Bawa, Professor & Head, Department Political Science, Central Univesity of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, India. Email: [email protected] 
  • Dr. Sandeep Singh, Faculty, Dr. Ambedkar Centre of Excellence, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India. Email: [email protected] 

2 thoughts on “India’s Institutional Inclusive Engagement Approach Towards SCO: Takeaways From Theme ‘SECURE-SCO’ – Analysis

  • May 20, 2023 at 5:28 am
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    India’s Inclusive Engagement Approach Towards SCO has been well analysed by the authors.Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s floated the concept of SECURE -SCO. SECURE concept, ‘S’ for security for citizens, ‘E’ for economic development, ‘C’ for connectivity in the region, ‘U’ for unity, ‘R’ for respect of sovereignty and integrity, and ‘E for environment protection.SECURE Theme says it all but few lack the respect of sovereignty for each others rerritories and competing for each others interests balancing strategy can be disturbed. The latest example is China’s influence and interests over Central Asian nations where so far Russia had the overall control. The Russia-Ukraine war disturbed the balance and has weakened the Russian influenc.The triangular ongoing battle of economic interests between India,China and Russia is now in Central Asian countries.China is perceived to be now having an upper hand on Central Asian region with additional cementing of relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan and in the bargain Russia and India influence being marginalized in the region and China controls the SCO becomes a bitter truth for Indian interests be it SCO or BRICS!

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  • May 20, 2023 at 9:55 am
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    This is well-written and balanced write-up. Can we have more discussion on this.

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