Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 09, 2017
India’s membership in the SCO throws open many possibilities to achieve the huge potential of bilateral partnership.
How SCO membership will help India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ongoing visit (8 and 9 June) to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, to participate in the Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is his second travel to this country in two years and the third visit to the Central Asia over the same period. He had travelled to all the five countries of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — in July 2015 on way to and back from Ufa in Russia where he had gone to participate in the SCO and BRICS Summits. It was at Ufa that the decision was taken to admit India (and Pakistan) as full members of the SCO. Modi travelled again to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, last year in June to attend the SCO Summit, sign the "Memorandum of Obligations" and set in motion the process of acquiring full membership of the body. That initiative came to fruition during the current trip of PM Modi.

This will be the first expansion of the SCO since it was established in 2001 with the membership of China and Russia and four out of the five Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Turkmenistan, however, did not join it because of the neutral foreign policy that it pursues.

With this expansion, the membership of the SCO has increased from six to eight. It now represents 40% of the world population and accounts for more than 20% of the global GDP. And the clout, influence and acceptability of the organisation will increase significantly. Earlier the SCO was seen as a Chinese dominated body being run with the support of Russia. With India's addition, it will be seen as an inclusive organisation with considerably greater respectability, leverage, power and stature. Much of international GDP growth is taking place in Asia today. With two of the three largest economies (in PPP terms) viz. India and China being members of this organisation, its leverage and weight is bound to increase with passage of time.

Read also | India’s prospects in China-dominated SCO

For India, the membership of the organisation can be expected to be hugely beneficial. India enjoys millennia old cultural, economic and civilisational links with countries of Central Asia. India and the region were inextricably bound with each other from 3rd century BC to 15th century AD through the Silk Road which served as the conduit of communication and trading in several commodities, including textiles, spices, tea, fur, bronze and others. The route went into disuse when the maritime route from Europe to India was discovered by Vasco da Gama in 1498. More recently even during Soviet times, vibrant and dynamic exchanges took place between this region and India in economic, commercial and cultural spheres.

However, even after 25 years of independence of these states in 1991, India and Central Asia have not been able to realise the full potential of this partnership. On the contrary, considerable ground has been lost and ceded to other countries like China, Turkey and Iran. India started out well when the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao visited four out of the five Central Asian Republics — Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 1993 and Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan in 1995. After that however for the next 20 years, there were only four visits at Prime Ministerial level from India to the region — to Kazakhstan in 2002 and 2011; to Tajikistan in 2003, and to Uzbekistan in 2006. Visits in the opposite direction from these countries to India were quite frequent. This inadequacy in high level exchanges was sought to be rectified by Prime Minister Modi when he took the strategic decision to visit all the five Central Asian states in July 2015.

One of the principal reasons for India not being able to leverage its profound, deep-rooted ties with the region is because India does not share a common land boundary with any of these countries. Pakistan does not permit goods and vehicles to reach this region from India through its territory. Contacts at the highest level as noted above have been inadequate. To restore connectivity with the region, India has started working pro-actively on the Chabahar sea-port project in Iran and the International North-South Transport Project which will link India with these countries and Russia through Iran.

Frequent and regular contacts at the highest level between India and these countries during annual SCO Summits can be expected to provide a significant impetus to ties with these (Central Asian) countries.

The SCO will also ensure that Indian ministers and senior officials from different fields will meet and deliberate with each other on a regular basis. This will help to promote understanding and open up fresh vistas and avenues of cooperation.

This region is well endowed with mineral resources, particularly energy, including oil, gas, uranium and hydro-power. India is an energy deficient country while these countries are looking for assured and significant consumers of energy. With India's economy growing at a fast pace and its demand for energy increasing robustly, collaboration in the energy sector between the two countries will be a win-win situation for both India and Central Asia.

India will be able to share its expertise in information technology, software, pharmaceuticals, agriculture etc to the mutual benefit and advantage of India and Central Asia. Greater contacts and exposure to each other are also likely to provide a fillip to tourism and travel between India and Central Asia. Information deficit is a huge bottleneck that afflicts growth of ties in a multitude of areas between India and the region. It will be possible to effectively address these inadequacies through frequent interactions.

Security is another area than can be expected to get increased focus with India's membership of the organisation.

Situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating for some time. If the security situation in Afghanistan were to go out of control, it would have a deleterious impact on security in Central Asia and encourage terrorist groups like Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb-ut-Tahrir to create instability and indulge in violence and extremism. It is essential that regional powers step up to the plate and ensure that stability is restored in Afghanistan. The SCO can be expected to play a more meaningful and substantive role in holding negotiations with all relevant stakeholders in ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan. There are differing views among countries of the region on how to deal with Taliban.

While Russia, China, Pakistan and possibly Iran are not opposed to giving a role to Taliban in the future dispensation that emerges in Afghanistan, India and the government of President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan are opposed to any engagement with Taliban as it has been carrying out the most dastardly and heinous attacks against the Afghan security forces, people and institutions. In the Kabul Peace Process launched by Afghanistan on 6 June this year, President Ghani provided a last opportunity to Taliban to give up violence and join the reconciliation process. Afghanistan is a part of South Asia. Central Asia is a part of India's Extended Neighborhood. Security of India is inseparably linked with that of the Region. India's membership of SCO will allow it to be actively engaged in all deliberations and parleys dealing with peace and stability of the region and will be beneficial for it and the region.

Terrorism and radicalisation are challenges that severely afflict the countries of Central Asia. In fact, several terrorist attacks in recent months have been perpetrated by citizens of Central Asia. Several thousand young men and women from Central Asia have gone to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria, these men and women could be forced to return to their country and will pose a huge threat to peace and security in their countries. It is hence essential to engage in a programme that ensures conditions that support de-radicalisation. India can share its experiences with these countries to mutual benefit and advantage.

Several thousand young men and women from Central Asia have gone to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Some commentators are speculating whether simultaneous entry of India and Pakistan in the organisation could result in issues like Kashmir being brought up at its meetings. The mandate of the organisation does not permit bilateral issues to be raised during deliberations in meetings of the body. However, countries like China and Russia could try to encourage and persuade India and Pakistan to hold bilateral parleys on the sidelines of the meetings. This would be to enhance the profile of SCO and raise their own stature globally. Kazakhstan could also attempt to carve out a role for itself. It may be recalled that it had tried to mediate between then PM Vajpayee and General Musharraf during their presence in Almaty in 2002 for the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a Kazakhstani initiative. Kazakhstan is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Astana is functioning as the venue for Talks on Syrian peace and security with participation of all stakeholders in the conflict including the government of Bashar-al-Assad and rebel forces. Kazakhstan could fancy itself as a peacemaker between the two countries. India will have to deal deftly and firmly with all such moves.

The five countries of the Central Asia have made significant progress since their independence 25 years ago. Robust, multifaceted ties between them and India will promote security, peace and prosperity in the region and the world. India's membership of the SCO throws open many possibilities to achieve the huge potential of bilateral partnership.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Ashok Sajjanhar

Ashok Sajjanhar

Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...

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