Author : Ayushi Saini

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 11, 2024

While the SCO has benefited India in many ways over the years, it seems that India is giving a cold shoulder to the grouping

India in SCO: A part of Russia's Greater Eurasian dream?

Source Image: BBC

Introduction

Last month, India completed seven years as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The 24th SCO Heads of State summit that was held in Astana was skipped by Prime Minister Modi. The main goals of SCO are to strengthen mutual trust, ensure regional security while countering terrorism, and promote cooperation among member states while promoting balanced economic development. India joined SCO with two primary aims: combating cross-border terrorism and strengthening its relations with Central Asia. PM Modi's statement during the 2017 summit, “Terrorism is a major threat to humanity. I have full confidence that the India-SCO cooperation will give a new direction and strength to the fight against terrorism”, shows India's counterterrorism drive under SCO. India views the multilateral forum primarily as a gateway to Central Asia. Another critical consideration is Eurasian security; beyond traditional security concerns, India joined the SCO to collaborate on non-traditional security issues like energy security, health security, climate change, environmental protection, and economic security.

The main goals of SCO are to strengthen mutual trust, ensure regional security while countering terrorism, and promote cooperation among member states while promoting balanced economic development.

The formation of the SCO carries crucial importance, as this is the biggest regional organisation of its kind, which brought major non-Western countries from the Eurasian region together. It came into existence in 2001 as a bloc to counter the West. Coinciding with the 9/11 attacks on the US, it reiterated its role as a security guarantor in the Eurasian region. India became a full SCO member in 2015, the same time President Putin introduced the "Greater Eurasian Partnership" Concept. The agenda of Greater Eurasia is formed by strengthening cooperation within the SCO, maximising the opportunities inherent in the nature of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and developing Eurasian economic integration. The SCO brought together members from diverse economic and military backgrounds. The membership of SCO has been structured against Western hegemonic organisational structures. Russia views India as an essential part of Greater Eurasia concerning the security and stability of the region.

India in Russia's Greater Eurasian Strategy

“Greater Eurasia”, due to its geographical position, is the greatest manifestation of Russia's envisioned international order. Within Greater Eurasia, three of the foremost powers of the modern world are located—Russia, India, and China, each one of which counterbalances the others, which is a guarantee against the formation of unequal power dynamics.

Russia's Foreign Policy Concept 2023 considers India an important part of its visionary new world order, which advocates multipolarity and sovereign equality among countries. Russia views India as an important part of Greater Eurasia concerning the security and stability of the region. Designated as one of the “great neighbours”, the Concept advocates prioritising strategic partnership with India. Russia wants to continue building a privileged strategic partnership with India to counter “unfriendly alliances”. Since the United States (US) withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2022, Russia has actively included India in Afghan security discussions, acknowledging India as a significant Eurasian partner. Russia perceives India's growing role in Eurasia with optimism, recognising its potential to enhance economic engagement in the region. Russia sees India as a pivotal player in building a multipolar world order. However, the presence of two regional rivals—India and China—presents a challenge to Russia's Greater Eurasian vision.

Russia's Foreign Policy Concept 2023 considers India an important part of its visionary new world order, which advocates multipolarity and sovereign equality among countries. Russia views India as an important part of Greater Eurasia concerning the security and stability of the region.

Connectivity projects such as the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are central to the Greater Eurasian Partnership. India regards INSTC as a viable alternative to China's BRI, with the potential to become a “prosperity enabler” by facilitating robust trade flow between India and the Central Asian states.

India and its neighbours in SCO

The SCO Charter prohibits addressing bilateral disputes, yet it offers a conducive platform for finding common ground and fostering dialogue between countries. Any deterioration in India’s bilateral relations with member states significantly undermines the organisation's effectiveness. India's participation in the SCO underlines its strategy to strengthen ties with Central Asia and Russia while managing its delicate relationships with China and Pakistan.

As the driving force of the SCO, China holds limited importance for India as a partner within the organisation. Strained relations due to border tensions have hindered bilateral meetings within the SCO since 2021. The only brief interactions occurred during the G20 summit in Bali and the BRICS summit in South Africa in 2023. Unlike all other SCO members, India's support of the Tibetan cause and refusal to uphold the One-China Policy further complicate ties. Nevertheless, India and China have found common ground at the multilateral level. Both countries have collaborated at the UN and worked together on issues such as climate change and SDGs. India is also a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), valuing its rule-based structure, unlike the BRI. However, areas of cooperation between India and China have shrunk since 2017, with divergences growing.

As the driving force of the SCO, China holds limited importance for India as a partner within the organisation. Strained relations due to border tensions have hindered bilateral meetings within the SCO since 2021.

The revocation of Jammu and Kashmir's special status in 2019 has halted peace efforts between India and Pakistan. After the SCO Foreign Ministers' meeting in Goa in 2023, Zardari stated that the reversal of this decision is the only obstacle to resuming talks. Pakistan claims that “until India reverses its 2019 steps, meaningful bilateral interaction will be difficult”. Pakistan declared the move to be against SCO objectives.

India's efforts to strengthen relations with Central Asian countries began with the “Connect Central Asia” policy in 2012, followed by the “Act East Policy” in 2014. India's membership in the SCO further cemented these ties. The first-ever India-Central Asia Summit in 2022 aimed at promoting regional development, peace, and prosperity under the motto “Support of All, Development for All, Trust of All, Efforts of All”. Central Asia, considered India's “extended neighbourhood,” lies at the heart of Eurasia. The richness in energy resources and their multi-vector foreign policy stance make Central Asian states strategically important to India, especially in the context of the evolving global order.

Challenges for India in SCO 

Despite the potential for economic cooperation under SCO, challenges related to security and connectivity persist. India remains the only SCO member state that is not a part of BRI. This decision stems from sovereignty concerns, particularly regarding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Given the main goal of the grouping to jointly counter the radicalisation that leads to ‘extremism, terrorism and separatism”, Pakistan's state-sponsored terrorism against India presents a significant obstacle to India's effective participation within the SCO. The recent Reasi terrorist attack has added fuel to the fire as it violates India's motto of "Towards a SECURE SCO". SCO's lack of efficacy in the functioning of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure could lessen SCO's relevance for India.

India's multi-alignment diplomacy, evident from its candidacy in SCO and QUAD, aims to counterbalance China's regional ambitions while being its key trade partner. India's participation in the G7 summit, despite not being a member, contrasts with its absence from the Astana summit. PM Modi's irregular attendance at the SCO Heads of State Summits highlights challenges to India's engagement within SCO. The PM attended the 2021 Tajikistan summit virtually and, after participating in the 2022 Uzbekistan meeting, hosted a virtual summit in 2023, which raised concerns among the members. The decision to skip the 2024 Astana Summit will reinforce these concerns. This inconsistency at the SCO indicates that Indo-Chinese and Indo-Pakistani disputes extend beyond border tensions, hindering active participation in regional organisations and thwarting bilateral dialogues.

Moreover, Western sanctions on Russia complicate the trade among SCO members. President Putin's appeal for India and China to trade in local currencies encounters challenges due to the volatility of the exchange rate of the rupee-ruble and ruble-yuan.

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, the SCO has benefited India. However, India shares close ties with both Russia and Central Asia, independent of the group. Russia remains India's primary arms supplier, even if India is diversifying its sources in the West and at home. India has set up institutional mechanisms such as India-Central Asia Dialogue and India-Central Asia Summit to engage with Central Asian countries. However, SCO has given a good platform to India-Central Asia enhanced economic engagement. India has not received any security benefits from the grouping except for securing its energy needs. Considering the level of engagement with the group, India's future does not look bright at SCO as it seems to have lost its relevance in India's regional geopolitical situation. This inconsistency might be a blow to Russia's “Greater Eurasian” vision. India has maintained a neutral stance on the Ukrainian issue while criticising the war and not supporting Russia's action in general. To balance its global relations, India tries to be closer to China's geopolitical rival—the US and its strongest ally—Russia. However, it will be critical to see how far India can carry forward its “balancing act” between Russia and the US. PM Modi's recent visit to Moscow this month can be viewed as India's attempt to maintain good ties with Russia despite missing the SCO summit. While it may be too early to say if India's membership is threatened, India is undoubtedly giving a cold shoulder to the grouping.


Ayushi Saini is a Junior Research Fellow at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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Author

Ayushi Saini

Ayushi Saini

Ayushi Saini is a Junior Research Fellow at the Centre for Russian and Central AsianStudies, JNU. She works on the intersection of environment and international ...

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