Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 22, 2016
India and the SCO

Debates centered round regions and regionalism and the sharpened awareness of the possibilities of regional cooperation and institution building emerged in the post Cold War era. Three central elements have been identified by analysts as constituting the core elements of regionalism. First, a common historical experience and a sense of shared problems among a geographically distinct group of states/societies which constituted a region. Second, close linkages of a distinct kind between those states/societies, in other words recognition of a boundary to the region within which interactions would be more intense than those with the outside world, in other words, regionalisation. Finally, the emergence of an organisation giving shape to the region in a legal and institutional sense and providing rules of the game within the region, the element of conscious policy which is central to regionalism<1> Therefore, while dealing with regionalism, three elements emerge as important. The first relates to the spatial dimension of regionalism, i.e., how large is the area covered and how is the area defined or redefined as conditions change. A second relates to its scope; in other words the tasks or areas of interaction covered by the region or by the regional organisation. A third feature is the level and extent of the organisation. <2> These three are useful since they indicate the variety and unevenness of regionalism. They also bring into focus the fact that regional organisations recognise boundaries both in terms of spatial dimension as well as in terms of scope.

The acceptance of these three as crucial brings into focus the fundamental question about the nature of the SCO, its aims and objectives.  What was the SCO visualised to be — a regional security group, a trade bloc or something else? And more importantly how has it developed over the years?  In any case, there is need to analyse whether the SCO was visualised as a ‘regional’ organisation and the way in which its region was defined. In the 1990’s the SCO had a clear criterion for membership — states that share a border with China. The Shanghai Forum was formed to deal with the requirements of confidence building measures at the borders of the states and resolve border disputes. As a ‘regional’ bloc it then defined itself as China and its immediate neighbourhood to its west. If we accept this to be the SCO region then its optimal permanent membership would be what it is today (though Uzbekistan does not share a boundary with China) with the possible inclusion of Turkmenistan. However, most ‘regional’ organisations expand and this expansion is generally related to the way in which their role is subsequently visualised. The SCO expanded with the inclusion of three categories of membership, observers, dialogue partners and guests. Mongolia, India, Pakistan and Iran were accepted as observers. Given the significance of Afghanistan to the regional security balance it has been accepted as guest. A looser form of affiliation has been introduced with the introduction of the category of dialogue partner. The initial choice of Belarus and Sri Lanka as dialogue partners demonstrates this to be the new less restrictive category which would enable the organisation to expand its geographical reach into Europe and South Asia, thus redefining the concept of the SCO region. Subsequently Turkey was accepted as a dialogue partner and more recently there has been agreement on acceptance of Belarus as observer and Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia and Nepal as dialogue partners. By looking beyond traditional partners, the SCO emphasised a readiness to respond to emerging complementarities and new avenues of cooperation. <3> This is a significant development and a distinct change from the immediate priories of the organisation when it was first conceived. It is, however, the inclusion of India and Pakistan as permanent members of the SCO that has raised the largest number of issues and most significantly the question whether ‘good neighbourly partnership’ would remain the principal focus of the organisation. It is in this context that the 16th SCO Summit assumes significance.

< style="color: #163449;">The debate on inclusion

The 16th SCO Summit scheduled to be held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on 23 to 24 June 2016 is expected to finally conclude the process of inclusion of India as a permanent member in the SCO. However, even before the beginning of the Summit, reports have tended to argue that the process of inclusion may not be the foregone conclusion that it is being assumed to be and that in any case the level of engagement that India would be offered within the organisation would be determined by existing members. At the Summit in Ufa (Russia) on 10 July 2015, Putin announced that the organisation was turning a “new page as the process of including Pakistan and India is being launched”. More significantly, the members reiterated their willingness to create a Development Bank and Development Fund and supported China’s proposal to create a Silk Road Economic Belt across the SCO member states. The SCO Summit which followed the BRICS Summit underlined the importance of stability in Afghanistan with the withdrawal of international forces. <4>  Post Ufa, a debate initiated among strategic experts on Russia, China, India and the Central Asian states on the implications of inclusion of India and Pakistan’s in the SCO indicated that the acceptance of the two South Asian states within the SCO was far from resolved. <5> Sanat Kushkumbayev, Deputy Director of the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan was quoted as saying, “The start of India and Pakistan’s accession to the SCO was top of the agenda, but de jure the process has yet to be fully clarified. It is quite possible that an existing SCO member could block their entry”. Uzbek President Islam Karimov noted that the entry of India and Pakistan could change the balance of power inside the organisation and internationally. There remain a number of unresolved issues between India and Pakistan and how these would affect the SCO was unclear and Uzbek analyst Farkhad Tolipov seemed to be in agreement. There was general agreement that for China the SCO was now no longer crucial. It was the One Belt One Road, an infrastructural project with its own funding agency the AIIB that had become important for China.  On the other hand the need for Chinese and Indian investment in infrastructural development seemed to be the motivating factor for the acceptance of the expanded membership among the Central Asian states. There is also the need to keep in mind the fact that there is disagreement among SCO members about certain issues like the level of involvement in Afghanistan. Russian President Putin supports increased involvement of the SCO in Afghanistan whereas Uzbek President Karimov defines Afghanistan as a “smouldering war with no end in sight” and argues that for the SCO to get involved it would mean assuming responsibility for Afghanistan something that would be assumed not just by the Afghans, but the entire world. He argues that the SCO needs to focus on long term interests, principally economic issues and increasing bilateral trade and investment. <6>

How far the issue of India’s SCO membership figured during the Russia-India-China (the RIC format is the core for the larger BRICS) foreign minister level meeting in Moscow on April 18, 2016 is also unclear. The joint communiqué issued after the RIC meeting noted:

< style="color: #0069a6;">Foreign Ministers of China and Russia reiterated the commitment of their countries to full and early implementation of the decisions of the SCO Summit Meeting in Ufa on July 10, 2015, and actively pushing forward the process of accession of India to the SCO. India expresses its willingness to become a full member of the SCO as early as possible so as to make greater contribution to the development of the SCO. It was agreed to work towards signing the Memorandum on India’s Obligations for Obtaining the Status of SCO Member State by the Organisation’s Summit in Tashkent in June 2016. <7>

Despite this ambiguity Tatyana Shaumyan, head of the Indian Research Center at the Institute of Oriental Studies, in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, positively assessed the value of this meeting. “It is very important that the three foreign ministers keep the tradition of tripartite meetings. There exist problems, both international and bilateral, and common positions are being developed. Then there are issues on which differences remain unresolved between the countries, but the members of this forum are still willing to discuss their positions, on the basis of own national interests.” <8>

However, after the RIC meeting a commentary in the Chinese daily Global Times on India’s position on the South China Sea was illuminating. It noted:

< style="color: #0069a6;">For years, India has remained a prudent yet ambiguous stance over the South China Sea issue. At a sensitive moment such as now, India expressed the same attitude as China and Russia indicating a changing stance of mind. Why the case? One possible reason is that India has been striving for full fledged membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).. But India’s inclusion into the SCO has not been completed. India needs to prove that its accession can play a constructive role for the unity of SCO members and the international effect of the SCO. <9>

K. Bhadrakumar argues that the commentary has brought in a number of caveats to the issue of Indian inclusion:

  • India needs to “prove” its intentions to play a “constructive role”,
  • India’s rights as SCO member may not be on par with the other founder-members’,
  • India’s policies will need to be in harmony with Russia and China’s, and,
  • The proposed logistics agreement between India and US creates uneasiness, as it signifies a shift in India’s foreign policy. <10>

It is generally argued that for India joining the SCO is about “raising its stakes in Central Asia”, of greater connectivity to a wider resource rich region and an opportunity to work on common issues of concern.  Iran’s membership will ensure that India can move towards developing a platform for trade and transit through Bandar Abbas and Chabahar then linking with the North South Corridor. There remains the possibility of the SCO acting as guarantor for projects like TAPI and the IPI which have been in the pipeline for a number of years.  It would also provide a useful interface for interaction with Afghanistan and its neighbourhood.  However, a number of analysts need to argue that India cannot be a real player in the Eurasian region as presently India lacks connectivity. The much travelled caravan roads to which one tends to hark back now move through regions that are geopolitically difficult for India to traverse. The only option is to connect with the INSTC through Iranian ports. There remains the argument that SCO engagement need not be over emphasised as bilateral engagement with the Central Asian states work just as well as illustrated by the uranium supply deal with Kazakhstan during Prime Minister Modi’s visit. <11> Also, for the membership to be useful, India would also have to take a constructive approach rather than pushing anti terrorism as an agenda with the obvious intention of pointing towards Pakistan. Analysts have also argued that beyond meeting annually and the creation of RATS, nothing constructive has come out of the SCO.<12> Of course the SCO meetings could provide a neutral ground for bilateral engagement and participation in RATS would mean new levels of intelligence sharing and development of counter terrorism strategy. However, this itself could become problematic in certain situations where India could consider its security to have been compromised by other members of the SCO. The fact that the core of the SCO would remain Russia and China and the two official languages of the SCO remains Russian and Chinese, despite expansion is also significant in terms of SCO members attitude towards expansion. On the other hand, there remains the fact that it is doubtful whether a Look East Policy on which there is emphasis today, can work without a corresponding policy on the West and it was with this idea that the Connect Central Asia Policy was initiated. However, India with its emphasis on the four ‘Cs”, commerce, connectivity, consular and culture would not match the Chinese engagement either economically or in political terms.


China ties economic incentives to security cooperation. The Chinese President Xi Jinping offered SCO members joint projects worth $5 billion for a commitment to fight extremism in the region.  It is now being argued that as China’s investment and trade along the new Silk Road continues to grow the region may well become economically dependent on China. <13> By developing extensive gas and oil pipelines as well as developing a network of transport links, China is making itself economically indispensable to the Central Asian states. The Chinese government also offers generous trade and loan terms thus creating an environment where other competitors will be eliminated as few states would be able to match the benefits offered by the Chinese. Chinese investment led diplomacy and lack of concern with domestic issues within the states also makes them attractive partners. Inclusion of states like India would mean the advocation of higher standards of oversight and human rights in the SCO counter terrorism and intelligence operations. There is apprehension that all this would reduce the organisation to a talk shop.

< style="color: #163449;">Alternative Eurasian developments

More importantly, one needs to analyse whether ‘regional’ organisations would retain their significance in a situation where there is overlapping of states, (no longer contained within clear bipolar divisions) in multilateral ‘regional’ organisations. In fact institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which includes 17 non contiguous Asian and European states including China and India may become a new ‘region’ in terms of significance. Some of these institutions have been created to support logistic visions and the AIIB itself is a recent example. This Chinese initiative supports China’s logistic vision of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) with the aim to bring South Asian economies closer to China, Central Asia and West Asia. Compared to the post War Marshall Plan, as an initiative OBOR is projected as an instrument to create a continuous land and maritime zone where countries will pursue convergent economic policies, underpinned by physical infrastructure and supported by trade and financial flows. The inclusion of people to people links is a recognition that soft power will play an important role in creating congenial political environment for sustaining the initiative. The OBOR policy document further states that the initiative is designed to uphold ‘open world economy and the spirit of open regionalism’, an obvious counter to the more exclusive US led mega economic blocks in the making the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Deeper economic integration within Asia is embedded in the larger framework of China’s attempt to build rail, road and port infrastructures across Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, thereby dramatically shortening cargo transport time between Asia and Europe/the Middle East and Africa. Another important motivation is the development of the relatively underdeveloped southern and western Chinese provinces. OBOR has a transcontinental (Silk Road Economic Belt) and maritime (Maritime Silk Route) component. Much of the transcontinental route passes through areas of traditional Russian influence and regions where Russia is attempting to recreate a common economic zone in the form of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

It is therefore significant that there is a proposed amalgamation of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the EEU and setting up of a dialogue mechanism which is likely to create a synergy that would cover connectivity, trade, energy and raw material production in the region. There are in addition two significant energy projects linking the two states, “The power of Siberia” pipeline and the Altai gas pipeline. During the Putin-Xi summit that took place in Moscow on May 8, 2015, the leaders of Russia and China signed a joint declaration “on co-operation in coordinating the development of the Eurasian Economic Union with the Silk Road Economic Belt. The declared goal was to build a common economic space in Eurasia, including a free Trade Agreement between the EEU and China. While the positive implications of the connection is clear there remains the issue of implementing the merger of an institutionalised body like the EEU with what is essentially still an idea in the making. There is also the fact that since their interests overlap in Central Asia, multilateral formats would have to be developed for discussions. Also, mechanisms would have to be developed to implement joint projects on EEU states, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. The institutional framework developed for the EEU free movement of funds, goods, services, and labour) would mean that implementation of these rules in the territories of the non EEU states that are within the purview of the SREB will be problematic. However, despite problems this is a synergy that India would have to take note of as it moves towards a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union. Though the SREB has been generally well received implementation could be problematic. India in particular is concerned about the maritime element of the route that moves through the Indian Ocean though it also presents possibilities of cooperation in corridors like Iran. While the strategic implications of OBOR has been viewed with concern it remains a fact that OBOR is underpinned by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) and the proposed Shanghai Cooperation Financing Institution and all of these include or will shortly include India.

The Indian alternative has been to focus on the eastern and western reaches of the Indian Ocean and the sub continental landmass south of Eurasia, but linked to it. The ‘Connect Central Asia’ initiative has to be viewed within this context where both the traditional continental trade routes and the maritime multi modal routes would come into play. There also remains the alternative to connect Indian initiatives with other existing (like Turkey-Iran-Pakistan railway) or proposed routes (branches of the Silk Road Economic Belt). A multi modal link to Central Asia through the Iranian port of Chabahar could then link through existing and newer links to Russia and Europe. These include both transport corridors like the INSTC and pipeline projects like TAPI. The potential for both if linked to the South East Asian states would be manifold. Similarly the BCIM corridor could link to a broader Asian network. The development of a network of Indian Ocean ports to serve as regional shipping hubs for littoral states with connecting highways and rail routes would mean leveraging India’s location in one of the most strategic stretches of ocean space. The launching of a Spice Route, Cotton Route and the Mausam Project, all of which are attempts to tie together countries around the Indian Ocean assumes significant in this context. At the macro level the aim of Project Mausam is to reconnect and re-establish communication between countries of the Indian Ocean world which would lead to enhanced understanding of cultural values and concerns while at the micro level the focus is on understanding national cultures in their regional maritime milieu. The aim is not just to examine connections that linked parts of the Indian Ocean littoral, but also, the connections of these coastal centers to their hinterlands. The ‘Spice Project’ aims to explore the multi faceted Indo-Pacific Ocean World collating archeological and historical research to document the diversity of cultural, commercial and religious interactions in the Indian Ocean- extending from East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian sub continent and Sri Lanka to the Southeast Asian archipelago. The broader aim is to connect these with an ‘Information Silk Route’ where telecom connectivity between the countries would be made possible. All of these strategies need to be visualised as integrated aspects of both domestic and foreign policy.

< style="color: #163449;">Conclusion

In a number of important ways the SCO was a novel formation. It was based on the invocation of a ‘civilisational’ approach popularly identified as the Shanghai spirit which is defined by modes of behaviour, by ways of conducting relationships. This was exemplified by the emphasis placed on harmony, respect for cultural variety, good neighbourliness and mutual trust as essential components of a new architecture of global security. Secondly, the SCO espoused a holistic view of stability setting soft spheres of interaction such as culture and education at par with security and defence. Thirdly, its essence is a loosely meshed network which embraces and encourages diverse linkages and clusters. However, the issue of expansion through membership has remained difficult. Here there is apprehension of the introduction of extraneous stresses leading to schism. On the other hand, there are internal and external factors that are encouraging expansion. A compromise has been accepted in the meantime through a tiered form of affiliation. The question of the entry of new members in the organisation would have to be considered in this background. Here the most significant aspect would be the level of the state’s entry into the organisation which in its turn would indicate the level of involvement in the organization as well as the level to which the SCO would be willing to involve the state within the organisation. And all of these would have to be carefully considered by India as she accepts the terms of membership of the organisation.

< style="color: #163449;">References:

<1> See R. Stubbs and G. Underhill (eds) Political Economy and the Changing Global Order, London: Macmillan, 1994.

<2> Brian White, Richard Little and Michael Smith (eds) Issues in World Politics, London: Macmillan, 1997.

<3> Shirin Akiner, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: A Networking Organization for a Networking World”, Global Strategic Forum, June 2010,

<4> “After BRICS Putin holds Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Ufa”, RFE/RL, July 10, 2015.

<5> Galiya Ibragimov, “What are the implications of India’s and Pakistan’s accession to the SCO?” July 13, 2015

<6> Catherine Putz, “Uzbekistan’s Karimov Out Talks Putin in Moscow”, The Diplomatist, April 28, 2016,

<7> Cited from M. K. Bhadrakumar, “India’s SCO membership Comes with Caveats”, India Punch line (Reflections on Foreign Affairs) April 25, 2016.

<8> Cited from Konstantin Zavrazhin, “The RIC, ‘Core’ of BRICS Meets in Moscow”, Russia and India Report, 20 April 2016.

<9> Zhou Fangyin, “New Delhi may get dragged into tussles”, Global Times, April 24, 2016.

<10> Bhadrakumar, “India’s SCO membership Comes with Caveats”.

<11> “Realism in Central Asia: Advantages and disadvantages to SCO membership”, Business Standard Editorial Comment, July 13, 2015.

<12> Raffaello Pantucci, “India and the SCO: the real benefit”, Gateway House, July 9, 2015

<13> Su-Mei Ooi and Kate Trinkle, “China’s New Silk Road and Its impact on Xinjinag”, The Diplomat, March 5, 2015.

The writer is Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation and Senior Researcher at Calcutta Research Group.

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