Event ReportsPublished on Jul 27, 2017
India needs to take pragmatic approach towards SCO discussions

India needs to approach the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) with an open mind and think of it as a constructive organisation, according to strategic and foreign policy experts.

Participating in a roundtable discussion on ‘India’s SCO Membership: Prospects and Challenges’, organised by Observer Research Foundation on July 3, 2017, Ajai Malhotra, a former ambassador to Russia and other countries, Ashok Kantha, former ambassador to China and other nations, and Phunchok Stobdan, a former ambassador Kyrgyzstan and Senior Fellow, Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, were of the opinion that India should make maximum of its membership of the SCO. The meeting was chaired by Rakesh Sood, a Distinguished Fellow at ORF and a former ambassador to France, Nepal and Afghanistan.

The discussion primarily focused the prospects and opportunities for India which has become now a part of the SCO.

Ajai Malhotra said the SCO can prove to be a platform to talk about the issues India has in a better manner. It can also facilitate co-operation between the countries at SCO. SCO can act as the correct platform to talk about the issues that are actually pertinent to India. It can be seen that the real driver in the SCO is China and Russia though is an important member of the organisation is not the primary driving force in SCO. SCO is important along with other organisations like CICA, EEU, CSTO. There are certain common points that Central Asia is focusing upon – it doesn’t want any political hostility, it doesn’t want Chinese domination and it doesn’t want any extreme form of Islam. When it comes to the commercial aspect of SCO, it is obvious that no other country has had a chance except China. China has the 2/3rd market in SCO.

The process for India to become a part of the SCO has been a long one, observed Malhotra. India got the observer status to SCO in the year 2005 and it is now in 2017 that the final membership has been granted to India. The initial purpose of the SCO was that of settling issues related to the borders between China and the countries it shares borders with but from then on it has developed to an organisation with many more interests. One of the major concerns about granting India and Pakistan membership to SCO was that it would lead to discussion on issues related to India and Pakistan but it was assured that there will not be any bilateral talks taking place under the umbrella of SCO. One of the prominent questions that came up was how is India planning to deal with the strong anti US sentiment that dominates the major part of SCO. India doesn’t see the US as a threat as Russia, China and Iran do.

Ashok Kantha talked about how the SCO remains an important regional organisation and India’s disconnect to it will put India in a strange position. There is limited connectivity between India and Central Asia, and China has been an important beneficiary of the SCO. One of the key issues in the whole the SCO membership has been that when Russia suggested that India should be taken as a member, China wanted to include Pakistan. China was lukewarm towards India’s membership in the SCO where Russia has been supportive. The SCO has been important in terms of India to enter the SCO region at least. The SCO is also not very developed right now and the issues that the SCO need to address now are varied. On one hand, there is political extremism and regime survival, on the other hand is setting up of SCO bank. Currently, the SCO is not making much headway. The strategic challenges have their own challenges, all roads lead to Beijing and Russia has a less of a role.

Noting that India’s presence in the SCO is not very significant, Kantha said India needs to pay attention to certain things when it comes to the SCO such as it needs to adopt a pragmatic approach to approaching discussions in the SCO. The SCO is not the correct platform for isolating Pakistan. It should also not be used to put pressure on Pakistan. India should also find a convergent interest with China and it needs to realise that Chinese economic domination is not permanent. For India, there is hope also in the fact that Central Asia will work outside the SCO too. India will have to be more observant, and it will have to enhance its diplomatic power and see potential shifts.

Phunchok Stobdan spoke about how the SCO had come into picture with main reasons being border resolution with China, the fear of Taliban etc. Russia was at a standstill and China has been exploiting the situation. One of the hidden reasons for the formation was also to keep the Americans out of Central Asia. The reason why Pakistan was brought into picture was because China wanted to balance out Russia. For India, it was better to join the SCO than to withdraw itself from it. The Prime Minister has put faith in the SCO today and India today will have to respect the traditional integrity of the organisation. There is not much understanding with China but the SCO might pave a way for it. It is also there that Pakistan will not be dominating all the time. India can work with Russia for a joint project in the SCO too, Stobdan said.

The basic point that came out of the discussion was about how being a part of SCO is important in terms of the fact that India needs an entry point in Central Asia. China is an important partner in Central Asia though the likability of China is questionable. On the other hand, India is more likable by Central Asia but Central Asia doesn’t need India as much as it needs China.

There will be a lot of challenges for India because a number of India’s concerns will not coincide with the SCO position on a number of issues like regional issues, global issues, on North Korea, on South China Sea, etc. Fighting extremism, terrorism and fundamentalism is the central motive of the SCO. Pakistan has a more practical agenda to put on the table as compared to India. Central Asia has high expectations from India. Another central point that came across in this discussion is that India needs to have a presence in Central Asia though not necessarily through the SCO, but the SCO can be used as an entry point to Central Asia.

(This event report was written by Radhika Jhalani)

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