Connecting to Central Asia
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation 2019 summit is on the cards and might help India in a variety of ways. To be held in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, SCO 2019 envisages a flurry of themes to be pursued between major economies such as China, Russia and India amidst other smaller central Asian nations. Pakistan also is a party to this summit, however, no sort of bilateral talks between neighbours is likely despite Pakistan making an exception in its airspace, allowing PM Modi to take a flight to Bishkek without any detours. India would rather be meeting his Chinese counterpart as well as Russian President Putin in a bid to open increased cooperation in the Central Asian region through proper dialogues with Russia and China on the occasion. The 19th summit of SCO in Bishkek is apparently new for India who along with Pakistan only recently joined the group in 2017. Though in essence, SCO's theme encapsulates multilateral agenda comprising regional cooperation in IT, environment, healthcare, sports, security, et al apart from combatting drug-trafficking and terrorism. There are several issues stacked up but large attention would be directed towards regional security paradigm, counterterrorism and trade. China implicitly urged member countries not to bring up the issue of state-sponsored terrorism in the fray in an attempt to prevent Pakistan's isolation. It is understood that China may also encourage a resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan after relations further soured in the wake of what happened at Pulwama. SCO remains an opportunity for Modi and Xi to meet and discuss future bilateral meets, if not the details then just the dates. This is the first meeting between leaders of the two nations after China agreed to list Azhar in the UNSC sanctions committee. Scope of a Wuhan-style meet has been doing rounds ever since China agreed to list Azhar amidst global pressure since that has been a longstanding Indian demand that foreign players helped fulfil. Both countries have walked a mile since the Doklam standoff that had degraded relations between the fast-growing Asian economies and it may be a good time to discuss potential bilateral scope. Though SCO boasts of a recently-built Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) which focuses on periodic counterterrorism exercises involving member countries, China and India can reinvigorate this combat the rising forces of terror that have targetted South Asia in recent times viz. Pulwama carnage and Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka. Sidelined by India for its notorious play, evident from India's interest in BIMSTEC instead of SAARC and no invitation for Modi's swearing-in ceremony, Pakistan must seize the SCO platform to make a global statement regarding its intentions which on the surface are to counter terror outfits but rather ambiguous on the inside.
India's participation in SCO comes with a great incentive of carrying forward its Connect Central Asia policy. After stressing on 'neighbourhood first' policy affirmed by Modi's visits to Male and Colombo, India stands at the crossroads of two potential development chapters on the foreign front – Central Asia and South Asia. India is wary of China's expanding silk route through its economic colonialism which has rendered countries in debt of it, allowing China to take key infra away from them in the form of ports or roads. This has opened the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for China to dominate. India realises the strategic importance of IOR and hence, strengthening relations with the Maldives and Sri Lanka – key IOR nations – who are indebted to China is a priority. India's focus on BIMSTEC and its participation in SCO will ensure a comprehensive neighbourhood first policy whereby India bridges Central Asia and South Asia by being a mediator of trade and security cooperation between nations of the two international groups. In the rising tension of Sino-US trade war, enhanced cooperation between Asian economies is the best way to check US's unilateralism, even as India has significantly grown its ties with the US. SCO has a wide scope but it can only be utilised if tapped on the right fronts and with a consensus reached between its member nations.