India and SCO
Addressing the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Astana, Kazakhstan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday pitched for coordinated efforts among member nations to combat terrorism, while enhancing trade and investment links without impinging on sovereignty and territorial integrity. In a significant development earlier in the day, India was inducted into the SCO—a multilateral grouping led by China that initially started as a forum to enhance security in Central Asia. India was given the status of an observer in 2005 and applied for full membership in 2014. Modi has expressed hope that India's entry into the SCO will give a new fillip to the forum in dealing with terrorism. "Terrorism is a major threat to humanity," Modi said, adding that there was a need for coordinated efforts to overcome terrorism and radicalisation. A significant portion of media attention is drawn on whether Modi will hold substantial talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. On Thursday, the two leaders met for the first time in nearly 17 months, but they reportedly just exchanged pleasantries. What is rather unusual about these developments is that India seems willing to sit at the same table as Pakistan in an SCO that seeks to fight terror in Central Asia, and Afghanistan in particular. It is no secret that New Delhi holds the Pakistani civilian and military establishments responsible for a large share of the violence in both Afghanistan and at home.
One could pose the argument that observers need not feel a sense of surprise over India's decision to sit on the SCO table with Pakistan, as both nations are also part of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Unlike that geographical grouping, however, the SCO is built on a commitment to establishing greater confidence in the field of defence, and statements from the group have spoken of a united effort to maintain peace in the region, including through joint military exercises among member states. In other words, the decision to join SCO marks the point where India decides to partner up with Pakistan in an attempt to tackle the threat of terrorism and ensure peace in the region. It seems odd at this juncture, primarily because both sides are busy firing at each other across the Line of Control. Nonetheless, it is important to state that both India and Pakistan may not hold as much influence in the workings of the SCO, as the organisation is dominated by great powers like China and Russia. Other issues will take higher precedence. Besides, India's stated position is that disputes with Pakistan do not require third-party mediation. Beijing would also like to ensure that these differences do not overshadow proceedings at the SCO. "We hope India and Pakistan will strictly follow the charter of the SCO, and the idea of good neighbours, uphold the Shanghai spirit, improve their relations and inject new impetus to the development of the SCO," said a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson earlier this month. There are some, who argue that having India and Pakistan in the same group could derail the SCO. However, one could also take the position that joint membership could compel India to see Pakistan as partners in the fight against terror and vice versa. In the short term, this is unlikely to pan out. Over time, this may prove useful. How these dynamics play out remains to be seen.
"We have extensive cooperation with SCO nations. We want to deepen the focus on connectivity," Prime Minister Modi said on Friday. Nonetheless, speaking in the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif among others, he asserted that sovereignty and territorial integrity should be fundamental to such cooperation. His remarks assume significance as they come weeks after India pointedly refused to send a representative to the high-profile Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing. India abstained from the Summit to highlight its concerns over the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is part of the "Belt and Road Initiative" (BRI), the major infrastructure and investment push led by Beijing and passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). "Connectivity initiatives must follow principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that would create unsustainable debt burden for communities; balanced ecological and environmental protection and preservation standards; transparent assessment of project costs; and skill and technology transfer to help long term running and maintenance of the assets created by local communities," said a statement by the Ministry of External Affairs on India's decision not to send a representative for the BRI. Despite India's reservations about the BRI on questions of sovereignty, New Delhi has decided to become a part of another China-led forum which is evidently designed to act as an alternative to NATO and the Washington-led world order. However, considering the uncertain role of the current United States government in the region, India could use this opportunity to mend regional economic ties further, and use its seat on the table to take part in Afghanistan-related initiatives. India's concerns with the BRI are well-documented in past editorials, especially on the ring of Chinese encirclement that impedes India's access to Eurasia. "India certainly cannot be indifferent and stay outside the infrastructure and connectivity being built on such a scale. By joining SCO, India should be able to think more sharply about how to respond to OBOR [One Belt, One Road] and find ways to join both the Russian and Chinese built transport network," writes Phunchok Stobdan, former Indian diplomat and Eurasia expert, in a column for Institute for Defence Analyses and Studies. The Chabahar port project in Iran is seemingly India's way out of this encirclement, although a lot more legwork needs to be done before India fulfils its goals. "Against these regional perspectives, India cannot be taking a position other than a cooperative one if it wants to genuinely exploit opportunities that SCO processes may offer. Any policy on connectivity underpinned by a spirit of rivalry is going to make India an odd one out. India should certainly join SCO with a fresh mind without any ambiguity. But at the same time, India should be mindful of the geopolitical calculations that underpin these connectivity projects," Stobdan adds later in his column.