India's assertive and pragmatic role in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

A good instance in this regard is the recent Chinese aggressive intrusion in Galwan Valley located in the Union Territory of Ladakh of India. This aggressive move on part of China in pursuing an hostile posture towards India, raises a fundamental question about whether China, is still pursuing its age-old 'Middle Kingdom Complex' strategic doctrine in its foreign policy?

India's assertive and pragmatic role in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation
via India Strategic


By Dr. Nalin Kumar Mohapatra

India being a major global power is balancing the geopolitical realignment of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or SCO which is being appreciated by both Russia and other Central Asian member countries. To give greater economic teething to this regional security organisation, in future countries like Japan, South Korea and Vietnam may be included. 

The 'SCO Council of Heads of Government' Summit which took place on November 2020 in Moscow and the 'Council of Heads of Government (Prime Ministers)' of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit on November 30 at New Delhi reflected the state of affairs of both global and regional geopolitics. Some of the major developments that took place prior to the meetings were: the global pandemic and its impact on the conduct of international relations; growing 'isolation' of China at the international fore for its omission and commission during the pandemic crisis. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is also conducting a probe into this aspect. The brickbats between China and the US over the pandemic are also souring relations between these two, contributing to a sort of a 'new new Cold War'. This can be evident from the fact that both of them are trying to outsmart each other in the Indo-Pacific region by stationing their advanced weapon systems. However, the spillover effect of confrontation between Washington and Beijing is being felt both at the global and regional geopolitical level. 

The same also manifested in the growing 'expansionist' and 'imperial' policy being pursued by China towards its neighbours. A good instance in this regard is the recent Chinese aggressive intrusion in Galwan Valley located in the Union Territory of Ladakh of India. This aggressive move on part of China in pursuing an hostile posture towards India, raises a fundamental question about whether China, is still pursuing its age-old 'Middle Kingdom Complex' strategic doctrine in its foreign policy? The consequences of aggressive behaviour by China towards its neighbours resulted in the emergence of a new kind of strategic realignment both within the Asian continent as well as at the global geopolitical structural framework. The growing rapprochement among the countries of Indo-Pacific region like India, Australia, Japan, the United States and formation of the strategic Quad is a reflection of this trend. The Foreign Ministers of Quad in their latest meeting held in October 2020 expressed their indignation over China’s "expansionist tendencies". Russia, which considers itself as a closest strategic ally of China is also in recent years is also questioning China’s "imperial ambitions". The apprehension of Russia is gaining momentum after the Vladivostok fiasco in which China claimed its historical right over the city. This also raises a hypothetical question about whether Russia-China strategic partnership will last forever or the Cold War animosity will haunt these two for years to come? 

It is pertinent to mention here that China is not complying with international law and "rule-based world order". In this regard, it is necessary to highlight here that the Charter of SCO explicitly mentions in its Article 2 : "non-use of force or threat of its use in international relations, seeking no unilateral military superiority in adjacent areas". However, looking at its strategic behaviours in the last couple of years, China is consistently violating Article 2 of the SCO Charter and making a mockery of it. Similarly, by aligning with the failed state of Pakistan, China is directly or indirectly supporting terrorists and other radical forces. It is an acknowledged fact that China is bailing out Pakistan at the UN and not allowing any sanctions on it including financial sanctions for its role in promoting cross-border terrorism. Similarly, SCO created an anti-terrorist Centre at Tashkent to fight against "radicalism, terrorism and extremism". However, a closer scrutiny shows China and Pakistan are actually supporting the 'evil forces'. 

Secondly, the charter of SCO in Article 3 "Areas of Cooperation" highlights that "support for, and promotion of regional economic cooperation in various forms, fostering favourable environment for trade and investments with a view to gradually achieving free flow of goods, capitals, services and technologies". However, looking at the pattern of trade of China with the SCO member countries it is largely asymmetric in nature. In fact, as studies suggest some of the Central Asian countries by taking loans from China have become debt- ridden. The trade pattern is basically skewed in favour of China. The same is the case of Russia also. Over a period of times as studies suggest both Russia and the Central Asian countries are becoming 'clients' of China. Massive Chinese investment and takeover of domestic companies in these countries are a pointer in this regard. The point that needs to be stressed here is that SCO has not initiated any desirable policy frameworks to promote multilateral and equitable trade as envisaged in its Charter. On the other hand, China is using SCO Forum to promote its One Belt One Road or OBOR strategy. 

India's approach to the economic development in SCO was succinctly highlighted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the 'SCO Council of Heads of Government' which took place on November 10 where he emphasised on a plurality of connectivity projects for ensuring sustainable development. Prime Minister Modi in the said Summit emphasised on "the International North South Transport Corridor, Chabahar Port, Ashgabat Agreements, reflect India's strong resolve towards connectivity. India believes that to further deepen connectivity, it is necessary to carry forward with the core principles respecting each other's sovereignty, and territorial integrity." 

Thus, one can get a clear indication from Prime Minister Modi’s speech that India opposes OBOR and it simply abstained itself from the declaration on OBOR both in the "SCO Council of Heads of Government" and "meeting of the Council of Heads of Government (Prime Ministers) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation." It may be recalled here that the "Joint Communique following the meeting of the Council of Heads of Government (Prime Ministers) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation" discussed at length regarding the "alternative connectivity system" in Central Asia under the UN initiative. This in fact is a major diplomatic victory for India in the SCO Summit as the Central Asian members stressed on alternative connectivity in this region and indirectly negated the OBOR initiative of China. Hopefully, Central Asian countries and Russia will follow India’s position on OBOR and will reject the imperial OBOR project of China in future. 

One noteworthy aspect of both the Council of Heads of Government (Prime Ministers) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the previous "SCO Council of Heads of Government" is that efforts were made to address the issue arising out of pandemic and to meet the challenges. In this regard, India took the lead in addressing the challenge posed by the pandemic by stressing on the role of traditional medicine for addressing the issue. As Prime Minister Modi in his speech at "SCO Council of Heads of Heads of Government" stressed on creating an "A Working Group on Traditional Medicine." By emphasising on traditional medicines India can in future launch new health diplomacy in the SCO member countries. 

What SCO urgently requires now is a greater reform within itself. There is a need to make this regional body more democratic not only at the de jure level but also at the functioning of SCO in day-to-day affairs. 

India's role in SCO has to be looked at from two strategic perspectives. Firstly, India’s relations with Russia and Central Asian countries (who are members of SCO) is one major factor shaping its role in this group. In fact, it has been argued that despite China's initial inhibitions, Russia and the Central Asian countries welcomed India's decision to join the SCO. Clearly these post-Soviet countries perceive that India can provide the necessary leadership to counter the growing dominance of China in the Eurasian space. Secondly, there is a growing perception from certain quarters that India can play a greater role in the post-Soviet Eurasian space through the SCO. However, it needs to be underlined here that even without SCO, India is a leading player in the post-Soviet geopolitics of Eurasia. Because of changing geopolitical realignment in Eurasia, there is also a need to broaden the membership of SCO. In this regard, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam can be invited to join the group. This to a greater extent will bring geopolitical equilibrium and will give greater teething to the economic dynamics to the SCO. 

India should also initiate an alternative regional grouping involving Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines and Kazakhstan in the Indo-Pacific region. Though Kazakhstan is a leading Eurasian country, over the years, it is engaging diplomatically with the above -mentioned countries (particularly with India, Japan and South Korea) through its "multi vector policy" for promoting trade and commerce. The recent security pact India signed with Japan for peace and security in the Indo-Pacific Region is a step in the right direction. If this regional grouping will come up then India can able to checkmate China’s 'imperial amnesia' in a more effective manner. 

The success of SCO depends upon how effectively this regional body is able to combat new challenges emanating from time to time and democratise itself more effectively in the internal decision-making process. In this regard, India can certainly play a major role in giving a new impetus to the functioning of the SCO.

Dr. Mohapatra teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at

The article was originally published by the Economic Times.

Disclaimer: This paper is the author’s individual scholastic contribution and does not necessarily reflect the organisation’s viewpoint.