India's Role in the Evolving Geopolitical Dynamics of SCO
The article analyses how India sees the evolving geopolitical dynamics of the SCO. Since getting full membership in the SCO.
By Dr. Nalin Kumar Mohapatra
Despite certain limitations, the SCO can play a significant role as a multilateral body. In this regard, India's role is crucial in directing the SCO's functioning and providing a plan of action for its future.
The 22nd SCO Summit and the first in-person Summit after the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic took place on the 15th and 16th of September 2022, in the city of Samarkand, considered to be the cultural capital of Uzbekistan. The significance of the SCO Summit can be gauged from the fact that the Summit took place in the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war, as well as the Afghan crisis and the China-Taiwan crisis. Similarly, Russia, a key member of the SCO, is also under a spell of sanctions from the Western countries and is engaged in bitter acrimony with the West led by the US on a host of issues, including its war with Ukraine. China is also at loggerheads with the US, while both are the largest trading partners. Iran admitted as one of the permanent members of the SCO in the Samarkand Summit, has also been under western sanctions for its alleged clandestine nuclear program. At the same time, India is a global power, has the best relationship with both US and Russia, and is considered by analysts as a 'balancer' of global geopolitics. For instance, India has been a member of both, the Quad involving the US, Australia, and Japan, and at the same time, a permanent member of the SCO since 2017. This reflects India's successful pursuance of the policy of "Strategic Autonomy" in international affairs.
These geopolitical dynamics are necessary to understand the significance as well as the relevance of this regional multilateral body. One question that arises here is how the SCO, as a regional body having different geopolitical complexities, will address a host of issues that the member countries of this bloc are facing. In this regard, it is necessary to understand that this regional body emerged as an informal grouping among the countries- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Russia, and China- to resolve the border disputes inherited from the Soviet past and started in 1996. In this regard, within a short period of five years, one can notice a significant transformation in the scope and functioning of this bloc that took place in 2001 with the joining of Uzbekistan in the Summit in Shanghai. Subsequently, this regional multilateral bloc was renamed Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Initially, looking at its scope and operation, it appeared that this bloc came up to resolve the border disputes but slowly and steadily took to other important challenges, which the member countries confronted over the years. The Shanghai Summit in 2001 adopted two crucial resolutions, the "Declaration on the Establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization" and the "Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism". The SCO has also brought out its Charter in 2002, in which emphasis was laid on strengthening the institutionalization process among this regional body.
From the formation of the SCO in 2001, to the successful completion of the Samarkand Summit on the 16th of September 2022, the SCO as a regional bloc has been confronting different forms of security challenges ranging from traditional to non-traditional security. In addition, the Central Asian region is facing an economic crisis along with challenges emanating from Afghanistan, as also problems relating to the health crisis, food insecurity, etc. However, one crucial point that needs to be taken into account is that there has been a lack of consensus on many issues by the member states of the SCO. In this regard, it is pertinent to highlight that while Russia and Central Asian countries supported India's permanent membership in the SCO, China opposed this move. At the same time, Russia and the Central Asian countries are also quite apprehensive of China's activity in Central Asia. China's slow and steady takeover of mineral resources and pursuance of debt diplomacy in this region put both Russia and the Central Asian countries in a more vulnerable position.
Similarly, there is political uncertainty in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Ashraf Ghani civilian government by the radical terrorist group Taliban with the direct support of China and Pakistan. The security situation of Central Asia is also quite fragile. Studies suggest that radical and terrorist groups are quite active in Central Asia after the Taliban came to power. Along with the flow of radicalism and religious extremist groups to Central Asia from Afghanistan, the UNODC report suggests that because of political instability and lawlessness in Afghanistan, there is a surge in the illicit trafficking of narcotic substances from Afghanistan through Central Asia to the international market. Some of these issues are aggravating the security threats to Central Asia as well as other member countries of the SCO.
The 22nd SCO Summit, which took place in Samarkand, has also discussed some of the issues at length, which is reflected in the Summit Declaration. The Declaration outlined, "countering traditional and non-traditional challenges and threats to security". The Declaration further stated, "Note that illicit drug trafficking and its non-medical use are a threat to international and regional security and stability, sustainable economic development of States, the health and welfare of peoples, as well as the exercise of fundamental human rights and freedoms". Similarly, on the issue of Afghanistan, the Summit Declaration underlined "the establishment of Afghanistan as an independent, neutral, united, democratic and peaceful State, free of terrorism, war and drugs".
A cursory look at the SCO Declaration demonstrates that it touches on broader subjects in its deliberation and also dwells at length on the ecological catastrophe the SCO member states are confronting over the years. In this regard, it is pertinent to highlight that the Declaration has also highlighted the sensitive issue of the Aral Sea ecological crisis, which has haunted the Central Asian countries for years.
However, what is quite surprising about the Samarkand Declaration is the One Belt One Road (OBOR) promoted by China. The declaration mentioned OBOR, despite India's objection to this project at various SCO forums. In this regard, it is necessary to highlight that OBOR is a project initiated by China to promote its geo-economic interest and the many negative geopolitical fallouts of this project. It is also a fact that there is growing public unrest in Central Asia and Russia against the project. Many pitfalls are also associated with the legality of China's OBOR project. Hence there is a need to avoid such contentious issues in future Summits, which create differences of opinion among the SCO member states.
It is a well-known fact that Pakistan is sponsoring international terrorism and is currently on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Despite widespread condemnation by the international community, Pakistan is continuously supporting cross-border terrorism and providing shelter to terrorists. Hence by being a member of the SCO, Pakistan is violating the Charter of this multilateral body. Article 13 of the SCO Charter states, "If a State goes on violating its obligations, the Council of Heads of State may decide to expel it from the SCO as of the date fixed by the Council itself". China too provides direct and indirect support to Pakistan for its nefarious activities. Hence, through due deliberation and as per the provision of the SCO, Pakistan should be expelled from the membership of the SCO in the future. China should also get a warning from the SCO for its role in supporting Pakistan. It is a fact that China and Pakistan's joint move within the SCO obstruct the smooth functioning of this regional body and is detrimental to promoting the SCO's Spirit.
Another contentious issue that needs to be looked at is that the name of the SCO should be changed. When it was created in 1996 as an informal body, it had a limited scope of functioning and only five members. Today, the membership of this body has broadened and keeping to the change of time, the name Shanghai should be changed and an appropriate name acceptable to all the SCO members should be adopted. The same can be deliberated in the future Summit of the SCO. This will enhance equity and greater cooperation among the SCO Members.
Addressing the SCO Summit at Samarkand, Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi highlighted the need "to develop reliable, resilient and diversified supply chains in our region." This will require better connectivity, and it will be important that we all give each other the full right to transit. Prime Minister Modi's speech can be understood in the context of the global food crisis, the energy crisis occurring due to the Covid-19 crisis, and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Similarly, the connectivity issue is also gaining importance in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the above crisis. In this regard, India's connectivity projects like the INSTC project, Chennai -Vladivostok maritime corridor project, and the significance of Chahbahar for connectivity with the Central Asian countries through Afghanistan to connect with the post-Soviet space are praiseworthy. However, the Chahbahar port is facing challenges, as the Taliban is hostile to the transit route to Central Asia through Afghanistan. At the same time, India is also focusing on the Turkmenbashi port of Turkmenistan to connect with Central Asia. The issue of "full right of transit", as Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised at the Samarkand SCO Summit, is relevant for Central Asia as these countries of Central Asia are landlocked. Because of this land-locked status, the Central Asian countries are highly dependent on third countries to export their natural resources and import products from the global market. Hence there is a need to evolve a new legal framework on transit corridors under the UN's initiative, which to a great extent, mitigates this problem and augments the supply chain securitization process. It is also a fact that India is facing a problem in delivering humanitarian assistance including food and medicine essential to the people of Afghanistan as per the "UN mandate" due to obstructions being posed by Pakistan. Similarly, both the TAPI pipeline project and the IPI Pipeline are in the doldrums because of the obstacles posed by Pakistan being the transit country.
One major contribution of India to the SCO Summit at Samarkand is the discussion on the role of Millet to alleviate the food crisis. As Prime Minister Modi, in his address to the SCO Summit, Samarkand stated " The world faces another major challenge today – and that is ensuring the food security of our citizens. One possible solution to this problem is to promote the cultivation and consumption of millets". It is a fact that the food crisis is posing a significant challenge to sustainable global security. In this regard, both climate change and supply chain disruption are posing a growing threat to food security. Hence, it is necessary to develop millet as an alternative food source as it can be grown in arid regions. This, in a way, can alleviate the food crisis at the global level.
The SCO Summit at Samarkand took place when there is a lot of geopolitical flux in and around post-Soviet Eurasian space. In this regard, a pertinent question arises about how India sees the evolving geopolitical dynamics of the SCO. Since getting full membership in the SCO, India has played a crucial role in the decision-making process of this multilateral body and has checkmated Beijing's hegemonic position at the SCO Summits. At the same time, India shares a robust bilateral relationship with Russia and the Central Asian countries. It is important to underline that over the years, India has emerged as a key player in the SCO and the Quad. This stems from India's position as a global power.
Disclaimer: This paper is the author's individual scholastic contribution and does not necessarily reflect the organization's viewpoint.