Astana Summit 2017 and Beyond

After being an observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) since 2005, India finally gained entry to the multilateral grouping during the Astana Summit 2017 held in June.

Background | Astana Summit 2017

India had applied for the full membership in 2014 after weighing very judicially the opportunities and challenges that might be presented to it after its accession to the SCO.

Significance of SCO | Astana Summit 2017

  • Undoubtedly, the SCO has evolved over the years as a very significant regional organisation for forging cooperation amongst its members in diverse fields.
  • With both India and Pakistan becoming members the profile of SCO has been further enhanced as the group now represents close to half the humanity of the globe and 23 percent of the world’s GDP.
  • Besides the Central Asian Republics (less Turkmenistan) it brings together three major players in Asia- Russia, China and India on a shared platform.

The Russia-India-China trio

Besides Russia-India-China (RIC) forum, Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) and the G-20, the SCO will provide another platform for regular interaction Russia, China, India and other members to discuss mutual concerns, interests and find solutions for moving forward on cooperative endeavours.

India-Pakistan rivalry in SCO | Astana Summit 2017

  • There is a possibility that major powers like Russia and China might be tempted to mediate between the India and Pakistan. But such a step would not be welcome by India as New Delhi’s policy on the issue has been to resolve the India-Pakistan issues bilaterally i.e. without the intervention of any third party.
  • Pakistan would be more inclined to bring up the bilateral issues directly or indirectly. This kind of propensity on the part of Pakistan needs to be discouraged by the other SCO members and in any case, the SCO charter does not allow bilateral problems to be aired on the multilateral platform.
  • The regular top leadership and ministerial meetings around the SCO imply that both Indian and Pakistani officials at a senior level from Prime Minister and head of state meetings to Health Ministers, Foreign Ministers and Interior Minister Meetings would have the opportunity to meet each other at least once a year. This will provide another platform where the two countries would have an opportunity to interact.

India-China cooperation in SCO |Astana Summit 2017

  • Both leaders discussed economic cooperation, trade, investment and connectivity issues, the establishment of industrial parks, cooperation in railways. Discussions also revolved around security and defence issues including counter-terrorism cooperation, security cooperation and defence exchanges.
  • Thus, the SCO would become an additional platform between India and China for regular exchange of views on a wide range of issues in the SCO from investment and connectivity to joint counter-terrorism exercises both on the multilateral and bilateral basis.

A road to Central Asian Republics | Astana Summit 2017

  • Insofar as the relationship with CARs is concerned, its potential remains underexploited even while India considers them as part of India’s extended neighbourhood and strategically and economically significant for forging closer ties. These countries also view India as a benign balancer in the ongoing power play in the region.
  • The SCO will provide a good forum to expand on issues such as the economy, trade, connectivity and counter-terrorism cooperation which are key objectives of India’s policy in this region.
  • Central Asia’s desire for diversifying hydro-power and energy export routes would correspond with India’s quest for diversifying imports.
  • The membership of SCO will likely provide greater accessibility to gas and oilfields in the region.
  • India, Russia and Iran are also founding members of International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which has been in works for quite some time and which seeks to connect India to Central Asia through Iran and beyond to Russia and Europe.
  • Moreover, India is in the process of joining Ashgabat Agreement which the Indian government approved last year; the agreement provides for a transit corridor across Central Asia and the Middle East through linkages between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran before reaching the Persian Gulf and into Oman. This will facilitate India’s trade with Central Asia and the Eurasian region and it builds upon the INSTC.
  • With Russia as a member and Iran as an observer, there is a possibility of cooperation with China and other SCO members to support connectivity projects and the development of INSTC.

Counter-terrorism agenda | Astana Summit 2017

  • It is expected that engagement with the SCO countries will provide a higher degree of clarity and coordination of policies on this important country which has implications for regional security.
  • SCO platform would provide an opportunity to the members to coordinate and configure their approaches on the regional security issues including Afghanistan.
  • India’s participation in SCOs Tashkent-based Regional Counter-terrorism Structure (RCTS) is likely to increase levels of intelligence sharing, as well as help the others develop counter-terrorism strategies based on India’s long experience of it.
  • The SCO and the UN secretariats have also signed a joint declaration on cooperation in countering international terrorism in 2010 in Tashkent which forms the basis for the interaction between the two organisations. Thus mutual exchanges on counter-terrorism issues would be beneficial for all the stakeholders.

Conclusion | Astana Summit 2017

Overall, India’s membership of SCO is a positive development and New Delhi needs to take advantage of the same by being proactive on the platform. India also needs to enhance its economic relationship with CARs which has been far below the potential. Connectivity woes also need to be addressed through fast implementation of projects and by pushing several existing joint projects. Mutual Complementarities of connectivity projects in the region also need to be explored.

Raj Malhotra IAS Study Group.