Is India Wasting Time In The SCO, Where China Calls The Shots?

India is doing the right thing, as the old adage goes keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

S Jaishankar and counterparts at the SCO Foreign Ministers’ Meeting at Tashkent in 2022.

Since India-China ties took a nose-dive following the military confrontation in the summer of 2020, public opinion in the country has taken a sharp anti-Beijing turn. Many are wondering why India should be a part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a grouping conceived by China and Russia, but where Beijing clearly calls the shots. So, is the SCO an anachronism as far as India is concerned and a waste of time? Some believe India should abandon the SCO and concentrate instead on quad and the western alliance aimed at containing China’s rise in Asia.

International politics however, is not guided by emotion but hard facts. "It is in India’s interest to engage with the SCO. We cannot leave the field to others because of our differences with China or because some want us to distance ourselves from Russia. The Eurasian space – Central Asia, Caspian and beyond – is in our near neighbourhood, where Russia, China, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and other countries are pursuing their interests. We have to protect and further our interests in this space. If Russia and China are getting close to each other, that is a stronger argument for our continued presence in a region that they dominate,’’ says P.S. Raghavan, Chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board (NSAB).

Since the Ukraine war, the US and its allies have been making the point that Russia and China are in a tight embrace and there is little New Delhi can gain from continuing to be close to Russia. Many people in India too buy this argument. That China and Russia have similar strategic considerations and are working closely with each other is nothing new. It has been on over the last two decades as Russia and China hope to keep the former Central Asian countries, once a part of the former Soviet Union out of American’s sphere of influence. Ever since the break up of the Soviet Union, the Americans have also been pushing to make a dent in the region.

The Beginnings

In 1996, five years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Shanghai Five was formed in the city from where it derived its name. The original members were China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Moscow wanted to make sure that the now independent republics remain within its political influence while China was keen on increasing trade with these countries.

By 2001, the leaders of these five countries admitted Uzbekistan and renamed the group as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. In 2002 the SCO charter was signed. With India and Pakistan joining in 2017, the SCO is now an eight member body, but many other countries are keen to join. Iran and Afghanistan are waiting in the wings. So are Belarus and Mongolia. Others in the queue are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Cambodia.  Many of these countries either have observer status or are dialogue partners of the SCO at present.

While economic cooperation remains an important focus, fighting religious extremism has assumed great importance since the rise of Islamic groups across the region. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, jihadi warriors from neighbouring central Asian countries poured into the country and got indoctrinated. Many received arms training inside Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was very much in Afghanistan at that time and the effort was to overturn the largely corrupt rulers of central Asia nations and bring in religious governments that would impose Sharia law, as Mullah Omar had done in Afghanistan. Much has happened since those early days of the SCO, but regional security and fighting religious extremism remains a core focus for the group.

Combating terrorism and radical ideology as well as regional security is vital for India’s growth. The SCO also happens to be one of the world’s largest regional groupings covering around 60 per cent of Eurasia and 40 percent of the world’s population. Considering the region is regarded by India as its extended neighbourhood, opting out of this large group would be foolish. Considering our geography India needs to have a say and leverage in Eurasia and engage with all countries of the region.

Former diplomat Ajay Bisaria was at headquarters in 2012 as Joint Secretary in charge of Eurasia, when India took the plunge to apply for membership of the SCO. He was dealing with India’s entry into the SCO and recalls that there were questions even at that time whether India should be part of a forum which was China-created, China-dominated and China-led. He said Russia was keen to have India on board to balance China, as well as to give a more democratic look to a forum packed with authoritarian leaders.

"The decision and instinct to join the SCO was correct, even though it is a China-led body, since India now has this additional platform to pursue its interests in Eurasia,’’ says Bisaria. India’s leaders can engage better with Central Asian leaders, have an additional lens to deal with Afghanistan and can explore a wider set of options for connectivity in this space.

As an emerging pole in a multi-polar world, India needs to have access to multiple platforms to pursue its interests in different geographies: like the SCO in Eurasia, the QUAD in the Indo-Pacific, the I2U2 in West Asia, he explains. "This is what nimble diplomacy is about. As the SCO chair, India gets to set and shape an agenda in this space more aligned to our strategic interest, rather than leave it to the Chinese to do so,’’ Bisaria adds.

And if all this is not enough to convince those who believe that the SCO is a waste of time, the old saying : Keep your friends close and your enemies closer is a point to reflect.