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Reality Check for India in SCO: No Bickering Here Please!; By Shastri Ramachandaran

C3S Paper No. 0143/ 2015

Courtesy: The Citizen

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is a regional forum where India may not be able to have its way against Pakistan. To the contrary, Pakistan — which also became a full member of the SCO along with India on July 10 in Ufa (Russia) – may be better placed in the six-member regional grouping dominated by China and Russia.

Although both India and Pakistan have been “accepted” as full members of the SCO, the technicalities involved would take a year to be completed. For the past 10 years, India’s status in the SCO was that of observer.

The elevation to full membership entailed a price: of India (and Pakistan) being asked to give a “firm commitment” to keep bilateral disputes out of the grouping.

At a closed-door meeting of the six members before the SCO’s plenary session, Uzbekistan reportedly raised the issue that taking India and Pakistan on board meant the risk of the forum becoming “hostage” to the conflicted relationship of the two neighbours. The case of SAARC being a permanent hostage to India-Pakistan rivalry, bickering and recriminations was brought up as a cautionary tale to impress that India-Pakistan differences prevented any regional forum from making any meaningful progress. It was then decided to ask India and Pakistan for a commitment that they would keep bilateral issues out of the SCO; and, the required commitment was duly given.

The story, as the six old and two new members know, won’t end here. For all the bonhomie on display at the SCO’s plenary where Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif addressed each other in congratulatory tones, the issues are always just below the surface. For example, India has an issue with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Sharif explicitly underscored the corridor’s importance saying, “Development is linked with the prosperity of our neighbourhood. Among others, the corridor envisions construction of roads, railways and important energy projects”. Modi, for his part, stuck to generalities about peace, friendship and stability in the region.

It may be too early to read anything between the lines of Sharif seeing the SCO as a forum for Pakistan to promote peace and stability in South Asia and Afghanistan. Yet Chinese President Xi Jinping’s assurance to Sharif that India’s entry would not dilute Beijing’s special relations with Pakistan could not have been music to South Block. Xinhua quoted Xi as telling Sharif, “We will make joint effort to enrich the connotation of the China-Pakistan community of common destiny”.

Even as India is basking in the afterglow of Ufa, the much-toasted outcome of the Modi-Sharif meeting appears to be unraveling rather sooner than expected. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz called a press conference to make the point that “no discussion will take place with India if Kashmir will not be discussed.” We will stay firm on all our primary issues, he asserted. Pointing out that the Modi-Sharif meeting was informal, Aziz said that none of the agreements were binding.

Aziz’s statements belie the expectation that “all issues connected to terrorism”, as wanted by India, would be discussed between the two countries. In fact, Pakistan appears to be reneging on its commitment to hasten the trial of the accused in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack by saying that it needs more evidence from India.

In short, the signs in the immediate aftermath of Ufa are not good, even assuming that the Pakistani political leadership is putting out these statements for domestic consumption. Expectations that the SCO may ease India-Pakistan tensions and that China and Russia may mediate the way forward to better relations are, at this stage, premature.

India-Pakistan differences apart, the SCO is an energy-rich grouping where India, as a consumer, would necessarily be at the receiving end of pipelines, which would go from Central Asia through Pakistan. Which explains why Modi was emphatic about India’s policy to boost connectivity in the region. The fact that India – unlike others in the SCO — has not taken to China’s Silk ‘Road and Belt’ is another disadvantage it would have to negotiate. The other SCO members – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – are firmly locked into the Belt and Road project with China at the Asia end and Russia in Europe. The Eurasian economies are racing to be integrated in the upcoming China-Russia corridor with its connectivity and infrastructure for energy, transport and IT hubs and highways. Besides, SCO observers — such as Afghanistan, Iran and Mongolia — awaiting full membership, are also closer to China, Russia and Pakistan.

The Russia-China strategic equation has political and economic depth and embraces a vast area dependent on these two powers for their development. This is a reality that India would have to come to terms with as it seeks to leverage its position in the SCO.

There are also expectations from India, which may not have been spelled out at this stage but are too obvious to be ignored. One such is that New Delhi would pay heed to China knocking at the doors of SAARC. In the event of India-Pakistan relations moving on the lines projected in Ufa with Modi eventually going to Islamabad for the SAARC summit in 2016, China’s knocks to enter SAARC would become louder. Others, in the SCO as well as in SAARC, especially Pakistan, would do everything to amplify China’s claims for its “rightful” place in SAARC.

Doubtless, this is a quid pro quo that Modi and the Ministry of External Affairs would prepare for well in advance. What would be a bigger challenge for India is taking its “due place” in the SCO whether as a “leading power”, “balancing power” or “swing power”. How India plays the Russia-China axis in driving the SCO’s 10-year development plan for intensified cooperation on security and foreign relations would be another test defining its role and efficacy in SCO.

With four nuclear weapon states in the SCO, the grouping could acquire the strategic heft to challenge the US-led NATO at some stage in the future. India’s ‘natural’ inclination towards the US combined with New Delhi being overly amenable to Washington’s pressure was a hallmark of the UPA’s foreign policy that remains unchanged under Modi. Such a situation clearly does not sit well with Russia and China. In fact, the Modi Sarkar’s ‘irrational exuberance’ when it comes to the US is incompatible with “Hindu nationalism” and its visions of India as an independent global power.

Regardless, right now, India enjoys enviable strategic autonomy and is wooed by all the big powers. If China and Russia want India active in SCO, BRICS and other forums, it is to prevent India from becoming a prop for the US “pivot” strategy in Asia. How India sustains and uses its strategic autonomy to emerge as a force to reckon with in SCO and pursue its interests independent of US pressures may be the biggest foreign policy test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

(The author, an independent political foreign affairs commentator, was Senior Editor & Writer with the Global Times and China Daily in Beijing.)

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