A number of external factors will have a bearing on the decision
The Prime Minister's Office and the External Affairs Ministry are weighing the options of India joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), if the grouping decides to admit more members at its Tashkent summit scheduled for next week.
An internal assessment favours India becoming a member, but senior officers point to a number of external factors that will have a bearing on the decision. The first and foremost among the external factors is that many countries have reservations about giving membership to Iran which, along with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is keen on joining the SCO.
Second, the SCO is still to overcome opposition by some smaller countries which fear dilution of their role and the existing agenda if countries not intrinsic to the current composition are given membership.
From the Indian point of view, however, there are few doubts. India feels it will immediately gain economically by becoming a part of the trans-Asian infrastructure linkages and energy delivery systems being planned by China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
With Russia and Kazakhstan announcing plans for a common customs union, India feels its trade initiatives could be more fruitful, especially with some other countries expected to join the initiative.
India is keen that Afghanistan also join the SCO. Instead of “looking down” for inspiration, Kabul will be looking up to the Central Asian countries which are secular Muslim nations that do not call themselves Islamic and, like Afghanistan, are struggling to develop.
India will also gain access to membership of the SCO panel on Afghanistan and another counter-terrorism structure — the SCO's Regional Counter Terrorism Centre in Tashkent. Besides being the node for exchange of information among the SCO members, the centre conducts analytical work. India feels this centre is ideally placed to comprehensively analyse and track violent movements in the region as the belt of unrest does not begin from Afghanistan, but further up from the Fergana Valley which was artificially divided between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan during the Soviet times.
Western counter-terrorism experts have limited access to the Fergana Valley, and little at all to the Tashkent centre. The Valley has seen frequent overspills of the trouble in Afghanistan, and the region's fighters have fought alongside the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, having been inspired by the Hizb ut-Tahrir which operates in the region. Diplomats feel the centre would get a “complete look,” with Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan joining it, along with India.
Politically, the SCO will give India a fuller Asian identity than is the case at present. Most of the regional groupings of which it is a member are inclined eastward. Politically and economically, India (along with Pak and Afghanistan) can serve as a second bridge between east and the central parts of Asia, with the first bridge being China.
The SCO membership will also enable India to diversify its relationship with China by extending cooperation to anti-terrorism and security-related issues.
On the negative side, officials fear it will become yet another forum where India and Pakistan will sit across the table. However, their exposure to wide Asian geopolitics could help them narrow down their differences.