India’s pivot to Eurasia

When you have complicated ties with neighbours, it makes sense to strengthen ties with your neighbours’ neighbours

Updated - June 20, 2018 12:11 am IST

Published - June 20, 2018 12:02 am IST


Sandwiched between U.S. President Donald Trump’s acrimonious public exchanges with other leaders at the G-7 (group of seven industrialised countries) summit (June 7-8) and the headline-hogging U.S.-North Korea summit (June 12), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Qingdao, China (June 9-10) attracted little international attention. It was the first SCO summit attended by India as a full-fledged member (It has been an observer since 2005.)

The SCO grew out of the Shanghai Five grouping — of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — which was set up in 1996 to resolve boundary disputes between China and each of the four other members. It admitted Uzbekistan in 2001, re-christened itself the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and broadened its agenda to include political, economic and security cooperation. It admitted India and Pakistan as full members in 2017.

The SCO opportunity

The admission of India and Pakistan has expanded the geographical, demographic and economic profile of the SCO, which now has about half the world’s population and a quarter of its GDP. Its boundary extends southwards to the Indian Ocean.

The SCO’s relevance for India lies in geography, economics and geopolitics. Its members occupy a huge landmass adjacent to India’s extended neighbourhood, where India has important economic and security interests. Its Central Asian countries border Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. A narrow sliver of land separates southern Tajikistan from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. When you have complicated relations with your neighbours, it makes sense to strengthen relations with your neighbours’ neighbours. With Pakistan joining the Organisation and Afghanistan and Iran knocking on the doors for membership, the logic of India’s membership becomes stronger.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the optimal development of India’s relations with Central Asian countries has been constrained by lack of overland access through Pakistan and Afghanistan/Iran, because of political and/or security reasons. With new multimodal transport corridors now envisaged through Iran, there are again prospects of invigorating trade and investment links with this region (provided fresh U.S. sanctions on Iran do not stymie this effort).

In the formative years of the SCO, Russia pushed strongly for India to join it, to somewhat balance China’s economic dominance in Central Asia. The Chinese were not responsive. China has since consolidated its energy and economic foothold in the region, where ambitious infrastructure and connectivity projects are envisaged as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It has secured the simultaneous admission of Pakistan into the SCO. India has to carve out a political and economic space for itself in Central Asia, alongside Russia’s role as net security provider and China’s dominating economic presence. The Central Asian countries would welcome India breaking into this Russia-China duopoly.

The India-Pakistan interaction was closely watched in Qingdao. The handshake and exchange of pleasantries between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain were noted, as also the absence of bilateral altercations. It allayed apprehensions, expressed in the run-up to Indian and Pakistani accession, that SCO deliberations would get bogged down by India-Pakistan squabbles. It also respected the etiquette of international organisations: countries join them to promote shared objectives, not to settle bilateral scores.

The India-Pakistan track

Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested that harmonious cooperation in the SCO may pave the way for an India-Pakistan rapprochement, recalling that SCO membership had facilitated resolution of China’s boundary disputes with Russia and Central Asian countries. Chinese officials have also expressed this hope. The circumstances are not comparable. China made substantial concessions to settle its boundary disputes with Russia and Central Asia, in pursuit of larger strategic and economic objectives in the region. India-Pakistan differences extend well beyond a boundary dispute, flow from different historical circumstances and are located in a different geopolitical environment.

The SCO will, however, nudge both countries to cooperate in sensitive areas. One example is the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) of the SCO, which coordinates cooperation for security and stability, through intelligence-sharing on criminal and terrorist activities. India and Pakistan, which exchange mutual recriminations in such matters, have to find ways of cooperating in the RATS. Defence cooperation is another tricky area: enhanced linkages between armed forces is an SCO objective. India has agreed to participate in the SCO’s counter-terrorism military exercises in Russia later this year, when Indian and Pakistani troops will operate together. Reconciling Indian and Pakistani perspectives in the SCO’s initiatives on Afghanistan would be yet another challenge.

The expansion of SCO has diluted its unanimity on hitherto shared perspectives. Tacitly accepting the fact that India and Pakistan are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Qingdao declaration confirms the compliance of the SCO’s NPT signatories to its provisions. India’s reservations on China’s BRI are accommodated by excluding it from the list of SCO members that endorse it (all except India). The boilerplate formulations on terrorism accommodate the concerns of various members, without offending any. The essence of a functioning multilateral framework is focusing on shared objectives and underplaying divergences.

Besides expanding opportunities for India in Central Asia, the SCO is a platform for articulating a non-Western — as distinct from anti-Western — perspective on global issues. This includes opposition to selective advocacy of regime change, self-serving homilies on human rights and intrusive advice on domestic policies. It suits India that the SCO is not stridently anti-West in its pronouncements. The U.S. cultivates relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to ensure logistical support for its Afghanistan operations and to gradually wean them away from Russian influence. These countries welcome the room for manoeuvre that this gives them. Russia and China also carefully avoid strong anti-West postures in the SCO, preferring to deal with differences quietly and bilaterally.

Balance of forces

The challenge for India — besides that of security and defence cooperation with Pakistan — may come from increasing Chinese dominance of the SCO. This could happen if Russia-U.S. relations worsen further, leading Russia to an even greater dependence on Chinese political and economic support. Another possible game-changer could be the fallout of the much-heralded U.S.-North Korea summit. If, as Mr. Trump has hinted, peace in the Korean peninsula leads to reduced American military presence in the region, it would dramatically change the balance of forces in the Asia-Pacific in favour of China. This would transform Eurasian dynamics, with an inevitable impact on SCO.

P.S. Raghavan, a former diplomat, is Convenor of the National Security Advisory Board. The views expressed are personal

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