India’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a full member remains unclear, even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be attending both the SCO and BRICS summits in Ufa in Russia.
The expansion of the six-member SCO is expected. But, if the formal announcement of it does not happen, Modi would be attending the summit as an observer, much like Manmohan Singh did at the combined BRICS and SCO summit in Yekaterinburg in 2009.
Any delay in India’s entry into the SCO would be related to politics. China, which anchors the SCO, would be assessing whether India, under Modi, is a friend of Russia, or a nonaligned country, or a US ally.
China seems happy at the way its blueprint for Eurasia, the ‘One Belt, One Road’ plan, is progressing. Beijing has no reason to upset the apple cart now. More importantly, Beijing and Moscow have finally reached an entente, ending their prolonged, and covert, competition within the SCO. The gamechanger was the Vladimir Putin-Xi Jinping joint statement on the merging of China's Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) with Russia's Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) initiatives within the SCO framework.
The aim is to establish a common economic space. This is China’s plan to counter the US “pivot” to Asia. The SREB-EEU convergence will combine the Eurasian Bank, the SCO Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Beijing is aware of the challenges ahead, but it also knows that the priority of the west now is to corner Russia more than to counter China’s grand chess moves in Eurasia.
Modi would find the Eurasian dynamics at odds with his vision of containing China with the help of the US. The SCO is essentially a counterweight against the west. For Modi to play an ancillary role in offsetting the US is tricky. In 2005, Natwar Singh became too vocal against the US in the SCO. It cost him his job as external affairs minister.
Modi has not shown enthusiasm for China’s Silk Route initiatives. In fact, India resents China’s plans for an economic corridor through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Here lies the potential problem for India in navigating the SCO waters.
India’s focus is on security concerns, terrorism, the Afghan fallout and the growing footprint of the Islamic State in central Asia. India is fearful that the SCO could become a forum for inimical forces to drum up anti-India sentiments. So, staying outside cannot be to its advantage.
India could benefit from the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure and learn from its counter-terror exercises. But the question is whether joining the SCO could help India get out of a tight (geopolitical) spot—being wedged between a wall of Pakistani hostility and the fear of cooperating with China. Ironically, Pakistan, which is not a full member, seems to have already aligned itself to cooperate with the SCO’s efforts.
Russia’s confidence in Pakistan seems to have increased after Pakistan eliminated and, in some cases, handed over Chechen terrorists fomenting trouble in the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] region. The acceptance of Pakistan as a partner has increased. Also, China has decided to block India’s bid at the UN to seek action against Pakistan for granting bail to 26/11 mastermind Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi.
To build bridges with China and Russia, Modi will have to display pragmatism, if not clarity of vision, in Ufa. For its part, the SCO sees itself as an ideal forum to bring about a thaw in relations between India and Pakistan. Hopefully, it would serve the purpose of getting Modi and Nawaz Sharif together.
A former ambassador, Stobdan is senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Delhi.