Saturday, May 18, 2024

India as Mentor

As the current Chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, India will hold a meeting of Heads of State Council in July 2023. It must work at mentoring other SCO nations in their transformation too. 

By Subramanyam Sridharan

The port city of Shanghai, known for its legendary cosmopolitanism, is undoubtedly one of the greatest cities of the world. Like many other Chinese cities, its name is a combination of Chinese words, shang (“upon”) and hai (“sea”). Shanghai, like the relaxed city it is that seemingly floats easily “upon the sea”, was the perfect choice for China to launch the “Shanghai Five” group in 1996, the very first multilateral organisation that the post-Mao People’s Republic of China floated under its banner. 

The founding nations were China, Russia and the three newly-minted Central Asian Republics (CARs) of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, all of which share land borders, sometimes contested, with China. 

The context for this foundation was significant. The Cold War had ended, the Soviet Union had been dismantled and the US had assumed an unassailable unipolar position especially after its clinical technology-driven military victory in the Gulf War. This had overawed and worried China as the US had also ended the third Taiwan crisis with a show of its naval might in the Taiwan Straits. There were other worrying factors too such as the anticipated expansion of NATO, attacks on Russia by the Chechens, increasing separatism by the Uyghurs and the expected takeover of power by the rabid Taliban in Afghanistan. It was in this milieu that the Shanghai Five convened.

On June 15, 2001, they formalised the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), adding Uzbekistan too. Soon, the events of 9/11 lent further urgency as the Global War on Terrorism reached near shores. Apart from its eight full members today, four of whom are nuclear weapon states, SCO also has several crucial nations who will soon become full members. The SCO today consists of members from East Asia, Eurasia, South Asia, West Asia, South East Asia and Europe. China exerts significant control over SCO from its Secretariat in Beijing.

The three major objectives of the SCO were to counterbalance the rising American influence, and consequently, that of NATO in Central Asia; to combat Islamic and separatist political movements which were posing a danger to their sovereignty and to combat international terrorism. SCO vowed to share intelligence among member countries and shape diplomacy internationally.

These have acquired greater prominence in the present circumstances. To that extent, SCO has a Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. RATS conducts Joint Anti-Terror Exercise annually in its member countries. The latest one was held in India last year. Trade, economic, scientific, technical and cultural engagements also figure in SCO’s objectives. SCO also runs an SCO Interbank Association, an SCO Business Forum and an SCO Think Tank Forum. Interestingly, one of the objectives of SCO is “creation of democratic, fair and rational new international political and economic order”.

These were found to be in alignment with overall Indian foreign policy objectives too and Delhi, therefore, showed an inclination to join SCO. During the 2014 BRICS summit meet, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a role for India in SCO. He asked it to be a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, possibly as a quid pro quo for the SCO offer. Supported by Russia, the 2015 Russia-India-China meeting “welcomed India’s application for full membership of SCO”. India, thus, became a full member on June 9, 2017. The four top aims of India have been trade, energy, counter-terrorism and anti-narcotics.

As the current Chair of SCO, India will hold the meeting of the SCO Heads of State Council in July 2023 in Delhi. In preparation for this, India has been conducting a series of events. The SCO Tourism Ministers’ Meeting (TMM) was held in Varanasi on March 17-18 where the city was declared as the first tourism and cultural capital of SCO. 

Xi Jinping has unveiled his Global Civilisational Initiative, forming part of a trilogy consisting of Global Security Initiative and Global Development Initiative. Simultaneously, India is using the opportunity to highlight its civilisational connection with all the SCO countries, especially its Buddhist heritage. India conducted a two-day “Shared Buddhist Heritage” international conference just ahead of the SCO-TMM last month.

Early March also saw the SCO chief justices/chairpersons of the Supreme Courts meeting for three days with the aim to foster effective judicial cooperation among member states. Late March witnessed a meeting of the SCO National Security Advisors. Just this month, there was the SCO Young Authors’ Conference in Delhi. The next two major SCO meetings would be among the SCO defense ministers in Delhi between April 27 and 29 and foreign ministers in Goa on May 4 and 5, leading eventually to the Summit in July.

As far back as 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had emphasised Security, Economy, Connectivity, Unity, and Respect for Environment, or SECURE. Therefore, the theme of SECURE should dominate the upcoming SCO apex meeting as well as the formulation of the New Delhi Declaration. 

Many members of SCO face serious border and terrorism-related issues. Grave border disputes plague India-China, India-Pakistan, Russia-Ukraine, Pakistan-Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan while cross-border terrorism from Pakistan and Afghanistan has bothered everyone. Sometimes meetings at various levels do help thaw frosty relationships. After the 2018 SCO meet, China tried unsuccessfully to play a mediatory role between India and Pakistan with its China-POK-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor in mind. A dangerously failing nuclear Pakistan and its continuing support for cross-border terrorism, exemplified by the latest Poonch attack, should be of concern to SCO. Another issue is Afghanistan where the situation has not stabilised and China, which had vehemently criticised the US for its leadership failures there, is unwilling to play any serious role now. 

The on-going Russia-Ukraine war would reverberate deeply in the deliberations, as it did in Samarkand 2022, and the joint communique would be particularly tough to formulate as we have seen in the last Bali G-20 Conference as well as in the G-20 finance ministers’ meeting recently. India, as the Chair, would have its task cut out. 

Loaded with countries that support the Russian and Chinese positions on the Ukraine war, India has to seek a nuanced position lest the 23rd Summit of the SCO degenerates into simply western-censuring. India has a chance to boldly unveil the contours of a new multilateral world order. Modi’s statement at the SCO meet at Samarkand, 2022, “Yeh yug yudh ka nahin hai (This is not the era of war)” has been resounding. India will also be pressing for greater progress in counter terrorism cooperation, especially in the light of the SCO Samarkand Declaration 2022 which agreed to “develop common principles and approaches” against “terrorist, separatist and extremist organisations”.

SCO should be pushed to adopt India’s 1986 UN draft “Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism” as the basis for tackling terror. India has seen the UN 1267 Committee and the Financial Action Task Force being hijacked for geopolitical reasons. The joint statement of the recent four nations meet on Afghanistan specifically named terrorist groups challenging Pakistan, Iran, China and Afghanistan, but omitted Pakistan-based and backed India-centric terror groups. India should therefore press for balance.

As India faces an increasing narcotics onslaught from across porous and inimical borders, it would be looking for tighter cooperation among SCO states especially as Afghanistan is a major producer of drugs and Pakistan is its major transporter into India and elsewhere. SCO has been planning to establish an anti-drug center at Dushanbe and India should positively influence this setup with its concerns and expertise. 

Another area that India would be looking for is the economic linkages which also depend largely on connectivity, especially for the land-locked CAR countries which form the extended territorial neighbourhood of India. India has for long been pressing for transit rights to and from landlocked countries such as Afghanistan. The importance of the International North-South Transit Corridor cannot be overstated and its success hinges on such rights. Developments in connectivity could also allow for greater energy access by India. The crucial Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline is currently stalled.

With a resounding Indian mantra of “One Sun, One World and One Grid” which was adopted by COP-26 climate meet, and with its ambitious goals of achieving net-zero emission by 2070 while achieving 50% renewable energy by 2030, India, the founder of the International Solar Alliance, must showcase its efforts in SCO 23 so as to mentor most of the SCO nations in their transformation too. 

As is always the case, such meetings in complex times are both an opportunity and a challenge. 

—The writer is a distinguished member of the Chennai Center for China Studies. His book Space Situation Awareness and China is in print


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