Tuesday, October 1, 2013

SCO Important for India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ Policy

Brig (Retd) Vinod Anand, 
Senior Fellow, VIF

Salience of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and its relevance to India has been growing since India was first admitted to SCO as an observer in 2005. Over the years, SCO has acquired increasing significance as an important platform for cooperation on regional economic and security issues. India has been keen to engage the Central Asian countries in a wide variety of issues though keeping away from the power politics of the region. Counter terrorism, energy security, economic integration with Central Asian Republics (CARs) and improving connectivity are some of the key objectives of India while it pursues its interests under the rubric of SCO.

Currently, there are many competing structures in Central Asia which have similar agenda as the SCO. The foremost being the Central Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Community dominated by Russia, NATO’s Partnership for Peace Programme with Central Asian Republics, Central Asian Regional Economic Cooperation, Economic Cooperation Organisation besides many other multilateral initiatives in the region that have overlapping domains with the SCO. Evidently, this has its own disadvantages and advantages but several structures to attain similar aims create inefficiencies and dilute the significance of any particular platform. It can also be seen that several major powers in the region have promoted their own structures to achieve their geo-political and geo-strategic objectives. Thus, it can be said that presence of such geo-political competition in the region does have an impact on the future development of SCO. In any case, SCO has emerged as the most prominent multilateral platform of the Central Asian region.

With the planned withdrawal of NATO and the US from Afghanistan post -2014, SCO is being viewed as an important organisation that could support security and stability efforts in Afghanistan. SCO’s permanent members and observer countries have interests in stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan as adverse fallout from there has the potential of negatively affecting each and every country in the neighbourhood. SCO’s positive contribution to Afghanistan in a post-2014 scenario will help it in evolving as a very significant or rather the most important institution in the region. However, untangling the Afghan imbroglio would be a daunting task for the SCO.

While the Syrian crisis acquired more urgency at the SCO summit held this month in Bishkek, the main focus of the SCO’s deliberations was the developing situation in Afghanistan. Presidents of Russia, China and the host country of Kyrgyzstan articulated their concerns on the security situation in Afghanistan. India’s Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid observed that “India is increasingly concerned about the security challenges which may emanate from the developing situation in Afghanistan. India strongly believes that Afghanistan can successfully complete the security, political and economic transitions in coming years and regain its historical place as a hub for regional trade and transit routes. However, this presupposes fulfillment of pledges made by the international community for security and civilian assistance to Afghanistan and non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs”. He underlined the fact that India considers SCO as an important body that can offer a credible alternative regional platform to discuss the challenges related to Afghanistan.

At the summit, India supported the general consensus of the SCO members on the Syrian crisis. India favours a political solution to the Syrian conflict, including the early holding of the proposed ‘International Conference on Syria’ (Geneva-II), bringing all parties to the conflict to the negotiating table.

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has been attending SCO summit meetings since 2004. Afghanistan was admitted as an observer in the SCO last year. Four years back in 2009 summit in Russia, SCO had even made an action plan for addressing the situation in Afghanistan. However, even after many declarations and conferences, there has been very little that has been achieved in ameliorating the evolving situation in Afghanistan. No concrete SCO plans to deal with post 2014 situation in Afghanistan exist.

On the other hand, India and China have already had meetings on Central Asia developments that include Afghanistan. Earlier also there have been discussions between the two on Afghanistan at Track I and Track II levels. Both countries have also had bilateral dialogues with countries like Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the implications of US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Though SCO appears to be an attractive platform for forging a regional solution to the Afghan puzzle, yet its present state of development may not be conducive for the same.

India has also started a dialogue with Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) of the SCO and is looking forward to enhanced cooperation and information exchanges with it. The overall objective of India’s engagement with RATS and the SCO member States would be to coordinate efforts in dealing with the threats emanating from terrorism and drug trafficking.

So far as the question of admitting new members is concerned, there has been a very gradual movement. Such a step would definitely add to the stature of the SCO and make it more inclusive and comprehensive. In addition, it will strengthen the SCO’s capacity to work towards bringing peace and stability in the region. But it would take some time before the geo-political apprehensions of both the existing members and likely new members could be overcome.

India has on many occasions expressed its desire to join the SCO though it has not yet made a formal application. Last year, the then External Affairs Minister S M Krishna who attended the SCO Summit in Beijing had declared India’s intention in seeking membership of the forum. Again in December last year, at SCO’s Prime Ministerial meeting at Bishkek, India’s Secretary (East) had stated that New Delhi was keen to join the SCO as a full member. This call was repeated again by Salman Khurshid; he said at the Bishkek summit that “India stands ready to play a larger role in the SCO as a full member, once the organization reaches consensus on the expansion process. It is our conviction that an expanded SCO will be a more effective body to address the numerous security and developmental challenges that our region faces”. This also indicates the seriousness with which India views the SCO.

However, Indian interlocutors are expecting a movement on membership only in 2015 as the SCO Secretariat is moving very slowly on the issue of admitting new members. Apparently, China is not as yet ready to give its consent for India being admitted to SCO and all decisions in this forum is taken based on the consent of all the members. There appears to be some complicated and unstated geo-political conditions attached to India’s SCO’s membership.

India’s interests in Central Asia are also focussed on energy security where it is looking for creating a level playing field by the hydro carbon rich CARs like Kazakhstan. India has lost out to China in striking at least two oil deals with Kazakhstan for debatable reasons. India, though not a member, has strongly endorsed the Russian proposal of creating an SCO Energy Club (first articulated in 2007). The avowed objectives of the SCO Energy Club of “uniting oil and gas companies from SCO’s producers, consumers and transit countries in coordination of strategies with the aim of increasing energy security” rhymes very well with India’s interests. However, Bishkek summit discussions did not focus much on the issue this year.

Another topic of interest to India is improving its connectivity to CARs; India has been seeking cooperation of Iran and SCO members in achieving the aims and objectives of its new ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy that was unveiled last year in June. India’s Minister of State for External Affairs had stated that “India is now looking intently at the region through the framework of its ‘connect central Asia’ policy, which is based on pro-active political, economic and people-to-people engagement with central Asian countries, both individually and collectively”.

Further, with the economic down trend gaining some momentum, the proposed SCO Development Bank could become a useful vehicle for cooperating on removing the negative effects of such a situation. Economic integration with neighoburhood and extended neighbourhood has been one of the stated Indian policies and therefore, India is very keen to step up efforts in economic cooperation between South Asia and Central Asia. This is expected to bring peace and prosperity and contribute towards stability in the region. Thus, the summit discussed as to how the SCO Development Bank could further modernise the economies, improve investment partnership and infrastructure and transportation corridors. India needs to become an important partner so that its connectivity and trade objectives could be realised.

India is already engaging the SCO member states in areas of human resource development, IT, pharmaceuticals, small and medium enterprises, people to people relations etc. as part of its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy and would continue to seek to intensify the same through the SCO platform.

India will not favour SCO if it moves towards becoming a military block like NATO or the CSTO. SCO does hold joint military exercises regularly, the latest being Peace Mission 2013 but they are designed to be anti-terrorism exercises where observer countries are invited to send observers off and on.

Overall, SCO is becoming a very significant multilateral platform in Central Asia to forge regional cooperation. Helping in bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan in post-2014 scenario would be a test case for the SCO as an institution.

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