What does SCO membership actually hold for India? Pursuing the goal of multi-polarity apart, are there direct potential gains for India? For India, the SCO has been about increasing its political, economic and security stakes in Central Asia – a reason why New Delhi keenly pursued its formal entry into the grouping despite critics at home challenging the wisdom of joining a Chinese-led body as a junior member with a lesser political voice. From India’s perspective, SCO membership would open a new opportunity to reconnect with Eurasia after a century of disruption. Prime Minister Modi said at the Ufa summit that membership of SCO would be “a natural extension of India’s ties with member countries.”
SCO could offer India with some unique opportunities to get constructively engaged with Eurasia to address shared security concerns, especially for combating terrorism and containing threats posed by ISIS and the Taliban. SCO aims to focus on combating terrorism, separatism and extremism. The measures undertaken by the grouping may have served China’s fight against its ‘three evils’, as also effectively dealt with imminent threats being posed to the Central Asian states as well. India could benefit from stepping up cooperation especially by tapping into the existing SCO processes such as the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) that shares key information and intelligence on movements of terrorists and drug-trafficking. Similarly, participation in the SCO’s counter-terror exercises and annually conducted military drills could benefit our armed forces understand the operational tactics of other militaries which could also instil greater confidence at the regional level.
More critically, a presence in the forum is essential to ensure that inimical forces do not manipulate the body to drum up anti-India stands in this critical region comprising of Muslim populated states. Direct stakes are also in gaining information such as on drug-trafficking control, cyber security threats, public information, mass media, educational, environmental, disaster management and water related issues of Eurasia that we know little about. It provides additional latitude for securing India’s energy interests – to invest in oilfields with an eye to get its way on the pipeline routes. SCO could also change the way for TAPI to see the light at the end of the tunnel, the viability of which has been threatened so far by a host of reasons.
Further, India would be able to seek mutually beneficial partnerships with SCO members in human capacity building, technology, education, health and policy convergence in regional trade and financial institutions. India could bring to the SCO its techno-economic expertise, markets and financial commitment. India’s experience in dealing with multi-cultural settings is an attraction among many sections in Central Asia. India has evidently demonstrated its ability to render value addition in terms of contributing towards the civilian reconstruction process in Afghanistan, which may also ultimately help generate a positive political environment for peace building – most critical for ensuring sustainable peace and stability in the SCO region.
On the connectivity front, China’s OBOR has certainly put India in a quandary. In fact, the decision to expand the SCO seems to be spurred mainly by economic factors. To allay any misgivings, Beijing has taken a grandstanding position on OBOR/CPEC suggesting that these would prove conducive for the development and prosperity of the “whole region”. China has separately pushed its own USD 46 billion worth “China Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC) overland project to link Western China with Gwadar Port in Pakistan. India resented China’s plan of building the corridor through its sovereign territory of Gilgit-Baltistan illegally held by Pakistan. Beijing considers CPEC an economic “livelihood project” that is not aimed at a third country. There is no way that India will compromise on the sovereignty issue of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). However, rhetoric aside, a set of projects envisaged under OBOR and CPEC could transform the region flanking the north of India into a new economic hub and a zone of joint projects having implications for India. For its part, Russia has already found a way to reconcile its own transport connectivity plans with that of OBOR. To seek mutual benefits, Putin and Xi had decided last year to bring greater synergy between projects under the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and OBOR. Similarly, all the five Central Asian states view the OBOR and EAEU as having the potential to transform the region into a major hub of transcontinental transportation networks. While most countries are unwilling to openly articulate their concerns, but a country like Iran also probably believes that China’s OBOR plan is not convincingly transparent. Iranian policy thinkers, while interacting with this author and other Indian analysts – during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Tehran on 22-23 May 2016 – admitted that OBOR is definitely geopolitically driven. The same may be also true about China’s other projects undertaken across the Eurasian space and along the maritime route across the Indian Ocean. Chinese investment in Gwadar, port building in Sri Lanka, a military base in Djibouti and now the development of port and industrial facilities in Oman are underpinned by geopolitical and military objectives. These have been a source of concern for India. Quite clearly, others will also eventually feel the need to challenge China’s aggressive posturing. The countries in Southeast Asia are already questioning China’s real motives. India certainly cannot be indifferent and stay outside the infrastructure and connectivity being built on such a scale. By joining SCO, India should be able to think more sharply on how to respond to OBOR and find ways to join both the Russian and Chinese built transport network.
In fact, India should be consulting Iran, Russia and the states of the Caucasus to coordinate on respective connectivity projects under consideration. The International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) on which a lot of work is being done requires urgent implementation. India has already undertaken steps to find alternate ways. By committing investments for the development of Chabahar port, India has indicated its seriousness about enhancing regional connectivity. In fact, the ground-breaking events of Chabahar (Iran) and Salma Dam (Afghanistan) projects – weeks ahead of the Tashkent Summit – were seemingly meant to signal India’s strong commitment for the regional integration process. India has never been opposed to working with Pakistan or China on connectivity or exploring opportunities for undertaking joint energy projects like TAPI. But lack of transparency and perpetual hostility by Pakistan has virtually led to India being cut off from accessing Eurasia to connect with China’s Silk Road projects. Therefore, the Chabahar project is the only way to overcome both Pakistani geopolitical hostility and the ring of Chinese encirclement that impede India’s Eurasia access. Hopefully, the Chabahar port will not only provide India access to Central Asian, Caspian, Iranian and Western Siberian gas fields but would also pave the way for tapping the vast deposits of high value rare earth minerals in Central Asia and Afghanistan. It is evident that any policy based on rivalry is not likely to succeed. Iran has sought Indian collaboration on the Chabahar project but Tehran has also indicated that it would like to keep its options open on Chabahar. Top Iranian officials have already denied that Chabahar is meant as a rival to Gwadar. Instead, Tehran seems to be looking for partnership with Pakistan and China with also an eye to join China’s OBOR initiative as well as to tap into CPEC. Clearly, Iran is keen to push its own gas pipeline along the same route to reach China’s Western province. Similarly, the Afghan Ambassador to China Janan Mosazai also stated that his country has an “extraordinarily” close relationship with India but supports the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As stated earlier, Russia and the Central Asian states have applauded China’s OBOR as an initiative to bridge East and West. Surprisingly, China too is seeing Chabahar in a positive perspective. Chinese media close to the Communist Party has lauded India in an editorial for contributing to ‘regional connectivity’. Against these regional perspectives, India cannot be taking a position other than a cooperative one if it wants to genuinely exploit opportunities that SCO processes may offer. Any policy on connectivity underpinned by a spirit of rivalry is going to make India an odd one out. India should certainly join SCO with a fresh mind without any ambiguity. But at the same time, India should be mindful of the geopolitical calculations that underpin these connectivity projects.