Source: Hindustan Times

Mobeen Jafar Mir and Maryyum Masood

The West is apprehensive about the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)’s expansion into a formidable regional organization in Eurasia, not least due to shared anti-U.S. sentiments prevailing among its major member states. These concerns might have a bearing on how India, one of the Organisation’s members, deals with this all-important grouping. However, the argument driving these misgivings is erroneous and misses out on the developments that led to the Organisation’s gradual evolution.

The ‘Shanghai Five’, formed in 1996, was the SCO’s predecessor, and initially laid the groundwork for Sino-Russia strategic partnership in Central Asia. This association was aimed at discussing confidence-building measures (CBMs) and the demarcation issue in the former Soviet-Chinese border region. This gradual process of resolving border issues and signing CBMs to tone down tensions gave birth to the ‘Shanghai Process,’ a name that later became synonymous with ‘stability and trust’ among its original five founding members. 

In 2001, Uzbekistan became a full-fledged sixth member of the Organization, and the ‘Shanghai Five’ turned into the SCO. In 2017, India and Pakistan joined the SCO as full members, extending it to its eight existing members. The catalyst for this spirit was undoubtedly the early cooperation on border issues. This ‘legacy of border successes’ played a significant role in the development of the SCO. Other broader objectives of the SCO were combatting terrorism, fighting drug-trafficking, and tackling human smuggling.

Probably, the most daunting challenge facing this rich legacy of border successes is coming from India, a country that, in addition to Uzbekistan and Pakistan, is not part of the original ‘Shanghai Process.’ 

Pakistan is a strategic partner of China; it resolved its border issues with that country through the Pakistan-China boundary agreement on March 3, 1963. It is an important partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and links China’s Xinjiang to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port through BRI’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). What’s more, the Corridor’s potential extension to Afghanistan is being encouraged by all Central Asian Republics (CARs), Iran, and even Saudi Arabia. The only country that has been criticizing CPEC is India. 

Likewise, Uzbekistan that shares borders with all its four Central Asian neighbours, is also diplomatically and peacefully resolving border issues with its neighbours. In December last year, it amicably settled all pending border disputes with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and initiated talks with Tajikistan to solve the border issues. 

India, on the other hand, has territorial disputes with two major SCO members: China and Pakistan. The unresolved, simmering Kashmir issue continues to increase acrimony between India and Pakistan. India’s unilateral, illegal abrogation of Kashmir’s special status in 2019 has exacerbated tensions between the two nuclear-power states. In China’s case, both Asian giants had fought a war in 1962, and relations between them have recently further deteriorated over their contested Himalayan border.

India’s unwillingness to be part of joint efforts to resolve the Kashmir conflict was evident in Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s slamming of his Pakistan counterpart for raising the issue of the abrogation of Article 370 at the SCO Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Goa, India. ‘Wake up, smell the coffee, 370 is history,’ was Jaishankar’s flippant remark. Similarly, during the SCO Defence Ministers meeting, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh expressed opposition and hostility towards Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu, both verbally and non-verbally. Experts also believe that Indian decision to host the 23rd Summit of Council of Heads of State of SCO ‘virtually’ on July 4, 2023, rather than ‘in person’ indicates New Delhi’s uneasy relationship with Beijing within SCO.

These developments are likely to present a dimmer outlook for the future expansion of the SCO if the organization fails to become a platform for its member states to join hands on one common denominator in their respective interests i.e., resolving border issues.

India’s Lackadaisical Approach towards the SCO

India has become an important part of the U.S. policy of containing China in the Asia-Pacific. Its membership of multilateral security arrangements like the QUAD is mainly focused on countering China. As part of the contain-China policy, New Delhi does not desist itself from opposing Beijing on multilateral fora, including the SCO, making the environment unconducive for dialogue. 

Further, India is aspiring to become a member of the NATO-plus security alliance, to boost its defense cooperation with the West. In conformity with this, India has decided to hold the 2023 annual summit virtually, which would allow it to complete the event without Russian and Chinese participation. This Indian decision could be a move to continue its membership process in the NATO-plus alliance, strengthening its position in the U.S.-led bloc. 

India’s resistance to dialogue, using the SCO forum to denounce China and Pakistan, and obstructing progress for development in the SCO imply that the Organisation is not that important for it. India’s broader aim, it must be stressed, is to strengthen its partnership with the U.S., something which may go on to subvert the said forum. Indian policymakers presumably think that India does not need the SCO for bettering its ties with Russia and the Central Asian Republics (CARs).

A stable region is in the interests of all the parties, and both China and Pakistan have remained steadfast in their commitment to bringing security and prosperity to the region. However, India could negatively impact unity and bonhomie among the SCO members through its animosity with China and Pakistan, leading to lesser chances of constructive cooperation in the future.

This increasing instability in Southern Asia is a cause of concern to the policy circles in Pakistan and China. However, in this fragile security landscape, the SCO can play a constructive role in diminishing tensions between these three nuclear-armed neighbors. Indian policymakers, rather than play to the domestic crowd, should take into account the importance of the SCO for resolving regional tensions through promoting dialogue and paving  the way for cooperation.

Mobeen Jafar Mir is Research Officer, Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad.

Maryyum Masood is Research Officer and Associate Editor, Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad.