Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is in Tashkent to attend the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), an event that would not normally merit the kind of attention it is getting. It’s worth noting that the SCO is an organisation dominated by China, a country with whom 16 rounds of talks have produced no significant result, and whose ‘super-spy ship’ in Sri Lanka has only just left after six days of ‘rest’ in Hambantota.
Then there is Russia. Nothing more needs to be said about that.
And here’s the Defence Minister going to Tashkent, where he is expected to chat with the heads of these countries, including the Central Asians. There’s no doubt at all that the United States and its allies will be watching this, brows knit. This is a cocktail of no mean variety, with a generous dose of vodka.
SCO vs NATO
First, a little about the SCO. In terms of sheer physical space, it’s massive. It is the world’s largest organisation, comprising some 30 million square kilometres, counting just its original members: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Add India and Pakistan to that, and soon Iran and Belarus, and the sheer size of the organisation becomes staggering. But it doesn’t benefit much by comparison with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which though only a fraction of this huge land mass, has some highly attractive qualities. It is strikingly democratic in terms of its political lexicon, while the SCO is definitely not.
Certainly, NATO is dominated by the US, which does, however, depend on the other members to stay the course. The SCO, on the other hand, is dominated by China, which doesn’t depend on others. Look at the website. There’s no doubt at all about who is in charge.
But here’s the main aspect. NATO is miles ahead of the SCO in terms of sheer experience and interoperability, which is really the key to any allied military strength. That’s the reality.
Military cooperation between members of the grouping got off to a slow start in 2002, with Russia mostly hosting the exercises together with China. According to Chinese sources, the grouping did a total of 24 anti-terrorism military drills, of which eight were naval exercises and two were anti-cyber drills (2002-2017).
Essentially, what concerns western watchers is that many of these essentially involved just Russia and China exercising together – with others providing small symbolic contingents – and these have gone up hugely since 2016 in size and number. Vostok 2018, for example, incorporated more than 1,000 aircraft and almost 300,000 troops and was spread across the Central and Eastern military districts, with some 36,000 pieces of military equipment engaged, according to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. After India and Pakistan joined the organisation in 2017, they later were part of the ‘Peace Mission’ exercises the next year, ironically involving counter-terrorism.
But the point is that India did participate. The Chinese spokesperson at the time noted, “These two countries are important ones in South Asia”, adding that a stable relationship between the two countries is “significant to the peace and development of the region and the whole world”.
India has since then sent small contingents up to 200, or below. Delhi did refuse to take part in exercises in 2020 due to the border clash with China, but it officially stated that this was due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Therefore, no surprise then that India eventually went back to the grouping, with the then-Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat attending the final day of the exercise in 2021.
Delhi has, however, reportedly refused a proposal to increase the complexity of the exercise and scale of participation recently. While the respective ministries are fine with more cooperation in other areas such as pandemic management, it feels that the defence component of the grouping has gone far enough. In the present ‘Vostok 2022’ exercises, a reported 75 personnel will participate. And the surprise? Pakistani troops will then come to India for SCO exercises here at Manesar in Haryana. It seems the SCO has more uses than immediately apparent.
The Iran Factor
The defence exercises occur against the backdrop of a series of other SCO meetings, including with the respective National Security Council Heads as well as Foreign Ministers. The 'read-outs' at these meetings are bland and don't seem to indicate much to do. But across the board, there is condemnation of terrorism, which suits India very well. It is well worth noting that an SCO meeting on terrorism took place quietly in Delhi in May this year, with three Pakistani officials attending. It seems that for now at least, the tantrums of the past, which included the then-Pakistani NSA, Moeed Yusuf, brandishing a ‘map’ showing large tracts of Indian territory as part of its claims, is now over.
At July 2022 meetings, the thrust has been towards pushing for connectivity, with Delhi welcoming the entry of Iran, and for Chabahar to become a natural exit point for Central Asian trade. There are also talks between the industry ministers of each country, and India’s heavy industries minister Mahendra Nath Pandey has been pushing for linkages across the board in a bid to create new supply chains and resilience. All of this then goes into the final meeting of the Heads of State. That is the final political signal when documents are signed and matters set in motion.
The Irony of a US-India Exercise in Bakloh
The heads-of-state meeting is due in Samarkhand next month. The present signals are that Chinese President Xi is to attend it in person. This is quite a different setting from the hybrid meeting last year, which Prime Minister Modi addressed virtually. More importantly, it is now India’s turn to hold the presidency in 2023, giving Delhi a chance to shape outcomes. Those actions are a little freer now that the US has grudgingly accepted Indian exercises with SCO. What it doesn’t want, as its spokesman said, is an axis between Russia, China and Iran. With Tehran due to become a partner under Delhi’s presidency, it's going to be sticky.
However, India can perhaps use the forum to bring about some rapprochement between Washington and Iran, by drawing the latter into a regional trade arrangement that benefits its beleaguered economy and that of its neighbours, especially Afghanistan. That will require equally troubled Pakistan to come on board.
Then there’s the ‘China problem’. Beijing likes Delhi’s talk of an 'Asian century', with its Foreign Ministry spokesperson pointing out that such an outcome was impossible without the two countries cooperating and opening up again to Indian student visas. The hiccup? Even as all this was going on, the US and Indian Special Forces were exercising in Himachal Pradesh at Bakloh, not far from the China border. That’s something for Beijing to consider as it inches towards Sri Lanka and Nepal. The lesson? Two can play this game. Play on.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)