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What Sitharaman’s Meeting With China Def Minister Means for India

Nirmala Sitharaman is expected to arrive in Beijing on 24 April to attend SCO’s annual defence ministerial meeting.

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What Sitharaman’s Meeting With China Def Minister Means for India
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Raksha Mantri Nirmala Sitharaman is meeting Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe for the second time this month. The two leaders had met earlier this month on the sidelines of the Moscow Security Conference (MCS) and exchanged views on bilateral issues.

General Wei Fenghe, former commander of PLA’s Rocket Force, became China’s defence minister early this year. Wei seemingly never dealt or served along the Indian borders – which mean he wouldn’t possibly be carrying any direct negative past baggage vis-à-vis India. Therefore, the Indian defence minister’s meeting with General Wei should provide a good opportunity to build a fresh rapport and set ties between the two militaries on track in terms of resuming military exchanges that had been put on hold before the Doklam stand-off.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
(Photo: PTI)
Already, ahead of the Raksha Mantri’s visit, Beijing had seemingly sent a proposal with a calendar of activities to be carried out by the two militaries as part of confidence-building measures (CMB). This signals an important shift. 

All Eyes on Anti-Terror Cooperation

Sitharaman is attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) annual defence ministerial meeting for the first time. She is meeting her counterparts from eight other member states, apart from the SCO’s secretary-general and the head of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS).

The meeting by no means is insignificant, as the SCO is now the key driving force for regional security covering three-fifths of Eurasia and nearly half the world population.

The critical issue is whether India is joining the Eurasian security solidarity and coordination efforts in the true “Shanghai Spirit” with a long-term strategy or is it just about pulling off a diplomatic stunt.

Apparently, Pakistan and India expressed willingness to actively participate in the defence and security cooperation within the SCO framework to contribute to regional security and stability. Article 6 of the RATS stipulates to act on the request on SCO parties to counter “three evils,” including sharing of intelligence.

The grouping doesn’t allow bilateral issues to be raised, but defence ministers do review pressing global and regional security matters, highlight their respective positions, coordinate action plans, and issues a joint communiqué. Russia is expected to highlight the Syrian crisis, its diplomatic spat with the West over the UK nerve agent attack, whereas China could garner the SCO’s support for its South China Sea position and its BRI projects.

India’s aspirations in the grouping are linked to gaining benefits in economics, connectivity and counter-terrorism cooperation. 

No Magic Wand to Curb Terrorism

Do not expect outright support to isolate Pakistan on the issue of terrorism, but last year the SCO did adopt a draft convention on terrorism, terrorist act and terrorist organisations to cooperate against individuals and legal entities related to the recruitment, training and utilisation of terrorists. Notably, Pakistan had to place Hafiz Saeed’s Tehreek-e-Azaadi Jammu and Kashmir on the list of "proscribed organisations" a day before it became a full member of the SCO on 9 June 2017, although Islamabad used Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) pressure as the pretext.

For India, becoming a member of the SCO has a lot to do with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rapport with the Chinese president. 
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@narendramodi)

In February this year, China cleverly withdrew its support for Pakistan at the FATF, which landed Islamabad once again back on an international terrorism financing "grey list". Quite possibly, it was linked to preventing India from raising terrorism issue at the SCO meet.

From India’s perspective, the Tashkent-based RATS is important for gaining information on extremist groups like the ISIS, the Taliban, and others. Article 6 of the RATS stipulates to act on the request on any member to share intelligence on terror networks, spread of ideological propaganda, cross-border crime, terrorist financing and money laundering, etc.

So far, the RATS has seemingly curbed over “500 terrorist crimes, eliminated over 440 training bases; caught 1050 international terrorists.” It maintains a list of terrorist outfits that are banned in the SCO space. Incidentally, SCO had banned Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) back in 2007.


It is also hard to imagine how the RATS would share high-value information on terrorist hideouts, say in FATA and Waziristan areas, when Pakistan is also a member, but working closely with the RATS would be critical to ensure that undesirable elements inimical to India do not get their footing in Central Asia. India has already raised its flag at the RATS’ headquarters in Tashkent in June last year.

Joining Hands with the Member State Militaries

The agenda for this year includes holding a Fanfare for Peace Military Tattoo in China and ‘Peace Mission 2018’ military drill to be held in Chelyabinsk (Russia) in August. This could provide a rare opportunity for the militaries of member states (including India and Pakistan) to share several multilateral tables, join hands in mock military exercises, coordinate operational details and share intelligence.

This could be beneficial for strengthening mil-to-mil relationship – an essential element of military diplomacy. It could possibly provide impetus for Indian military and the PLA to shed misgivings about each other.

So far, only Russian and Chinese is used as operating languages in the “anti-terror” drills; whether India and Pakistan will be able to add English to improve its interoperability is yet to be seen.


Soft Diplomacy Goes a Long Way

It would be worth participating actively in the SCO annual music festival "Trumpet of Peace” with Indian military bands, which should be tailored to cover educational and entertaining shows to introduce the best Indian military traditions to the key stakeholders including students.

In 2017, defence ministers decided to study and preserve the historical and cultural heritages and to confer awards on people who contribute to strengthening better cooperation between SCO’s defence ministries.

India should offer to hold SCO military sports competitions pertaining physical training, military combat skill, and professional proficiency of military action: land, sea and air.


Cooperation in the Face of Crisis

Another area could be sharing expertise in capacity building of civilian crisis management and military rapid response. India could contribute to creating a crisis management structure for military missions in humanitarian aid, disaster relief and rescue operation under SCO banner.

India can offer the rich experience of its paramilitary forces for fostering cooperation with SCO members on border management, cross-border infiltration, drug trafficking etc.

The scale of India’s defence cooperation with Central Asian states is rather impressive that covers areas ranging from military-to-military cooperation, training and assistance, joint military exercises, servicing and upgrading of military hardware, import of military equipments and spare parts.

The existing cooperation needs to be enlarged to include active participations in each others’ defence expos such as in the Russian IntellTechExpo, Russian Arms Expo, Kazakhstan Defence Expo (KADEX) and India’s own defence exhibitions Defexpo and AeroExpo-India.

There is a lack of clarity on what it means for India to be in SCO in terms of specific function and benefits. But, the grouping has emerged as an important geopolitical pole in Eurasia; as such India has to be in than out of it.


India Should Play It Safe

To be sure, conflicting interests would intersect at the forum, especially the fear of Pakistan putting a spanner in India’s goals. Also, Russian position over regional security issues would increasingly be at odd with those of India. Yet SCO could be used diligently by New Delhi to neutralise China’s support on curbing Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. More so, when China’s own woes of terrorist threat are growing, and as the BRI moves ahead, Chinese nationals are getting exposed to greater terror threats.

For now, India and Pakistan should be wise enough to keep little low profile and not act as spoilers. They will have to any way respect SCO’s 38 parameters that oblige member states among other things to “avoid military conflict” and “adhere to good-neighbourly ties”

However, to make it more meaningful, India should soon institute a regular strategic dialogue with the SCO members. Meanwhile and to play safe, India should for a while stick to existing bilateral-level defence cooperation with SCO member states.


(P Stobdan, a former Indian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, is an expert on Himalayan and inner Asian affairs. He tweets @pstobdan. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)

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