India is all set to host the virtual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Heads of the Government on November 30, in which Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is expected to take part.
Surprisingly, within three years after joining, India is speedily seeking integration with the organisation despite New Delhi exuding greater strategic intimacy with SCO’s arch-rival – the United States. India ardently participated in a series of SCO’s annual activities except for skipping this year’s military exercise “Kavkaz 2020”, citing the pandemic-related constraints.
SCO’s Usefulness to India
Twenty years in, the SCO isn’t an effective regional powerhouse as yet. But, given the current conflation of global economic uncertainty and against the Chinese assertion, the SCO remains a useful platform for India to espouse its strategic autonomy in the global affairs.
The charters of the SCO are less confrontational and the decisions are consensus-based. Considering its profile and benign image, India is well suited to play a balancing interest in this body. It serves to balance India’s ties with the US while simultaneously keeping China’s regional ambitions in check.
It’s obviously in no one’s interest to let the region once again become a chessboard of great game rivalries or a hub of terrorism and extremism. India’s persistent strong voice at every level to combat terrorist networks is having a region-wide positive effect. There is also an urge to deepen and expand regional autonomy vis-à-vis Russia and China.
First, New Delhi should use the summit to restore the SCO’s original commitment to work in compliance with its basic Principles and Charters, which has been eroded by some member states while repeatedly dragging bilateral issues in the agenda.
India-China Find Common Ground Over COVID-19 Vaccine
Second, in view of the dramatic weakening of global governance amidst the COVID pandemic, India should use the SCO platform as a test-bed for promoting its development model.
Interestingly, at the 19th SCO summit, PM Modi presented a new template for cooperation, i.e., in healthcare, economic cooperation, alternative energy, literature, and culture, terrorism-free society, and humanitarian cooperation.
These form a part of his vision of building a "Self-reliant India" in the post-pandemic world. And, if the national capacity-building efforts are clubbed with economic multilateralism, they will prove to be a Force Multiplier for the global economic recovery.
This needs no binary great-power politics. India’s COVID-19 relief diplomacy is a success. Its pharma industry has helped more than 150 countries with essential medicines to save humanity.
In the next stage, India’s massive role in the manufacturing and delivery of vaccines would greatly shape the post-pandemic world order. As for the SCO, a credit line of $1 billion has just been announced by India for stabilising the sanitary and epidemiological situation in Central Asia.
In Moscow, there appeared a near congruence of interests among India, China and Russia to address the pandemic crisis.
Incidentally, both PM Modi and President Xi shared an identical view on the unique value of traditional medicine in the battle against COVID-19 – hence the need for learning from each other.
When President Xi called for establishing an SCO community of cultural exchanges, PM Modi gave outright support to celebrate the 20th anniversary of SCO next year as "SCO Culture Year" where New Delhi would showcase its shared global Buddhist heritage. That’s fresh!
Exploring the Potential in Eurasia
Third, some member states are trying in vain to keep India out of the Eurasian regional synergy. So far, a sentiment often heard from the Chinese pronouncement, this time PM Modi too brilliantly evoked from the past when he said, "India shared centuries of enduring historical and cultural bonds with Eurasia”, for he also reminded that “our ancestors kept them alive with their untiring and persistent contacts.”
Clearly then, when Eurasia in the past played a springboard role for globalising Indian civilization, New Delhi finds a new destiny – this time to re-couple the region with modern content.
Of course, after having invested a lot in the International North-South Transport Corridor, Chabahar Port, and Ashgabat Agreements, India is unlikely to leave out its regional connectivity aspirations despite geopolitical hurdles being posed.
But, for that to materialise, PM Modi asked the states to adhere to the SCO’s core principles of respecting one another's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Interestingly, during the COVID-19 repatriation flights, the Indian civil aviation industry discovered a huge potential market in Eurasia – hitherto unexplored. The industry seems developing a portfolio of traffic routes (air-corridor) and cargo-network into the Eurasian market similar to the one that transports Afghan products to New Delhi and Mumbai.
Fourth and importantly, after a thirty-year gap of lost opportunity, New Delhi appears serious about pursuing a substantive trade and economic agenda with the region under the SCO agenda.
India has already advised SCO countries to give a clarion call to leverage their economic strength to boost trade and investment that would ensure speedy economic recovery from the pandemic crisis.
Recently, India has shown willingness to share its unique Startup Ecosystem, based on ‘creativity, innovation, and disruption’ that would help foster mutual innovation, promoting trade, and providing market access among the SCO countries.
Using SCO Platform to Tackle Global Challenges
Fifth, India sees the weakening of the credibility and effectiveness of global governance amidst the pandemic, and hence seeks radical reforms in multilateral institutions such as the UN, the WTO, and the IMF.
The SCO, therefore, is important to also tackle the other global challenges of climate change and terrorism that is being overlooked.
Sixth, there cannot any let-down on India focusing on voicing against terrorism, illegal arms proliferation, drugs, and money laundering. As President Xi predicted, terrorists would be seeking fresh opportunities to exploit the pandemic for disruption, recruit more people, and propagate extremist ideology.
Finally, the utility of the SCO platform to hold bilateral meetings on the sidelines is now being denied by the coronavirus. Premier Li Keqiang’s presence should be utilised to push for redefining India’s economic agenda with China, especially if the two can forge a common agenda in Eurasia.
To be sure and rhetoric apart, member states will continue to follow the bilateral arrangements. Being an inherently fragile grouping, the interests of Russia and China differ. The positions of others also fluctuate in line with their interests.
It is, therefore, best to build on bilateral leverages, for the Central Asian states instinctively carrying lots of expectations from India. They are sensitive and pragmatic. They would start comparing India with China in terms of performances.
If nothing else, the limited immediate benefits of joining the SCO will be more than compensated for by improved bilateral cooperation with them.
(The author is the founder of the Ladakh International Centre. He is on the Advisory Council of Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, Washington. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)