Three years after joining the eight-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), India hosted the SCO heads of governments (HoG) meeting for the first time.
The focus of the 66-point joint communiqué at the end of the virtual conference was in developing a “Plan of Priority Practical Measures for 2021-2022 to overcome the socio-economic, financial and food consequences of COVID-19 in the region”.
Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO):
- SCO is a Eurasian political, economic, and military organisation. Along with BRICS, SCO is seen as an attempt by China & Russia to challenge the Western dominated global order and counterbalance the activities of United States and NATO in Central Asia.
- Currently, SCO has 8 Member States-China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan; 4Observer States-Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia and 6 Dialogue Partners-Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey and Sri Lanka.
- It has two permanent bodies—the SCO Secretariat based in Beijing and the Executive Committee of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS)based in Tashkent.
- Its driving philosophy is known as the “Shanghai Spirit” which emphasizes harmony, working by consensus, respect for other cultures, non-interference in the internal affairs of others, and non-alignment.
- Culture has become an important element of the SCO, attuned to the group’s search for an inclusive Eurasian identity.
- The Prime Minister of India, in his address to SCO in Bishkek Summit, presented his vision for the organization in the form of HEALTH(healthcare cooperation, economic cooperation, alternate energy, literature and culture, terrorism-free society and humanitarian cooperation), which closely tied with the declaration.
India hosted the summit for the first time:
- Members committed to strengthening multilateralism and the UN charter while welcoming the fact that the grouping is now being seen as an “influential and responsible participant in the modern system of international relations”. The meeting also showed up persisting differences.
- Although the HoG Council consists of the Prime Ministers of all SCO countries, neither Prime Minister Narendra Modi nor Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan attended the meet, ostensibly due to a protocol mismatch between the position of PMs in parliamentary democracies versus those in the former Soviet bloc and China.
- Modi was represented by Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu, who made strong observations on cross-border terrorism; he called it the SCO region’s “biggest challenge”, in comments aimed at Pakistan.
- Pakistan’s representative too spoke of the need to combat what she called “state terrorism” in disputed areas, in a reference to Jammu and Kashmir.
- The SCO is a rare forum where India-Pakistan troops take part in joint exercises under the Regional Anti-Terror Structure, although it would seem the two countries have come no closer on the issue.
- Neither statement on terrorism was reflected in the final joint statement, which focused on trade and economic issues.
- India also marked its differences with China over the BRI by not joining other SCO members in a paragraph endorsing the BRI.
- Naidu made a pitch for “transparent and trustworthy” trade practices, seen as a sidebar aimed at China.
China’s OBOR/BRI initiative:
The SCO was created as a regional organisation to tackle peace and security, to tackle the challenges of terrorism, extremism and separatism, and to promote trade and cooperation and cultural partnerships.
That is why Article 2 of the SCO charter specifically prohibits bilateral issues from being raised, because it only serves to vitiate the atmosphere.
However, with the exception of India, all other SCO members, including Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Russia and Tajikistan expressed their support for China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative (OBOR/BRI), and the “joint implementation” of projects with the Eurasian Economic Union, in the joint communiqué.
India refused to join the BRI in 2017, in protest over Chinese projects through Pakistan occupied Kashmir, and lack of “transparency and sustainability” in the initiative.
‘Constructive’ role to be played by India:
India hopes to play a ‘constructive’ role in enriching the agenda of the SCO by placing humans at the centre of its ‘thoughts and actions’ to foster well -being and greater prosperity of the region.
He also talked about India’s civilizational links with Central Asian Nations.
Also, India’s growing economic potential and vast experience and expertise can add greater value to SCO’s ongoing projects and can also share best practices in newer areas to forge a common vision for the region.
Regardless of the differences, the Indian government has consistently maintained the importance of the SCO grouping, referred to as the “Asian NATO” although it does not mandate security alliances.
The SCO is one of the few regional structures India is a part of now, given a decline in its engagement with SAARC, BBIN and the RCEP.
The SCO provides India a convenient channel for its outreach trade and strategic ties to Central Asian countries.
It has afforded a platform, when needed, for bilateral discussions with the two countries India has the most tense ties with: China and Pakistan.
Above all, the SCO has been seen as a grouping worth pursuing as it retains India’s geopolitical balance, a useful counterpoint to New Delhi’s otherwise much more robust relations with the western world, and hosting the SCO meeting was one more step towards developing that engagement.