SCO

In Shanghai Eight

Print edition : July 07, 2017

The Indian and Chinese delegations, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi respectively, meet on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Astana on June 9. Photo: PTI

India, along with Pakistan, becomes a full-fledged member of the SCO, an umbrella organisation to promote cooperation in trade and counterterrorism efforts. Will it join OBOR next?

INDIA and Pakistan formally became members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) at the summit of the grouping held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, in the second week of June. The two countries had enjoyed observer status in the organisation for many years and have now been elevated to full membership. Iran is the next country that is expected to join the grouping in the near future. The original members of the grouping that was established in 1995, initially known as the Shanghai Five, were Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It was rechristened SCO after Uzbekistan joined the grouping in 2001. Originally, the SCO was viewed as a security pact and as an emerging rival to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). But in recent years it has evolved into an organisation more preoccupied with counterterrorism and the promotion of economic cooperation and trade.

With India and Pakistan now part of the grouping, the SCO has emerged as one of the biggest organisations of its kind in the world, with three significant world powers, Russia, China and India, under its umbrella. Forty-four per cent of the world’s population, 25 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), and three out of five BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries are part of the SCO. The primary focus of the grouping at this juncture is on counterterrorism and other security-related concerns. The SCO has established a Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), headquartered in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Chinese President Xi Jinping, speaking at the SCO summit, emphasised that “security is the prerequisite for development”. In a signed article written for a Kazakh paper, he pointed out that the SCO had “put in place cooperation mechanisms on combating terrorism, separatism, extremism, drugs and transnational crimes”.

In recent years, the militaries of SCO member countries have participated in joint exercises. Russian officials have talked of the Indian Army joining such exercises in the future. With Pakistan too a member now, it would be quite a diplomatic feat to get the armies of all member countries to participate in military exercises organised under the auspices of the SCO. Both India and Pakistan were admitted under the strict unwritten condition that they keep their bilateral disputes out of the SCO arena. With Central Asia becoming the crossroads for pipelines and international trade routes, the SCO will be paying even more attention to its economic agenda. When the SCO was formed, the five original members had pledged to enhance regional economic cooperation. That goal has since become a reality in most countries of the Central Asian region.

The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative of the Chinese government saw the enthusiastic participation of all the states in the region and beyond. Only one country, India, along with Bhutan, has given OBOR the pass. Bhutan has really no choice in the matter as its foreign policy is dictated from New Delhi. All the leaders attending the SCO summit in Astana, barring the Indian Prime Minister, supported the OBOR initiative. The declaration issued at the end of the summit “praised the results of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation” that was held in Beijing in May this year. The leaders spoke “in favour of their implementation, including by means of coordinating international, regional and national projects aimed at cooperation in maintaining sustainable development based on the principle of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit”. President Xi said that the SCO would put in place bilateral security mechanisms for OBOR to ensure the security of gas pipelines and big infrastructure projects in the region.

In his speech, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif specifically welcomed the Chinese President’s suggestion of a five-year treaty of good neighbourliness to be signed by all the SCO members. The expansion of the SCO, Sharif said, had come at an “opportune time”, noting that it coincided with the launch of OBOR and the consequent transformation of the global economic landscape. “In Pakistan, we are diligently implementing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is a flag of the OBOR,” he said. “What is more, these mega projects will benefit the entire SCO community.”

Worldwide backing

OBOR now has the backing of most countries worldwide. Even the United States and Japan, which were supposed to be India’s all-weather allies in their opposition to OBOR, sent high-profile delegations to the OBOR summit held in Beijing in May. Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, declared that Japan was willing to cooperate with China on OBOR. The Japanese government, like its right-wing counterpart in India, is of the view that OBOR is a tool to advance China’s strategic and economic goals. But at the same time, Tokyo has realised that by not jumping onto the fast-moving OBOR train, it would be left to play second fiddle to China in the Eurasian region, besides losing out on lucrative business opportunities in high-speed rail and infrastructure projects. OBOR plans to connect Asia and Europe by both land and sea. India’s membership of the SCO could signal the first step, albeit hesitant, to joining OBOR.

At the Astana summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi once again raised the issue of “territorial integrity and sovereignty” while referring to the grand infrastructure projects being planned for the region. India has objected to the $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure project, which is an important component of OBOR, as being intrusive on India’s sovereignty. The only route possible for goods to be transported to and from China is through the road and rail network passing through the “disputed territory” of Gilgit/Baltistan, which is part of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Beijing has repeatedly tried to convince India that the passage of the railway through the territory does not in any way signal a change in its Kashmir policy.

The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which India wants to develop, can be done much better in coordination with OBOR. India’s attempts to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar have, reportedly, run into problems, accentuated by the Donald Trump administration’s growing military and economic threats against Tehran. The nearby port of Gwadar, meanwhile, is all ready for business and is a key hub of the OBOR initiative. Chabahar was supposed to be India’s gateway to the Central Asian market. India had committed $500 million for the development of the port after the Barack Obama administration lifted the sanctions on Iran last year. As of now, only Chinese firms are bidding for contracts to supply heavy machinery for the Chabahar project. European companies are reluctant to bid for the tenders, fearing future moves by the Trump administration against Iran.

Although the Prime Ministers of both India and Pakistan were present at the summit, Modi and Sharif did not meet for talks on the sidelines, like they had during a previous SCO summit in Ufa, Russia, in 2015. Surprisingly, the Chinese President also did not schedule a meeting with Sharif, given the fact that the two countries are the closest of allies. It has been speculated in the media that the Chinese side was conveying its displeasure over Islamabad’s handling of terrorism, especially in the restive province of Balochistan. Two Chinese schoolteachers were kidnapped and later killed by Daesh (Islamic State) terrorists in the first week of June, just before the SCO summit in Astana. Peace and stability in Balochistan is crucial for the success of the CPEC/OBOR project.

Modi did, however, have “cordial” talks with Xi. It was the first meeting between the two leaders after India’s refusal to participate in the OBOR summit in Beijing. The Indian government is still miffed with China’s reluctance to give it entry into the exclusive Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Modi conveyed to the Chinese President the important need to respect each other’s “core concerns”. According to the Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson, Modi told the Chinese leader that the two sides should strengthen communication and cooperation in international affairs. He conveyed India’s gratitude for China’s help in India’s inclusion in the SCO. The Prime Minister acknowledged that it would have been difficult to get SCO membership without the backing of China. China no longer expects reciprocity from India in the form of a membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), where India is the major power. China has observer status in SAARC at present. The SCO, unlike SAARC, seems more cohesive. SAARC is not even able to hold annual summits. Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar told the media in Astana that the “entire spectrum of bilateral relations” was discussed during the talks between Modi and Xi.

Speaking to the media after his meeting with Modi, Xi Jinping said that given the profound and complex political changes that the world was witnessing, China and India, as the world’s fastest growing economies, “should pay more attention to cooperation and go ahead with each other as partner”. He said that the two countries should also boost trade and investment cooperation. It was a thinly disguised invitation to India to rethink its reluctance to join the OBOR initiative. Xi was careful to avoid giving the impression that he was trying to arm-twist the Indian government in any way. He said that his country would be willing to cooperate with India within the SCO format. The Chinese side said that it would not beg any country to join OBOR. “We are willing to see the initiative help build a cooperative platform for countries along the route, but China does not need to beg any countries, Japan and India included, to join the initiative,” said Global Times, a newspaper that is known to be close to the authorities in Beijing.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry was slightly less diplomatic while describing the Modi-Xi talks. Its spokesperson said in Beijing that both countries “should also address sensitive and major issues”. She went on to add that the two sides should strengthen the complementarities of development strategies and press ahead with major cooperation projects in areas such as energy and railways. The spokesperson also stressed the need for cooperation between the two countries to speed up connectivity and infrastructure development in the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor. The OBOR initiative has many important projects in this corridor. The logical next step for India should be to join OBOR and be part of the international mainstream.

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