Monday, July 6, 2015

India’s Bid for SCO Membership – A Perspective

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi left on a visit to five Central Asian countries and Russia aiming to enhance strategic, economic and energy ties as well attending summits of BRICS and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO).

The SCO Summit, to be held in Ufa in Russia, may see India getting the membership of the six-nation grouping comprising China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which could be a major highlight of the visit. India has only an observer status since June 2005. A formal application for full-fledged membership was submitted in September 2014 during the last SCO summit. Pakistan’s application for the full membership is also being taken into consideration.

Sana Hashmi in her article India's entry into the SCO may bring it closer to China writes: “The 2015 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit, to be held on July 9-10 in Russia will be yet another test case for Modi’s diplomatic skill probing whether he can get New Delhi its due place at the international stage. It may be noted that Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan hold observer status in the grouping. The focus of the summit is likely to be on enlarging the scope of membership and widening economic cooperation, regional connectivity and security issues that make SCO more significant than ever for India.”

Strangely, India has shown increasing interest in becoming a full-fledged member of an organization which has People’s Republic of China as one of its founding-member and Pakistan which is likely to be accorded full membership. Ms Hashmi in her article writes that China was reluctant to approve India’s candidature and is now ready to back India’s entry into the organization. In the article she highlights the ‘conditionalities’ to be met before a state can be admitted as a member of the organization, namely, First, the applicant country should be geographically contiguous to one of the SCO members; Second, it should not have United Nations sanctions imposed on it; Third, it should have diplomatic relations with all SCO members; Fourth, it should have the status of an observer or a dialogue partner in the grouping before applying for the full membership; Fifth, it should have active trade, economic and humanitarian linkages with SCO members and; Finally, the applicant country should not be involved in any armed/territorial disputes with either of the member states. India while meeting most of the essentials, cannot overcome the final hurdle because India has an ongoing territorial/boundary dispute with both China and Pakistan.

Why has China changed its stance? Is it to seek India’s cooperation and support for China’s proposed ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative? China's interest in India and Pakistan has increased since adopting its Maritime Silk Road strategy and that could be behind its acquiescence to their joining the SCO, added Li Lifan, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "I think China supports India and Pakistan to become full members simultaneously in line with the development of the grand 'Maritime Silk Road' scheme proposed by China. Or is it to woo India away from a possible US-Japan-India alliance which may be used as counterweight against China? Or is China trying to use an Asian version of NATO to blunt the US pivot or re-balance to Asia? 

So what will an expansion do to the organization? It may strengthen China's role as a regional security provider. "An expanded SCO will be in a better position to achieve Xi’s vision of becoming the regional security heavyweight," wrote Shannon Tiezzi in an analysis in The Diplomat. "Despite a tendency to see the SCO as a competitor to NATO, Chinese leaders stress that the SCO is something entirely new. In the Dushanbe Summit (Sept 2014), Xi announced that 'SCO members have created a new model of international relations — partnership instead of alliance.'”

A theory that has been put forth is that with the US withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and the impending security vacuum may have made China realize that Indian involvement in counter-terrorism efforts and stability in the region were essential. Pakistan’s military establishment will not permit any Indian participation through the SCO in Afghanistan as it would run counter to its primary objectives and core interests. 

Three years ago, the renowned strategic affairs expert, late B Raman in an article India must be cautious while seeking SCO full membership expressed reservations on India’s proposed entry into the SCO. He wrote: “While China has been trying to use the security mechanism of the SCO for dealing with organisations which are perceived as posing a threat to Beijing and the Central Asian Republics, it does not look upon anti-India organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Harkt-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen  which are sponsored by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, or the Afghan Taliban or the Haqqani Network, which are the allies of Pakistan, as coming within the ambit of the SCO security mechanism.” China in keeping with the policy of shielding its “all weather friend” Pakistan, a few days ago, blocked a bid by India to question the release of Mumbai 26/11 mastermind Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi from captivity. China’s flimsy justification for blocking India’s bid was that India had not provided adequate information.

He further wrote: “While seeking full membership of the SCO, India should carefully consider to what extent it would be advisable for it to participate in an internal security co-operation mechanism of which China and Pakistan would be members. There would be very little compatibility between our internal security concerns and interests and those of China and Pakistan and it could be counter-productive for us to participate in this mechanism.” Further can India achieve success against Pak-based terror groups through the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS)? Even if an agreement is reached to tackle terrorism of all hues, very little is likely to be achieved by India on the ground in its battle against Pakistan based terror outfits such as the Lashkar, Jeish, HUJI and HUM.

The internal security co-operation mechanism of the SCO is proposed to be extended to the area of cyber security. The Council of Shanghai Co-operation Organisation’s Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS), at its 22nd Session in Tashkent in April 2013 reached an agreement on new measures to combat cyber terrorism. The main threats to India’s cyber security arise from Pakistan and China. Will it be in India’s interest to participate in any connectivity and inter-operability mechanism relating to cyber security with China? Or Pakistan for that matter? The views expressed by late B Raman, three years ago continue to hold true even today.

It would be extremely foolhardy for India to rush and join an organisation which may not sub-serve India’s interests and also undermine India’s security. India can further its interests in the region by promoting bilateral cooperation with Central Asian republics bypassing the SCO.