India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Heads of Government Council Meeting for discussions on regional issues such as the Korean peninsula, Syria and Afghanistan. India became a full member of the SCO in 2017 after being an observer in the organisation. Central Asia has been a key region for India, where it lacks physical connectivity. Yet, New Delhi has forged and strengthened her connections due to historic roots, energy and security needs.
The SCO has opened an avenue for India to engage with the region as a bloc and improve economic relations and connectivity projects. This would lead Central Asia to serve as a positive factor in improving connectivity to Afghanistan and in turn helping these land-locked countries access to the oceans. Minding this important rationale, the Indian External Affairs Minister said that the SCO member countries should promote connectivity and regional peace and at the same time, cautioned against projects that could impinge on sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Importantly, the SCO focuses on security issues. Thus, counter-terrorism has become one of the most significant issues especially with the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. India’s concerns on terrorism are well-known and efforts in counter-terrorism are wide-ranging including diplomacy in both international and regional institutions. For India, the SCO offers a unique opportunity to find solutions in combating terrorism with the regional countries, which are also affected by similar concerns. As such, Mrs. Swaraj said that the member countries should address global challenges such as terrorism that remains an overwhelming threat to development. She also observed that regional governments should assume responsibility and cooperate with each other.
The Central Asian countries would also like India as a balancing power in the region, where China’s economic engagement has made it dominate the geo-politics. Traditional powers like Russia and India; means that New Delhi could affect changes in a positive manner and dampen the desire for any one country to dominate the proceedings of the organisation. India is engaged in constructive cooperation with China and Russia on a wide range of regional and international issues. Additionally, the security cooperation between the member-countries mean that India would be able to anticipate and ameliorate challenges in the region through mechanisms such as intelligence sharing and military cooperation.
Moreover, the SCO provides an avenue for India to protect its interests on issues such as Syria or Afghanistan. The energy and the political landscape has changed significantly with uncertainties emanating from US’ global leadership and changes in Washington’s policies with regard to Iran, Syria and other countries in the Middle East. The SCO countries and its observers, which include Iran and Afghanistan allows India to upgrade its foreign policy according to the changing global situation.
Nevertheless, besides security concerns, China and Central Asia are pushing for a larger economic agenda in the region, including industrial capacity cooperation, agricultural trade, enhanced connectivity and people-to-people contacts. With China pushing for closer regional cooperation, India’s participation is crucial to not only be part of the interactions but also benefit from those. As such, India has welcomed the Heads of Railways of the SCO member states meeting. New Delhi also supported the recently completed SCO ‘Peace Mission 2018’ that involved military exercises focusing on counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. There is no doubt that terrorism remains a focus for India in its agenda in SCO. With the concerns regarding the spill-over effects of security situation in Syria to the wider neighbourhood, India views SCO as an appropriate forum for cooperation on security issues.
While the scope of SCO could be limited in terms of the extent to which India could derive benefits for its counter-terrorism efforts, it is still the only organisation that includes the regional countries in the neighbourhood for combating security issues.
Script: Dr. M S Prathibha, Strategic Analyst On Chinese Affairs