By Apoorva Mandhani
India and Pakistan joined as full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) at the Astana summit held in June this year. With this addition, the SCO will now represent nearly half of the global population, after the simultaneous inclusion of both the countries being termed as a “historic shift in geopolitical alignments”.
The SCO and its purpose
The SCO is an inter-governmental political, economic, and security organization, founded in 2001 by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Originally formed as a confidence-building forum to demilitarize borders, its goals and agenda have broadened to include increased military and counter-terrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing.
Nevertheless, it has been opined that the organization’s regional influence remains limited. According to Mr Richard Weitz, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, the SCO is “chronically underfunded and have limited powers to take decisions independently of their member governments”.
The paper tiger
The “paper tiger” metaphor has been used to describe the SCO, which has often been alleged to be ineffectual in reality. Several reasons have been attributed to this. For instance, it has been opined that the SCO, more often than not, abstains from interfering with internal security crisis situations in Central Asia.
While the institution is not designed to deal with conflicts between member-states, it has been claimed that non-intervention in such scenarios erodes its credibility in ensuring security in the region. The geopolitical competition between Russia and China has also been blamed for affecting SCO’s security goals.
A fillip for Indian diplomacy
The SCO membership is being touted to pose several long-term advantages and opportunities for the Indian diplomacy. It is especially being considered as a gateway for India to prod Pakistan into allowing overland access to other SCO countries. Pakistan’s denial of allowing India land access to Central Asia through its territory has been one of the major reasons for India’s inability to exploit this resource-rich neighbourhood.
Hence, it is being hoped that the membership would open doors to the abundant natural and energy resources of Central Asian countries. As a member, New Delhi is expected to get inroads into major gas and oil exploration projects in this region.
China: A cause of concern
It needs to be noted that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) region has been one of India’s major concerns. This corridor is a part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) policy aimed at connecting trading partners across the ancient silk route and intends to link Kashgar in Xinjiang, China, to the Gwadar port.
Being with the SCO would make it tougher for India to stay out of China’s proposed connectivity and infrastructural projects. India, therefore, needs to strategically devise a plan that could accommodate its concerns over OBOR and CPEC, while still maintaining the sanctity of the Organization’s functioning.
An overhaul of SCO’s agenda
Organizations like the SCO have been trying to establish a “balance of power” in a West-dominated world order. However, since its inception in 2001, critics of the organization have been calling it a China-led and China-owned project initiated with the sole agenda of fuelling China’s economic and political influence over its neighbouring countries as well as ensuring its expansion in Eurasia.
The involvement of India and Pakistan is being considered as a push for a change. It has, in fact, been claimed that Russia’s proposal for inclusion of India as a member was aimed at constraining China’s growing influence in the organization. While the combined economies of Russia and India may not be as big as China’s economy, the two of them together may arise as a formidable force to counterweight China’s dominance.