Future power

Updated on: Jun 12, 2017

India is better placed to counter China’s moves in the region after joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

Diplomacy is all about managing contradictions artfully, or to put it less elegantly, sitting on both sides of the fence and looking comfortable. And the art of diplomacy at its very best was on full view at the 17th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Astana, Kazakhstan. There, we were presented with the rare sight of India and Pakistan both joining the SCO on the same day with observers raising the possibility that the two arch-enemies might one day be involved in joint SCO military exercises. In the spirit of the occasion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi steered clear of prickly issues during a meeting described as “very positive and cordial” with Chinese supremo Xi Jinping. It’s an open secret the Chinese weren’t overly enthusiastic about India signing on as a full-fledged SCO member even though we’ve had observer status with the organisation since 2005. Our backers were the Russians who nurse hopes India will serve as a counterweight to the Chinese who’re becoming more powerful by the day and dominating the organisation. The Chinese, in turn, insisted Pakistan should also simultaneously be made a member to counter India. The lone potentially awkward note during the summit came when the prime minister raised the issue of terrorism — though he diplomatically refrained from naming Pakistan.

The 21st century has been hailed as the Asian Century and certainly Asia is taking its place alongside Europe in global clout. So for India it’s useful to branch out and establish its presence across the region, especially in Central Asia, which it has always considered part of its extended neighbourhood. India’s membership also means that the SCO can claim to represent half the globe in terms of population and gives the organisation more heft and credibility. On a possibly more troubling note, India stands out because it’s the SCO’s only fully democratic country and it takes its place alongside countries like China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, all dominated by strongman rulers.

For India, though, joining the SCO is part of a long game. It will provide opportunities for interactions with other countries in the grouping and it might even emerge as a constructive forum where the Russians and Chinese combine to pressure the Pakistanis into curbing their jihadi fighters — many of whom come from the Central Asian region. One institution, already established by the SCO in Tashkent, is the colourfully named RATS (the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure) and India may hope it can usefully contribute and participate in that organisation. At another level, the SCO could be useful to India if it wants to become a part, in any way, of China’s grand Belt and Road Initiative. Some observers have even suggested the SCO might emerge as the Asian equivalent of NATO but that seems unlikely because its members — especially India and Pakistan — have quite disparate interests. Still, for India, being part of the SCO, is a diplomatic step forward that could bear rich fruit in coming years.

Published on January 12, 2018

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