All eyes are on the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit to be held on 9-10 June in the Chinese city of Qingdao as it will witness the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi representing India as a full member-country. Both India and Pakistan were admitted as full-time members into the SCO in the Astana summit held in Kazakhstan on 8-9 June 2017.
The last two decades have witnessed new strategic dynamics in the region, particularly the growing ties between Russia and China. Although Moscow-Beijing bonhomie is often attributed to recent sanctions on Russia imposed by the Western countries for President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, it is fundamentally a post-Cold War phenomenon that began to take shape with the transformation of the Shanghai Five – Russia, China, Khazkhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001, with the addition of Uzbekistan as the sixth participant.
The formation of the SCO coincided with the formation of an alliance-like partnership between Russia and China during the late 1990s. In a bid to take a more regional approach to the remaining border issues, the leaders of the five states met in Shanghai in 1996 and signed agreements on improving security relations. In June 2001, they expressed their commitment to set up a formal group, the SCO, which urged respect for state ‘sovereignty’ and ‘non-interference’ in the internal affairs of the member states. Admission of India and Pakistan in 2017 marked the first membership expansion of the SCO since its founding. It is being argued that the SCO’s expansion will infuse vigour into organisation’s future development while boosting its global standing and enhancing regional security. The grouping now represents more than 40 percent of the world’s population with 20 percent of its GDP.
India, the world’s largest democracy and Asia’s third-largest economy, has conferred a new level of international legitimacy on the SCO. Expressing solidarity with the SCO’s pet theme, Indian envoy to Beijing has declared that “the need for multipolarity and multilateralism” will be the main message to come out of the Qingdao summit. There is no doubt that the US president Donald Trump has jettisoned many multilateral agreements, which was previously the hallmark of American global economic leadership. Although Trump has strengthened ties with India, his obsession with protectionism seems to have somewhat dampened New Delhi’s enthusiasm. On the other hand, China is trying to counter escalating tensions with the Trump administration by mending fences with India and Japan, both strong allies of the US. As the current tensions between Washington and Beijing require China to have a greater degree of interdependence with its neighbours, the SCO provides an important platform, with India’s prized participation, for opposing trade protectionism and unilateralism.
There is a mention of the word ‘democratic’ in the SCO’s founding document with reference to the need to establish “a democratic, fair, and rational new international political economic order.” But it is believed to be primarily aimed at expressing Russian-Chinese disagreement with the US-dominated unipolar world order and their collective desire to work toward ‘multipolarity’. There is a dominant perception, notably in the Western world, that through the SCO, Russia and China have sought to defend their authoritarian regimes against any external criticisms.
Russia, which facilitated India’s entry, remains the most dependable ally in the SCO given New Delhi’s conventional hostility with Islamabad and long-existing differences with Beijing. A section of India’s strategic community may celebrate India’s diplomatic elevation as one of the “major players” of the SCO including China and Russia, but it remains unclear what tangible benefit this ‘promotion’ would bring for India other than causing some indignation in Pakistan. Other than getting a foothold in Central Asia, India’s other primary focus inside SCO has been to voice its grave concerns on the issue of terrorism. In fact, anti-terrorism resonates well with many of the SCO members, almost all of whom have been struggling with one or another form of Islamist terrorism within their borders.