RTD on Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: A Report
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The recently concluded Tenth Summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Kazakh capital Astana was the focal point of a Round Table Discussion (RTD), held at Vivekananda International Foundation on Jun 20, 2011. The discussion revolved around India’s prospects of becoming a full member of SCO.

Dr. Meena Singh Roy kicked off the discussion by presenting her views on developments which had taken place prior to the Summit. Her observations were largely based on assessments which she had made while attending the preparatory meetings which were held to discuss the draft agenda for the forthcoming summit. Dr. Roy observed that terrorism, drug trafficking, non-traditional security and expansion of SCO were among the core issues that were discussed at the last forum meeting attended by her. Expansion, however, was the most prominent issue from the viewpoint of Indian participants. While Russia held the view that expansion was necessary because of political and economic reasons, China preferred to take the route of consensus, apparently with a view to delay India’s prospects. Iran was not qualified to become a member as it was facing UN sanctions while Mongolia was more interested in infrastructure, especially connectivity and energy related issues rather than becoming a full member of SCO.

While Kazakhstan openly supported India’s bid to join SCO, it also appeared to be sensitive to Chinese concerns on the matter. Kazakhstan however held the view that any country that joined the organization must add a new dimension to the organisation. The Kazakhs were also of the view that new members should not bring any negativism into the organization, perhaps alluding to Indo-Pakistan rivalry potentially affecting the SCO. Water was another issue on which there were differences within the Central Asian countries. Kyrgyzstan believed that if India became a member of SCO her expertise in dealing with water sharing issues, especially with Pakistan, could be used to resolve water related differences among the Central Asian countries. There was however general consensus within the SCO states that terrorism was a serious problem which needed to be tackled effectively. Funding remained another major issue with the SCO. The Central Asian countries were apprehensive of China’s pre-dominance within the SCO. These countries also feared that they would end up being merely suppliers of raw materials to the Chinese industry while their own market could get flooded with cheap Chinese goods. Central Asian countries also had unresolved issues related to transit, especially custom, visas etc. which needed to be sorted out amongst them. The CAR felt that SCO was more useful to Russia and China to attain their interests. In view of persistent differences among the member states of SCO, Dr. Meena Singh Roy concluded that expansion was quite unlikely in the near future. India’s prospects for joining the organisation however depended largely on how best she was able to lobby her case.

Dr. Srikanth Kondapalli started off with a caveat that decisions are taken by SCO after prolonged intense negotiations but these decisions are rarely implemented. Major decisions on drug trafficking have not been implemented so far. There is hardly any consensus on expansion within the SCO. Dr. Kondapalli also agreed with the views of Dr. Meena Singh Roy that consensus approach would inordinately delay the expansion of SCO. China wants the membership of Pakistan as a balancing act with India. In his opinion, China is using the same ploy to keep India out of SCO which India had used to keep China out of SAARC. In so far as the US policy towards Central Asia is concerned, Dr. Kondapalli said that the US wanted CAR to remain free from any outside interference, especially those by China and Russia. He however alluded to China’s fears about the growing Indo-US partnership and its implications for the Central Asian energy resources.

There was a view that SCO expansion might take at least 5-6 years or even longer. He cited competition among regional countries as the main reason for reaching his conclusion. Expansion of SCO, it was felt, was a forgone conclusion, even though the process itself could take a longer time than what was desirable. According to this view, expansion included two things – mandate expansion and membership expansion. The mandate expansion essentially implied the ability by SCO to operate beyond the region, whereas the membership expansion meant inclusion of South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan or the Middle East countries like Iran within the ambit of SCO. Unraveling China’s strategy on using consensus as a key issue for expansion of SCO, it was always difficult to evolve consensus in any multi-lateral organization. China was averse to expansion of SCO because of her own foreign policy and strategic compulsions. Beijing did not intend to create a NATO’s rival in SCO. It however wanted to take the SCO to a level where it could as a regional organization enhance her own strategic interests. However, China has not yet firmed up its position on the expansion plan for SCO and the debate remains inconclusive within China, especially among the academic circles. However, if China were to really come to a conclusion about including South Asia into the ambit of SCO, she would be more interested in taking Afghanistan into the jurisdiction of Central Asia primarily to secure her own economic interests. Notwithstanding, China does not want to approach the expansion issue of SCO in a manner that the organisation loses its relevance by becoming an entity like the EU.

During the interactive session questions which followed immediately after the presentations, Ambassador TCA Rangachari sought to know the rationale behind India seeking member of an organization which was largely perceived to have an anti-US bias. Putting forward his views on the issue of India’s membership of SCO, Ambassador Satish Chandra said that while multi-lateral engagement looked an attractive proposition, India could achieve more doing businesses bilaterally. Ambassador Chandra however concurred with the view that water sharing was an area where India could offer a great deal of assistance to the Central Asian republics. Carrying forward the debate on India’s membership of SCO, Vice Admiral Barry Bharatan lamented the fact that New Delhi lacked a structural approach to Central Asia or any other region for that matter. India has to emerge a credible partner bilaterally with the Central Asian republics in order to improve its overall standing with the SCO. The Admiral also underscored the fact that India had not used the potential military talent of these ‘satellites’ of erstwhile soviet Union to her advantages effectively. Taking part in the discussion, Mr. CD Sahay pointed out that all the presenters focused excessively on the role of China in Central Asia while they underplayed the role of the United States in the region. He however expressed his apprehension that with China, Russia, the US and the Central Asian republics themselves taking on an aggressively competitive mode, the region could become a potential theater of conflict. Reflecting on the joint military exercise carried out in 2005 by the SCO, Brig Anand said that scale and nature of the exercise suggested that it was more than a counter-terrorism exercise. Brig Anand however pointed to the fact that differences were perceptible among Central Asian republics even during the exercise. He specifically mentioned Uzbekistan as a case in point which had not deployed its troops for the exercise even though some Uzbek military officers were sent as observers. Lt Gen RK Sawhney remarked that military worth of Central Asian republics except Uzbekistan was questionable. Gen Sawhney also spoke of wariness among few Central Asian countries about aggressive infrastructure development, especially building of roads by China. On the issue of India’s membership of SCO, General Sawhney remarked that he wasn’t sure if that would solve India’s problem of connectivity with Central Asia.

Responding back to some of the observations made during the course of discussion, Dr. Meena Singh Roy said that real intentions behind India seeking membership of SCO at this point in time remained a speculative issue. She however said that transport, connectivity and energy could be some of the imperatives behind India’s desire to become a member of SCO. With India within the SCO, China perhaps could bring some influence upon Pakistan. But all of these remain in the realm of speculations and nothing is known officially. She however concluded that India’s entry into SCO depended largely on China’s willingness and the Chinese were using consensus as tactic to delay India’s prospects. In his final comments, Mr. Ajit Doval said that SCO was basically a Chinese-construct. The Central Asian countries were unlikely to evolve a common security and economic vision in a foreseeable future. India would do well by improving bilateral relationship with the Central Asian countries. He thanked the three panelists for their erudite presentations.

Event Date 
June 20, 2011
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