AfPak concerns drive India into SCO orbit

Source: Itar Tass

Source: Itar Tass

The 10th anniversary summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) held in Astana, Kazakhstan, last week was an occasion for introspection as well as charting out a new strategy. The summit also kick-started the process of admitting India and Pakistan, which currently enjoy the status of observers, as full-fledged members of the SCO.

For India, this represents a major diplomatic leg-up. For years, it saw the SCO as a China-dominated organisation and would not touch it with a barge pole.  Things however changed from the time Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attended the SCO Summit in Yekaterinburg in June 2009.

India already has historical, cultural and trade ties with the SCO member countries. India could bring its “technical expertise, markets and financial commitment” to the SCO, noted India’s External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna noted at the Astana summit. New Delhi has already been courting the oil and natural gas-rich Central Asian countries to meet the demands of its booming economy. In December 2010, a deal was inked for the TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) gas pipeline and earlier in April this year, the Indian prime minister paid a visit to Kazakhstan. 

India’s full membership of the SCO may also help its prospects of gaining an entry into the coveted United Nations Security Council (UNSC), provided it is able to get the backing of all the SCO member countries, including China, which in the past has refused to unequivocally back India’s bid for an UNSC seat.

However, the fact that India was only represented by its external affairs minister at the Astana summit and not by its prime minister indicates that India is loath to upset its bonhomie with the US. In the case of most other countries, including Pakistan, they were represented by their heads of state at this Summit.

The SCO is poised to play an important in role in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the proposed withdrawal of US and NATO forces. At present, the SCO comprises China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as members. There are minority communities of Tajiks and Uzbeks in Afghanistan.  The SCO member countries are wary of the Taliban staging a comeback in Afghanistan because it will strengthen Islamist extremist movements in their own countries. Last month, a suicide bomber targeted a security services building in the city of Aktobe in northern Kazakhstan, injuring several people.

By paving the way for Pakistan to become a full member, the SCO has played a smart move.  Many of the Islamist terrorists active in the SCO countries have been trained in terror camps in Pakistan and in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Islamabad is desperate to be seen as doing more to combat terrorism emanating from its own soil.  Pakistan is also seething with anger at the way the Americans kept it in the dark about the operation to hunt down Osama bin Laden and is therefore trying to reach out to countries like China and Russia.

In a significant development, the Astana Declaration signed at the end of the summit noted that internal conflicts and crises should be resolved through dialogue and the international community should strictly follow legal norms while according full respect for national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

This should be seen in the backdrop of fears that the so-called “Arab Spring” could be replicated in Central Asia.  In case of similar protests breaking out in Central Asia, the SCO may have to take some hard decisions since it would mean acting against their own citizens.  There are also possibilities of Islamist extremists using such protests to destabilise the governments in the region and this is where the SCO’s Regional Antiterrorism Structure (RATS) would need to act.

The Declaration also expressed concerns that the “unilateral and unlimited build-up of missile defence facilities by one state or a group of states could undermine strategic stability and international security". In the past, countries like Russia have expressed their concerns at the US trying to build missile shields in its neighbourhood. Another fear being expressed in some quarters is that the US and Afghan authorities are in secret talks to extend the stay of US troops in Afghanistan much beyond 2014.

Russia has been pitching for India’s full-fledged membership of the SCO, proving once again that it is India’s time-tested ally. Russia has also suffered from Islamist terrorism in some of its provinces and hence has a common interest with India in seeing that Pakistan takes credible action against terrorism emanating from within its borders.

In the days to come, common security, economic and humanitarian interests are bound to bring India and the SCO closer, making India’s full-fledged membership of the SCO a near certainty.    

Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, India. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge, U.K. in 2009. The views expressed are personal.

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