How the entry of India and Pakistan transforms the SCO’s agenda

India and Pakistan are going to become members of the SCO in June.

India and Pakistan are going to become members of the SCO in June.

India’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in June could help Russia challenge China’s power within the grouping. With the two South Asian countries on board, the SCO will look to address regional problems such as water security and the situation in Afghanistan.

The upcoming summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 8-9 is set to formally announce a new security architecture that covers 60 percent of Eurasia and will have long-lasting implications for the whole world.

With India and Pakistan officially acquiring full membership of the organization, the total population of SCO countries will be almost 3.5 billion (which roughly accounts for a half of humanity) and the combined GDP (measured in absolute figures) will surpass 25 percent of the global GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity, PPP, it will be much higher). Thus, in all ways the SCO is destined to become the cornerstone of economics and politics of Eurasia and a game-changer for the global agenda.

What could change

Much has already been said on the prospects of SCO enlargement. It is clear that it will give a new powerful impetus to all integration processes in Eurasia whatever countries may be their originators. Bringing countries such as Russia, India and China (already constructively cooperating in formats as RIC, BRICS and G20) together under one umbrella is also an important and necessary prerequisite for working out a program for addressing global issues such as terrorism, the arms race, poverty and famine, contagious diseases and epidemics, natural and technical catastrophes, climate change and water shortages.

Ever since its creation in 2001, some critics of the SCO have been constantly saying that this is a China-led and China-owned project initiated with the sole purpose of ensuring China's expansion in Eurasia and establishing China's dominance over the neighboring countries – at least economically, but subsequently politically as well.

Indeed, China being the world’s second largest economy (in terms of PPP, the largest), is definitely the leader and engine of all economic processes happening on the continent. With the One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR) initially put forward in 2013 and currently gaining momentum, China's leading role is sure to be manifested in all aspects, including the organization it participates in.

With regards to the SCO, China has constantly made efforts to bring the economic issues to the top of its agenda (which would have eventually and inevitably resulted in turning the SCO into yet another tool of Beijing). And it has required efforts on the part of Russia and other countries to maintain the balance between economic and security issues as two equal tasks of the organization.

OBOR and the INSTC

The SCO enlargement is sure to add a new dimension to the integration in Eurasia. While many observers look upon OBOR and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) initiated by Russia, India and Iran as competitive projects, it may well be noted that the two lie along two different vectors (OBOR going basically in the East-West direction, NSTC, as implied by its name, in the North-South). This creates a closed and complete configuration of transport routes encompassing the whole of Asia and Eastern Europe. For Russia and India, this provides an opportunity to overcome the most serious obstacle for their bilateral trade – a lack of connectivity.

On the other hand, the implementation of OBOR (especially its land part and most notably China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) may violate the existing status quo in this part of the world. In that sense, India's decision not to participate in the forum is quite understandable. The only concern is that if the two sides remain stubborn and uncompromising beyond the reasonable level, it may lead to consequences exceeding far beyond the particular issue.

Surely, hardly anyone within the SCO would like to see the Kashmir issue being brought to the table. But it is no secret that Pakistan has long been insisting on its internationalization. With China actively building the corridor via Gilgit-Baltistan, the issue already may have become a trilateral one. Therefore, a unified approach of the SCO members is needed in order to prevent the issue from arising on the organization's agenda and bring it back to the bilateral consideration of India and Pakistan.

The combined economies of Russia and India may not be as big as China's economy, but adding the political (and military) weight, the two may form a considerable counterweight to China's dominance

What is very important to mention, is the inevitable transformation of the SCO's agenda after India and Pakistan formally join it as full members. With India's accession, the situation changes radically. The combined economies of Russia and India may not be as big as China's economy, but adding the political (and military) weight, the two may form a considerable counterweight to China's dominance. So, even with the BRICS Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) already being in operational stage, a new SCO bank with the purposes of financing projects within the organization's domain without any bias and undue preferences may well become a good idea.

Water security

Another issue, seldom talked about, but sure to create serious problems for the whole region is that of sharing the water resources, especially on trans-border rivers and other water reserves. The Indus Water Treaty of 1960 between India and Pakistan has long been looked upon as an exemplary one providing a base for peaceful settlement of water disputes even during most tense and hostile periods of the bilateral relations. But in the latest years, too many developments on both sides of the Line of Control have taken place, which may be regarded as violations of the basics of the treaty. The latest ones are China's plans to invest dozens of billions of dollars into hydropower projects in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir, which was an additional reason for India not to participate in the Silk Road Forum.

China's activity on the Brahmaputra River is yet another matter of concern for India. In fact, China enjoys the monopolistic status in that regard, controlling the sources of most of the great Eurasian rivers. But when it comes to the interests of the downstream countries, China tends to discuss the issues on the bilateral grounds with its immediate neighbors only.

For example, the Irtysh River, originating in China, further flows to Kazakhstan and then to Russia. China is ready to discuss the matter of its activities on the upstream Irtysh and its tributaries with Kazakhstan, but not with Russia, although the effects may be felt as far down the river as Omsk in Western Siberia.

This situation with China is also worsened by the fact that there are no internationally recognized and binding laws on trans-border water sharing. Therefore, working out at least a regional Convention within the SCO framework may become an urgent task for the organization. In this respect, India's participation and experience may be very helpful.

Solving the Afghanistan problem

Last but surely not least, there is a matter of Afghanistan (which, since 2012, has had observer status within SCO). Surely, the process of reconciliation in Afghanistan should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. But this does not exclude the participation of and assistance from the neighboring countries. With almost all of them (except Turkmenistan) being united within the framework of one organization, it imposes serious obligations and responsibility on the SCO as a whole and each member state in particular.

What is urgently needed is working out a unified and coordinated approach to Afghanistan by all SCO members (including observers, like Iran) – whatever bilateral differences and tensions may be between them. The gravest mistake would be a return to the 1990s when all external parties were trying to use their levers within Afghanistan in order to gain unilateral advantages for themselves. The result of this approach is too well known – an all-out war, which eventually led to the victory of the most cruel and unscrupulous force, the Taliban. This is hardly the best option for today's Afghanistan, and subsequently, for any of its neighbors.

In fact, every one of the above problems may become a stumbling stone for the enlarged SCO. It requires wisdom and tolerance on the part of all those concerned to avoid falling into the numerous traps. Still, the long history of relations in this part of Eurasia has shown that wisdom is present in the minds of most statesmen and helps them bypass most difficult situations.

Dr. Boris Volkhonsky is an independent analyst and professional Indologist from Russia. He speaks Hindi, Urdu, Sinhalese, and reads Sanskrit. Previously, he held the position of the Deputy Head of the Center for Asia and the Middle East at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies and taught at Lomonosov Moscow State University and the Russian State University for the Humanities.

Views expressed are personal.

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