RUSSIA/CIS RISKWATCH – ISSUE 7 – JUNE 2015

India in the SCO – safeguarding its interest in Central Asia


By Jan Zalewski, Delhi

Since coming to office in May 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has placed a fresh emphasis on the country’s foreign relations. In a flurry of foreign trips over the past year, he and senior Indian officials have sought to increase India’s role on the international parquet, with this visiting spree set to continue. In particular, the July 2015 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Ufa, Russia, holds the promise of full membership for India. China and Russia, the leading members of the SCO, appear to be in favour of accepting both India and its arch-rival Pakistan.

Although the SCO has a reputation of being more talk than action, India is keen to raise its profile within this group. One reason is that the SCO, originally conceived as a regional security organisation, is likely to play an increasingly important role in tackling terrorism and instability in Central Asia. This includes Afghanistan, where China, India and Pakistan are all vying for influence following the drawdown of US and NATO forces since July of last year. India likely hopes that joining the organisation will allow it to better influence this process and safeguard its own interests in the region, particularly as it nervously eyes the close relationship between China and Pakistan. 

For India, permanent SCO membership would also mean better economic access to Central Asia. The SCO has expanded its emphasis from a security focus to economic cooperation among SCO members. China in particular has used the SCO as a vehicle to increase its economic foothold in Central Asia. India has long sought to strengthen its energy ties with the region, hoping to reduce its burgeoning energy deficit.

Whether any of this will actually materialise for India is uncertain. The SCO has throughout its 14-year history displayed a weak track record of achieving tangible outcomes. There is also the possibility that India’s and Pakistan’s full membership could further dilute the organisation’s capacity to act, given that it follows a consensus-driven approach. In addition to frequent disagreements between Russia and China, India and Pakistan will bring to the table much deeper-seated tensions. If the past achievements of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are any guide, such tensions hold ample possibilities to throw the proverbial spanner in the organisation’s works.   

Adding diplomatic weight

Practical benefits are only one driver for India’s pursuit of full SCO membership. More generally, it is keen to add its diplomatic weight to Chinese-led organisations. There is an overwhelming realisation in Indian foreign policy circles that it has little choice but to engage with China, despite deep mutual distrust over unresolved border issues and maritime rivalry. India knows that it cannot reverse China-dominated multilateral initiatives, including Beijing’s ‘One Belt One Road’ regional development plan, which is likely to increasingly influence SCO-internal discourse. India likely figures that the best way to influence decision-making processes is by negotiating from as important a stakeholder position as it can attain within these organisations.

Tellingly, since applying for full SCO membership, India has joined two other multilateral organisations: the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB – an SCO Development Bank will likely be discussed in Ufa, too). Just as the SCO is widely viewed as a counterweight to Western-led security alliances, so the NDB and the AIIB are perceived to challenge US dominance or prominence in institutions such as the World Bank Group, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Japan-dominated Asian Development Bank (ADB). 

Aligned with everyone

Joining the SCO would therefore exacerbate India’s already precarious geopolitical balancing act between Chinese and US interests. Any notions of India taking sides in the evolving geopolitical scramble between US and Chinese interests are, however, misplaced. At the same time as seeking entry into Chinese-led organisations, it has also sought to increase its voting rights in traditional Bretton Woods institutions, including the World Bank Group and the IMF.

In fact, in recent years, India has prioritised strengthening relations with countries such as the US, Japan and Australia, all of which share reservations regarding China’s growing regional influence. In a joint statement with the US last September, the two sides even went so far as to say that they would seek to safeguard “maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” This was squarely aimed at China, as was an earlier decision to invite Japan to joint US-Indian military exercises last July. 

Embracing complexity

India has long followed a diversification strategy in its foreign relations, and has been keen to avoid being drawn into strategic alliances. This broad approach has not changed under the new government of Prime Minister Modi. India’s entry to the SCO would reaffirm the policy.

However, Modi is certainly pursuing foreign relations more vigorously than any of his predecessors. As India’s foreign ties consequently increase across the board, India is becoming more exposed to geopolitical rivalries beyond the one with Pakistan, such as the one between the US and China. This will naturally mean that India’s geopolitical relations will become more complex and thus more difficult to manage for its political leaders.