The recently held Samarkand session of SCO witnessed executive heads of few member nations skipping the protocol social events and avoiding each other in the plenary session next day. There were no handshakes and pull aside conversations except few bilateral meetings on selected basis. There was perceptible tension due to shadow of war in Ukraine, Chinese military assertions and duplicitous Pakistani conduct. Unlike political synergy seen in most of other international groups, there was clearly something amiss amongst SCO partners this time. The SCO seemed to be a conglomerate of divergent perspectives high on display of individualistic opportunism than holistic group convergence.
One expects an environment of political and personal bonhomie that enhances the solidarity of the group and seek solutions to the matters of common interests. There was none of these sentiments seen in this gathering of representatives. There was subtle tension and silent political schism amongst the participants trying to push their own agenda. Despite such differentials there were substantial positives in the Samarkand SCO meet. The group has been able to showcase an emerging geo political front that cannot be ignored any more especially in backdrop of strategic connotations related to Ukraine episode.
The SCO, a brainchild of China, is seen to be expanding its span and scope as it is maturing up to deal with contemporary realities of world affairs. It started in April 1996 as ‘Shanghai Five’ as a precursor to SCO, a political, economic and security confederation. China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan were the founding members of the group. They signed a treaty of deepening military trust in border regions. Later in 1997 China and Russia signed a declaration of multi polar world paving way to their geo political intents. The stated charter includes concerns over aggression, separatism, intelligence sharing and counter terrorism etc. The security predominance at this juncture was aimed at checking possible Western political intrusion into Central Asian mineral belt post Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan.
While Security was the stated main stay of its agenda initially, the real objective was to counter balance US and allies through regional integration. There have been regular joint military exercises to attain interoperability of nations against terrorism and other such afflictions impacting the regional security environment. On economic front the SCO is working on regional economic integration with an idea of evolving a financial and banking system of local currencies in a ‘free trade area’ regime. The talks on exploiting of hydrocarbon and water resources are also high on the economic agenda.
The Chinese foot prints in conceiving idea of SCO with stated concerns over common threats to the humanity sounds politically correct. Whereas, China is the prime perpetuator of hegemonic tendencies, military aggression, patronage to terrorism and violation of human rights. She continues to practice self centered approach with political hubris to the extent of defiance of international norms and regulations. Russia on other hand has shown penchant for military interventions in Crimea and Syria earlier and now in Ukraine. Yet, the SCO group is growing with number of nations keen to join the organization. There are nine full member including India and Pakistan as on date, besides host of observers and dialogue partners. These consist of a mix of hybrid communism and democracies of varied shades that have inherent conceptual contradictions, otherwise. Other than India with her liberal democracy, quite a number of members practice autocratic ways of governance and not necessarily true reflection of their societal aspirations. Overall the group has contradictions of varied shades with political and military ante and yet they have chosen to be together.
The common thread amongst few SCO members is their perceived political angst against western world in some way or other. In that, Russia and China are the two pivots that seem to be steering the group agenda. They are seen to be consolidating their political firm base by including nations under their influence by choice, or due to politico-economic compulsions. It is the mineral wealth of CARs, inviolable Chinese hold over world economy, energy and military industry of Russia and large Indian markets that are the attractions for nations to gravitate towards this organization. Moreover, large nuclear arsenal within the group provides a sense of security through affiliation for the smaller regional nations.
The thrust of the group is gradually getting into realms of resetting the global geo political matrix, a deviation from its initial regional perspective. There exists a strategic space with draw down of US from Asian landscape that has prompted both China and Russia to fill up the gap. Both are seen to be aggressive in multiple theatres to showcase their political will to use military to challenge their perceived opponents. In essence, the SCO is emerging as a Eurasian rival group to the western politico-military and economic cartel.
The central Asian republics (CARs) are part of erstwhile USSR and continue to be under Russian influence. Moreover, their oil and gas pipelines are oriented towards old Russian energy routes to Europe, hence it makes economic sense to continue to be in Russian camp. On other hand, China has also shown their interest in their energy market due to geographical proximity. China is also looking at her economic expansion to Europe and Africa through shorter, secure and high capacity land routes as an alternative to sea routes. China is developing BRI infrastructure through their geographical space to connect to Europe and West Asia. Hence, it is a win- win situation for the CARs to forge alliance with both China as well as Russia.
The CARs are also looking for their access to Indian Ocean through Iran and Pakistan. In that, Chabahar port constructed by India is one such facility to enhance their trade relationships within the region and rest of the world. The Russian sponsored North –South corridor is another infrastructure that suits these five nations for their access to the sea space. In consequence, Russia, India and Iran figure high in the strategic calculations of these nations. Therefore, membership of SCO provides more economic opportunities to these land locked nations.
The biggest asset of Pakistan is her geography that is a matter of strategic interests to US, China and Russia. Pakistan has been a close ally of US being a frontline state in South Asian region to take care of their strategic interests. Subsequently, Pakistan with her known complicity with Taliban had antagonized US that chose to scale down the level of support to them. China filled up the gap as Pakistan facilitates her strategic economic corridor CPEC through their geographical space.
From Pakistani perspective, presence of China adds to their military deterrence against arch rival India. It suits China also in their pursuits to undermine India, a perceived challenge to their regional as well as global ambitions. The anti India agenda is the common factor that has potential of a collusive threat to India. The coercive Chinese military presence opposite Ladakh is aimed to desist India from any action that impacts Chinese interests including CPEC that passes through illegally occupied Indian territories by Pakistan.
The ongoing US draw down from Asian landscape has created a strategic space for Russia to step in to fill up the gap alongside China. Russia reached out to Pakistan as it suited their ambitions since Czarist era of creating ‘Bear hug from Mediterranean to Indian Ocean’. Pakistan is certainly looking at Russia and China as their future strategic partners to replace US to ensure their political buoyancy.
China has invested more than $ 80 billion in various CPEC projects which is way beyond Pakistan to pay back. Pakistan is in debt trap orchestrated by China, hence a compulsion for them to toe Chinese agenda to sustain their economy and national security. Since both the nations have been indulging in anti India military overtures on daily basis, expecting any thaw from India is certainly not on the cards. Apropos, the heads of China, Pakistan and India did not even exchanged pleasantries during two day summit, a clear display of their antipathy towards each other. It speaks of deep schism amongst the three important members of the SCO group which has fratricidal potential.
Iran is known as the protégée of Russia with their known political support against US mechanizations. Iran fits into Russian calculus to dominate West Asia and an ally in Syrian threatre that is important to Russia for her access to Mediterranean sea, the tri junction of three continents. Russia is known for her political investment in Shia crescent region that consists of Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen etc with visible military foot prints. The Iranian anti Israel and western world leanings fits in well into underlying intent of creating a rival group to US and her allies
Iran and China are known to have agreed for a $ 400 billion trade and supply of energy for 25 years in defiance of US sanctions. China is also known to be interested in Chabahar port as an additional outlet to the Indian Ocean, besides Gwadar port in Pakistan. China is also looking at getting access to West Asia through land route via Afghanistan and Iran. China has offered to develop infrastructure in Iran including railways ,roads, ports and oil and gas sector.
China and Russia are seen to be taking care of Iranian interests in the ongoing nuclear deal wherein US had pulled out in 2018. Incidentally, in 2015 all the six members of SCO voted against Iran for violating human rights against women and their political opponents. Whereas, with emerging Sino-Iranian connect and strategic interests of Russia the policy of SCO towards Iran has changed. Iran participated as a member for the first time and was seen to be pushing their economic interests in the face of US sanctions.
India and Iran have traditionally very good relations and it is expected that both will continue to reach out to each other. India is developing infrastructure to connect Chabahar port to Afghanistan and CARs by rail and road routes. Iran has also proposed to sell oil and gas to India on concessional rates as was the case before US sanctions were imposed on nations trading with Iran. There appears to be a hope of some move forward on Iranian nuclear deal that may pave way to some reconciliation on economic freedom of Iran. Iran, therefore, has lot to offer and gain from SCO group members. Iran is clearly looking at finding avenues of their economic revival that had been impacted due to US sanctions. Iran is looking at political support from China, Russia and India the three big nations of the group.
Turkey was accorded dialogue partner in 2013 on their request. Turkey had discussed abandoning accession to European Union provided she was given full membership of SCO. The President of Turkey attended the SCO meet this time as an observer. The Turkey’s interests to join the SCO group is an indicator of changing geo political matrix in back drop of ongoing Ukraine war and after effects of their complicity in Syrian theatre. Turkish economy is not doing well that needs to be propped up, hence need to reach out to China and other regional economies. Russia has been their big trade partner especially in their energy sector that had impacted on their economy, hence need to patch up with Russia as well.
In order to appease China , Turkey has not raised voice against Chinese atrocities on co religious Uyghur Muslims of Xingjian province. They are also known to have agreed to deport Uyghur people who have taken shelter in Turkey back to China. Turkey is also opening up to Israel which goes against tenets of Islam to stand up for religious cause. Turkey being gateway to Europe, suits Chinese interests for their economic expansion. Given the Chinese and Russian interests it should not be difficult to include Turkey in the SCO club.
India has traditionally good relations with Russia that has been a big support in strategically sensitive situations. Indian armed forces continue to have more than 50% of their hardware of Russian origin especially the mechanized forces and Air Force. The Ukraine war and consequent economic sanctions on Russia has prompted them to supply oil and gas at concessional rates. There are also talks of Rupee – Rouble trade between both the countries .It is a positive step from Indian economic point of view.
A large economy like India cannot stop trading with China that happens to be vital for certain Indian economy sectors. Apropos, despite border dispute, China and India continue to be big trade partners with more than $ 100 billion in current times. Therefore, Indian has to be pragmatic in taking a call on reducing economic engagement with China in order to create leverages against their military overtures. There are other ways to handle the situation instead of up the ante beyond a level of acceptance. Hence, participation in SCO is part of Indian economic reach out to all the member nations including China that have positive connotations for India. It is also a mechanism to resolve the legacy contentious issues through mutually beneficial trade relations alongside peer pressure instead of hard surgical options.
The statement by Indian Prime Minister ‘It is not the era of war’ during his interaction with the Russian President, holds good for all the nations . The timing of this statement from SCO forum has a strategic import for global as well as regional scenarios. It is a direct message to China and Pakistan to desist from military overtures if they want to move forward with India. It is the regional economic engagement and people to people contact that is the key to better environment for regional synergy. If the members continue to be individualistic with confrontationist strains then it is a matter of time that SCO would cease to attain its objectives.
There is a shift from security predominance to economic opportunities as the SCO is growing in stature. The message is clear that it is centrality of economy that can achieve regional integration, the prime objective in present times. Hence, need to be pragmatic and accommodative towards sensitivities of members in political calculus instead of flexing military muscles. India with her political connects across the world is in a pivotal position to play a role to reduce the environmental schism and political stress.
The old Indian philosophy of ‘’Vasudev kutumkam” probably is the best way to go forward and resolve legacy intransigent issues. It sounds difficult, but SCO provides an opportunity to convert the confrontation into competitive cooperation as there is adequate space for everyone to develop and prosper. If it happens at regional level, then the global peace and harmony will come much easily and in earlier time & space.