SCO heralds winds of change in South Asian security

M.K. Bhadrakumar May 27, 2016 5:20 AM (UTC+8)
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Membership in Shanghai Cooperation Organization will provide India and Pakistan a rare opportunity of co-habitation to kick-start a normalization process that eluded them for six decades. As a vista of unprecedented scale of interaction in security cooperation opens up, the two neighbors are likely to improve their ties

The foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) who met at Tashkent Tuesday recommended to the summit meeting of the grouping slated to be held on June 23 in the Uzbek capital the signing of a memorandum of understanding granting membership to India and Pakistan.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Tashkent on 24 May
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (2nd right) and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov (3rd left) in Tashkent on May 24

For all purposes, the process of inducting the two South Asian countries as SCO members has touched the finish line.

It was in September 2014 that India formally applied for full membership. The SCO had granted ‘observer’ status to India and Pakistan ten years ago in 2005.

To be sure, Asian security and regional power dynamics is poised for a historic makeover. India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. They bring in a staggering 1500 million population under SCO’s canopy.

With their induction, SCO territory reaches the waters of the Indian Ocean and the grouping stance akimbo as a compelling presence on the edges of the Persian Gulf. Suffice it to say, the SCO’s transformation as a security organization takes a big leap forward.

The SCO will take up Iran’s membership question as soon as the formalities of India and Pakistan’s induction are completed. Conceivably, by the end of the decade, Iran will also have joined the SCO as full member.

Traditionally, China focused on SCO’s activities in the economic sphere, but lately, it shares Russia’s interest in the grouping’s profile as a security organization. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the Tashkent meeting,

  • The SCO has become a paradigm of global and regional cooperation with great vitality and significant influence, and serves as a model of efficient cooperation by paying equal attention simultaneously to economic development and security cooperation.

No doubt, growing tensions between China and the US play a part here. Wang can take immense satisfaction that the meeting in Tashkent adopted a communique voicing support for the Chinese stance in the South China Sea dispute.

Taking a swipe at Washington (and Tokyo), the SCO foreign ministers strongly opposed “outsiders’ interference” and attempts to “internationalize” the dispute.

This is the first time that SCO lined up to support China in its hour of need. There is poignancy insofar as China is the recipient here. The SCO support takes away some of the sting of the G-7 barbs voiced at the summit meeting in Japan. In geostrategic terms, SCO support has much greater relevance than G-7 beating distant drums.

The point is, SCO stance is a consensus that India too eventually comes to share. The draft memoranda adopted at Tashkent on Tuesday – with informal consultation and concurrence of the Indian government – commits New Delhi to mandatorily join the relevant conventions and internal documents that exist within the SCO framework.

In relation to South China Sea dispute, India too has been drifting away from the US-Indian Joint Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean issued last year in New Delhi in January during the state visit by President Barack Obama.

The joint communique issued after the annual trilateral Russian-Indian-Chinese foreign-minister level meeting in Moscow two months ago decided to hold joint focused discussions later this year in regard of South China Sea situation.

Again, India held back from responding to recent American urgings for the two navies to undertake “joint patrols” in South China Sea, although Pentagon officials voiced confidence that India would join the bandwagon.

Equally, SCO’s rapid transformation as a security organization can be seen against the backdrop of the New Cold War stand-off between Russia and the US. The guarantee that India, Pakistan and Iran will definitely refuse to countenance deployment of US missile defense systems can only work to Russia’s advantage in maintaining the global strategic balance.

Russia and China are conscious of the imperative need to offer to Iran an enduring matrix (through SCO membership) that strengthens its wherewithal to retain its “strategic autonomy” vis-à-vis the West.

Indeed, Iran’s SCO membership also helps preserve the strategic balance in the Middle East where traditional US military presence is being steadily augmented with 3 NATO powers lately setting up military bases – France in the UAE, Britain in Bahrain and Turkey in Oman – and NATO too inserting as a provider of security and expanding its footprints through various partnership formats, including in Iraq.

In a fundamental sense, therefore, Russian-Chinese entente is injecting new verve and dynamism into SCO. At Tuesday’s ministerial in Tashkent, Wang underscored that China and Russia “maintain close strategic cooperation in international and regional issues, and have become important components of international stability”.

Now, that is a powerful articulation of the co-relation of forces in regional politics. Wang added that the SCO’s development and strengthening constitute “an important force for preserving peace”.

China is also pushing for acceleration of the “linking” of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union and Beijing’s One Belt One Road project, as agreed upon last year in May by the presidents of Russia and China.

The big question for the moment, however, concerns another security front: What does the induction of India and Pakistan as full members of the SCO portend for the regional grouping’s new-found “pro-activism” or the two regional powers’ mutual relationship?

India-Pakistan relations are in doldrums and the prospects of meaningful dialogue between them remain uncertain. Will they carry their intractable, acrimonious differences and disputes into the SCO tent and impede the grouping’s functioning?

Or will they use the rare opportunity of co-habitation the SCO tent provides – and the vista of steady, institutionalized interactions that it opens up away from publicity – to kick-start a meaningful normalization process that eluded them so far in their tortuous 60-year history?

Cynics despair that India and Pakistan are simply incapable of the maturity expected from responsible nuclear powers. However, a good case can also be made with a contrarian prognosis.

If the “hereditary enmity” between France and Germany could be overcome and transformed into a “special relationship” by 1963, the idea of European Community had sowed the germane seeds.

The heart of the matter is that SCO compels India and Pakistan to cogitate, listen, while sitting around a table – or have a quiet word on the sidelines.

Apart from annual summit meetings, SCO mechanisms envisage frequent consultations at different levels involving heads of governments, foreign ministers, national security advisors, chiefs of intelligence and armed forces, security czars dealing with internal security, and so on.

SCO conducts joint military exercises to finesse and coordinate their operational strategies and share intelligence. To be sure, a vista of unprecedented scale of interaction in security cooperation will open up. It should not be surprising at all if, modestly put, the climate of India-Pakistan relations improves in a positive way.

Then, there are SCO’s regional projects for enhancing connectivity, strengthening energy security or fostering infrastructure development. It is entirely conceivable that India may at some point take a fresh look at China’s One Belt, One Road projects.

Much, clearly, lies in the womb of time, but the high probability is that India and Pakistan’s SCO membership will transform regional security in South Asia. Indeed, China and Russia are stakeholders in promoting such a process.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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