India’s SCO Presidency: No Shanghai Surprise

Balancing act: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends an SCO summit in 2018. Image: Government of India / Wikimedia Commons / GODL

As India prepares to host this year’s summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, what is the outlook for its relationship with Russia, China and other members of the grouping?

In remonstrating with a visibly discomfited Vladimir Putin about how ‘today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this’, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who assumed the presidency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) at Samarkand in September 2022, revealed a fundamental contrast between India's and China’s positions on accountability and sovereignty. The main take-away for Chinese President Xi Jinping from the summit, on the other hand, was that preventing ‘colour revolution[s]’ in SCO member states – essentially China’s near abroad – now extended to Putin’s puppet regime in Minsk, with a Sino-Belarusian agreement to crush democratic dissidents. Although the SCO was founded in April 1996 as the ‘Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions’, its genesis – and the origin of its nomenclature – ought not to confuse anyone, including Indians. It will be a first in the 76-year-old republic’s history when New Delhi hosts this year’s summit of the SCO – a grouping whose official languages are Chinese and Russian.

Stuck between belligerent neighbour and dubious ally, the largest English-speaking parliamentary democracy must sup with a long spoon. For India, partaking in a Chinese-conceived forum whose members are tacitly expected to bolster Beijing’s security, guarantee its energy needs and – preferably – adopt a yuan-based economy for aid and trade is unsavoury to say the least. SCO members are also expected to take a cue from the success of Chinese command capitalism, which encourages the replication of Chinese-style ‘robots’, as British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton referred to them just before his death. Central Asian Stans, pre- or post-91, are accustomed to kowtowing to the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai. Washington’s observer status application to the SCO was rejected in 2005.

The sovereignty and security of the SCO’s Central Asian members have been kicked into the steppe grass: ethnic Russian irredentists domiciled in fertile, mineral-rich northern Kazakhstan plot to break up Central Asia’s largest republic, which contains the world’s second largest uranium ore deposits, as well as ex-Soviet bases – including Baikonur cosmodrome – which Moscow insists on regulating. The Chinese, who invested some $26 billion in oil and gas pipelines up to the end of 2015, ignore objections over the illegal incarceration of dual-national Kazakhs alongside Uyghur Sunnis in Xinjiang’s detention camps. Kazakh authorities arrest those who protest about missing families outside Almaty’s Chinese consulate.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the two poorest SCO members, went to war over water and land ownership while the Samarkand summit was underway. KyrgyzGas was bought in 2014 by Russian state-run Gazprom for the princely sum of $1. Meanwhile, the long-running Sino-Tajik border settlement was declared resolved after Dushanbe gave up 386 square miles of the Pamir range in 1999 – some 5.5% of its territory – ratified by a boundary protocol in 2011. Tajikistan is the world’s most remittance-dependant state, with Tajiks filling menial positions across Russia. Tehran also made its own call on Tajikistan, erecting its first overseas drone factory there in May 2022. This technology transfer was in accordance with a tacit agreement to supply Moscow, whose military base in Tajikistan stands diminished with reduced manpower and equipment, which has been transferred to the Ukrainian front. Dushanbe denied exporting Iranian drones, although Shahed-136 kamikazes hit Ukrainian cities throughout October 2022. 90% of all heroin consumed in Europe is from Afghanistan, all of which transits through ‘narco-state’ Tajikistan.

Stuck between belligerent neighbour and dubious ally, the largest English-speaking parliamentary democracy must sup with a long spoon

Sunni militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, headquartered in Afghanistan, make frequent forays into the Ferghana Valley, Central Asia’s most populous region which straddles Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Despite Xi Jinping demanding ‘solid protection’ for Chinese companies and citizens at Samarkand, Janus-faced Pakistan cannot control its militants – never mind its capricious Taliban surrogates in Kabul, who signed a contract for the exploitation of oil in the Amu Darya Basin, but were themselves unable to prevent Islamic State militants bombing a Chinese-owned hotel in the capital they have controlled since August 2021.

Commerce and connectivity inspired Narendra Modi’s pointed plea in Samarkand for all SCO states to grant ‘full transit rights’. His Pakistani counterpart’s retort – a classic case of a conversation where neither party acknowledges the other – was for ‘seamless connectivity within SCO countries’. The much-touted International North–South Corridor (INSTC), mooted in 2000 and expected to be operational by 2018, has witnessed only dry freight runs to date. Bypassing Pakistan to reach Afghanistan and the Baltic, the INSTC was meant to reduce costs by 30% and transit times from 60 to 30 days. Owing to ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and the Caucasus, Iranian domestic instability, and auxiliary branches that remain unfinished or – in the case of tracks between Iran and Armenia – unlaid, Indian hopes of transporting 75% of all container traffic between Eurasia and the Gulf by 2030 remain unfulfilled. Despite opening in 2016, the Indian-funded ($85 million plus a $150 million soft loan) Persian Gulf port of Chabahar is underutilised, and a Chabahar–Zahedan railway remains unrealised. Similarly, the approximately 10,300-km Madras–Vladivostok maritime corridor proposed at the Eastern Economic Forum in 2019, envisaging Indian vessels sailing through the South China Sea and into Beijing’s backyard, has yet to come to fruition. But the gas-rich Siberian hinterland and seaboard are practically China’s and, as Russia’s budget deficit worsens, Xi is incrementally mistrustful of his ‘limitless’ friendship with Putin – Beijing’s investments in Russia under the Belt and Road Initiative fell from $2 billion in 2021 to zero in the first half of 2022.

C Raja Mohan has admonished India to ‘take a hard look at Moscow’ in the Caucasus and Central Asia, having ‘hitched its Eurasian wagon to the Russian star’. A S Dulat, former Indian intelligence chief, has pronounced the Chinese-Iranian-Russian trio a ‘formidable’ threat. Air India has discontinued flights to Moscow given the exorbitant insurance costs of operating twice-weekly flights; unlike US carriers, it operates regular flights via Russian airspace, including 47 flights a week to the US. Indians ought to reconsider this pricey, parasitic relationship with the supplier of 45% of their country’s weaponry (and until recently over 50%) – the durability of which during the ongoing Ukraine war must dismay Indian generals. As Rob Johnson from the UK Ministry of Defence’s Office for Net Assessment and Challenge observed:

If you were the Indians looking at how many T90 tanks have been turned into blazing hulks and you have a requirement for about 1,200 tanks, you might be looking outside Russia.

Earlier this month, First Deputy Ukrainian Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova cautioned her New Delhi hosts that the ‘Crimea episode has a lesson for India too’. India hosts the SCO in Goa, May 2023, where Xi Jinping will arrive after renaming India’s Arunachal Pradesh, claimed since the Sino-Indian 1962 war, as South Xizang (Tibet); and the People's Liberation Army Navy, the world’s largest, is Sinicising five seabeds in the western Indian Ocean for inclusion in the register of the International Hydrographic Organization.  

Atul Mishra, ‘Taking Stock of India’s policy on Ukraine war’, merits quoting in extenso:

Many in India feel pride at New Delhi’s frequent use of sharp words that call out western hypocrisy and insularity. ... But wrapped within this stance is the view that the invasion and the war are the West’s problem. They are not. They centrally impinge on India’s core interests. ... [Such] rhetoric may be eroding the work done since the late-1990s by Indian governments to improve relations with the only global force whose interests align with India’s when it comes to the emboldening revisionism of Russia and China.

India demonstrates to the disenfranchised and despairing populations of SCO regimes that, contrary to the predatory behaviour of the Russians and Chinese, a normative, representative, inclusive developmental pathway exists. A foregone conclusion, though, is that India’s core interests and shared values are conspicuous not in the SCO but in the G20 and the Indo-Pacific Quad.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Burzine Waghmar

Form Visiting India Fellow

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