India in the SCO: Future Challenges

Spearhead Analysis – 08.01.2018

By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

In 2017, at the Astana Summit (June 8-9) India and Pakistan finally became full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Soon after, on November 30 and December 1 of the same year, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj attended the 16th Meeting of the Council of SCO Heads of Governments in Sochi, Russia. During her speech Swaraj stressed on the need for member countries to come together to fight terrorism, and enhance connectivity. Alongside India, Pakistan took part in the Meeting as well.

With India and Pakistan as member states of the SCO, China, the key driver of the organization, will likely face a series of challenges with regards to maintaining stability within the SCO environment. 

It is important to consider Beijing initially may not have even wanted India to join the SCO. Russia first recommended India’s membership perhaps for the sake of enhancing bilateral economic and security engagement– but several analysts argue largely Russia’s eager support for India’s inclusion was rooted in checking China’s expanding influence in the SCO.

Countries part of the SCO are accustomed to a fairly harmonious environment in the organization, one that supports both discussion and an accommodative attitude towards resolving disputes. India’s entry could frustrate Beijing due to not only the geopolitical competition between India and China that is in danger of becoming more pronounced with India as member, but also because of the existing India-Pakistan tensions that occasionally flare up and will likely now impact the nature of SCO discussions.

New Delhi remains highly critical of China’s “all-weather friendship” with Islamabad. India may use the SCO to criticize the Belt and Road Initiative’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) since as a full member India now has the right to protest developments that do not serve interests of all SCO members.

Nonetheless, the inclusion of Pakistan and the control and influence of China over the organization will in all likelihood limit India’s ability to secure its interests through the SCO. 

On the issue of terrorism for instance, India’s ability to address and press forward on the topic will remain limited. Beijing has consistently backed Pakistan and looked the other way as Pakistani intelligence services have been blamed by other countries for supporting terrorist groups in Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. In case Pakistan tries to regionalize the Kashmir issue through the SCO it will also be interesting to observe India’s response. India will also have to remain cautious as China may use the SCO’s platform to raise the Tibet issue, especially since India has been giving shelter to the Dalai Lama for several years now. 

Amid China and Pakistan’s presence and role in the organization, India’s participation in the SCO will be limited and faced with challenges on several grounds. Mutually shared suspicions will likely impact SCO discussions. Any positive progress in the SCO will depend on how Indian diplomacy is applied to tackle opposition or account for rival countries’ interests. India-Russia diplomatic relations can play a major role in safeguarding India’s interests. At the same time, India might also find itself isolated as a Russia-China-Pakistan alliance could  emerge, united on commonly shared positions between the three on regional issues. India’s relations with Central Asian countries are also significant in this regard. CAR is generally known to be under China’s sphere of influence so diplomatic engagement on this front can also be challenging.

The Modi government must be cognizant of the geopolitical realities that have framed the evolution of the SCO. The threat of a complete failure of the SCO will be intolerable for Beijing due to its central role in establishing the forum. Irrespective of the bickering that may ensue in discussions between member states over regional issues, Beijing will most likely again expand on the significance of the SCO at the coming summit in June 2018. 

For India to ensure its interests are secured it will have to apply careful diplomacy and maintain certain neutrality on issues it is not directly impacted by. Starting a dialogue with Pakistan to improve the bilateral relationship will also help. According to reports, back-channel contacts between the two are being supported by the US, which wants Pakistan and India to work together on Afghanistan and other regional issues. However, any breakthroughs and meaningful normalization in the relationship is not expected to come about anytime soon.