Membership Can Only Get You So Far

India signed the MoO to accede into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation but membership means little unless reinforced by bilateral ties.

by Hamsini Hariharan (@HamsiniH)

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit held on 23-24th June gathered little attention because signing of Memorandum of Obligations hardly seems to be exciting in the glamorous world of foreign policy. At the 2015 Ufa Summit, it was agreed that India would be a full member of the SCO and is now expected to accede in 2017. India first became an observer of the SCO in 2005 and but it is unclear how much it has gained from membership since.

Opportunities to engage with Central Asia are rife; the region has abundant reserves of energy and minerals. India has few qualms about engaging with authoritarian regimes, unlike Western countries. But rather than repeating rhetoric about the potential of trade and relations with countries in Central Asia, what is required is intensification of policy. India’s ties with members of the SCO (not withstanding Russia and China) are only burgeoning. India’s trade with Kazakshtan in 2014-2015 amounted to nearly $952 million- a figure that is larger than the sum of India’s trade with the rest of the Central Asian countries.

Engagement between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan (the only SCO non-member) and India remain in a fledgling state and generally consists of trade in pharmaceuticals, electrical and electronic items, cultural and technical exchanges. India’s relations with the two regional powers in the SCO have taken unique trajectories. Since the end of the Cold War, ever amicable Russia has been forced to deal with post Cold War geopolitics while India moved closer to the US. India and China continue to view each other’s rise with suspicions as all neighbours do. The SCO, like BRICS and the G-20, provides a platform for the three countries to interact. However, being part of the SCO does not mean that India will automatically be able to flex muscles in Eurasia. The regional geopolitics already sees a tug of power between China, Russia and extraregional powers like NATO and America.

The Narendra Modi government continued the policy legacy of the UPA government but garnered more attention because of the personal brand of the Prime Minister and improved public diplomacy skills. In 2014, the Modi Government announced the ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’ and started focusing on energy trade and transition 2015, construction of the long overdue TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan Pakistan-India pipeline) finally began but it estimated to be operational only by 2019. On 23rd June, Prime Minister Modi declared India’s intention to join International North-South Transport Corridor and sign the Ashgabat Agreement to facilitate trade and commercial activity with Eurasia, both of which are long term goals.

On one hand, we can interpret India’s policies in Central Asia as proactive. On the other hand, India’s bilateral measures with countries in the region need to be amped  up for any realisation of any long term policies. The SCO is constituted in a way that it has few multilateral structures such as the Secretariat, Council of Heads of State, Regional Counter Terrorism Structure (RCTS), Interbank Consortium, Business Council, the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group etc. The Shanghai Spirit bringing countries together for consensus based decision making. It uses overlapping bilateral ties in a patchwork format to strength the institution.

The SCO began as an organisation to resolve border disputes and to fight against the three evils i.e. terrorism, extremism and separatism which affected the authoritarian regimes in all of the member states. During the 2000s, the rise of the Taliban and the War on Terror saw ripple effects in the SCO members many of whom shared borders with Afghanistan. However, since the fall of Taliban, the organisation has outlived its initial goals of settling border disputes. It has expanded its mandate to economic ties and energy connectivity because of the complementarities between energy starved China and energy rich Central Asian states. Over the last decade, the SCO also proved as a support mechanism for authoritarian regimes during the Colour Revolutions, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and China’s crackdown in Xinjiang. However, the expansion of the mandate also means that the SCO has to manage to stay relevant amidst changing geopolitics. India’s accession to the SCO thus means little unless India can intensifies bilateral ties with members in Central Asia.

Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @HamsiniH