New Delhi should give thought to how it can help add to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation ’s agenda, especially if it can be used to channel China’s preponderant regional influence in constructive and non-threatening ways
Two years after the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation formally began the process, India has finally joined as a full-fledged member. The Astana summit in Kazakhstan also saw the parallel entry of Pakistan into the SCO, effectively spreading the boundaries of this Eurasian multilateral body all the way to the Indian Ocean. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it a point to speak about the importance of countering terrorism in what amounted to India’s inaugural address as an SCO member. This partly harks back to the original 1996 charter of the so-called Shanghai Five that went under the title Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions. The SCO is a direct descendant of that nascent body and the then threat was the ethnic and political instability caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today, it is the collapse of the Islamic State, the forever war in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism that pose security challenges for the SCO membership. Which highlights another reason why India’s mention of terrorism was appropriate – it implicitly reminded all the SCO members that Pakistan is as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution. The SCO has undergone several avatars as the fortunes of its members and regional geopolitics have changed. By the mid-2000s, for example, its two dominant members, China and Russia, were more nervous about the United States and its penchant for overseas military intervention, promotion of democratic revolutions and its widening military footprint in Central Asia. That phase has since passed and the SCO is now an organisation that is, to some degree, in search of a mission.
India’s has a broad interest in being at the table of any multilateral security and political body that is in its wider neighbourhood. The world is now afloat with an alphabet soup of new multilateral bodies, reflecting the decline of a US-dominated world order and the rise of new regional powers and threats. Sensibly, most governments want to be part of as many of them as possible if only because they are uncertain if one of these bodies becomes vitally important in the future. If so, they want to be part of the decision-making and agenda-deciding process. The SCO is one of these bodies that is both potentially significant but also amorphous in its present state.
New Delhi should give thought to how it can help add to the SCO’s future agenda, especially if it can be used to channel China’s preponderant influence in the region in constructive and non-threatening ways. One utility of multilateral fora is the constraints they place on major powers.