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The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) summit meeting will take place in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek during 13-14 June 2019. This year’s SCO summit has many new backgrounds to it. This will be SCO’s first leaders’ meeting since the full escalation of the trade war between the United States (US) and China. This will be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first multilateral engagement in his second term. His first bilateral visits are to the Maldives and Sri Lanka. This will also be the first time when the Indian Prime Minister and his Pakistani counterpart will be in the same room since the Pulwama attack and everything that has followed in its aftermath, but they will not be meeting each other officially on the sidelines as speculated.


India became a member of the SCO, along with Pakistan, in June 2017 in the Astana Summit. After this expansion, the SCO now represents 40 percent of the world population and 20 percent of its GDP. Thus, its importance as a significant regional organization cannot be overemphasized. While, it is not a ‘norm-maker’ organization yet, the SCO has emerged as a significant norm-influencer in the region.


SCO’s Core Mandate


The SCO began with a modest mandate of peaceful settlement of borders in the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, it has evolved over the years to focus on the task of ensuring and enhancing regional security. One of SCO’s significant areas of cooperation today is counter-terrorism. However, it extends beyond just counter-terrorism as the SCO charter also speaks of controlling “separatism” and “extremism” in the region. This goes on to show that the SCO’s definition of terrorism closely overlaps with China’s approach to countering terrorism. Terrorism, separatism and extremism are the three evils that China purports to combat in Xinjiang, which allows it to label a broad canvas of activities as being anti-national. SCO’s cooperation on countering terrorism is in the form of intelligence sharing, capacity building and joint counter-terrorism exercises that are huge in size. Radicalization in the region and the recurring incidents of ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks keep the security agencies on their toes. Similarly, the 2016 suicide attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan highlights the interconnectedness of security concerns in the region. Another of its unstated objectives has also been to keep the US intervention in the newly independent Central Asian region out. On this front, the grouping has largely succeeded. This is also a point on which Russian and Chinese interests converge, leading to greater cooperation between the two.


The SCO also operates its Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS). RATS is the core of the joint counter-terror exercises of the SCO and in recent times, it has focussed on addressing issues of terror financing. India has also been a participant in the various SCO dialogues on counter-terrorism and this has been of great help in facilitating conversations on the sidelines in understanding issues and in developing bilateral cooperation mechanisms such as capacity building and intelligence sharing. Given this background, it would be useful to look at how the SCO could potentially help India fulfill its interests in the immediate and extended region. 


Regional Connectivity


India would also be keen to utilize the SCO platform to advance its own regional energy and connectivity projects, such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and the International North South Corridor (INSTC), which is being operationalized in cooperation with Russia. There also might be a situation wherein INSTC overlaps with the land-based Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, particularly in Azerbaijan where there is a possibility of overcapacity/underutilization. In this case, the SCO and its sidelines may offer good opportunity to discuss these issues. India may also be able to help the small Central Asian countries voice their concerns vis-à-vis BRI, including, financing, feasibility and leasing issues. Chabahar project is already helping India overcome Pakistan’s hostile approach towards India’s role in the region. With the escalation in US-Iran tensions, India should use the SCO to build consensus on ensuring peace in the region since these growing hostilities have many negative implications on all of these above-mentioned projects.


The Afghanistan Situation


This year, a significant part of the agenda of the SCO summit will be to discuss and understand each other’s perspectives on Afghanistan, whose stability remains an important concern for the SCO members as instability in Afghanistan will have spillover effects on the SCO members. India and Pakistan’s entry as full members does change the SCO’s calculus as well since India considers Pakistan to be playing a non-constructive role in Afghanistan. Pakistan has also been making efforts to argue that India does not and should not have any significant role in Afghanistan. India’s statement at the end of the last joint group meeting did highlight this point when it said that Afghanistan’s security situation is complicated by “security challenges posed by terrorism and extremism imposed from beyond its borders.” India continues to endorse Afghanistan’s full membership of the SCO where it has been an observer since 2012.


The Afghan peace process has been evolving rapidly. The SCO has also reinitiated its SCO-Afghanistan Contact group meetings since 2017 after being dormant for seven years. On Afghanistan, India has two major concerns, which it would hope to voice through the SCO platform. First, along with the Afghan establishment, India has its reservations about the Moscow dialogue process involving the Taliban. India was also cautious when the US held discussions with the Taliban in the Doha and UAE meetings in 2018 and 2019. In both these dialogues, withdrawal of foreign troops is the major demand that Taliban put forth, besides other demands like “counter-terrorism assurances, intra-Afghan dialogue & negotiations, and reduction in violence leading to a comprehensive ceasefire.” From the Indian perspective, this Taliban bargain is from a position of strength and is indeed the lowest common denominator and a negative sum outcome. It is also worth reminding that while the Taliban leadership was present in Moscow to talk to Afghan Government representatives, eighteen Afghan security force personnel were killed and 22 others were injured in an attack launched by the Taliban in Afghanistan.


Opportunities for India


The SCO presents opportunities for India at many levels. It helps India re-engage with the region more meaningfully and participate in various capacity building and cooperation projects while not raising suspicion of major powers in the region, China and Russia. The Afghanistan scenario is evolving swiftly and India shares similar concerns as other SCO members except Pakistan and in the recent times Russia, which has been helping normalise the role of Taliban in the country. India should utilise the upcoming SCO summit to share its concerns and influence the SCO’s perspective on Afghanistan.


The meetings on the sidelines will also be significant, with Prime Minister Modi confirmed to have bilateral meetings with the Chinese and Russian Presidents. This will give ample opportunity to discuss trade and other issues of cooperation. For all these reasons, the upcoming SCO provides a good opportunity to kick-start multilateral foreign policy initiatives of Modi 2.0.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.