Member heads of state meet at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Ufa, Russia, in 2015. Photo: AFP / Alexander Nemenov
Member heads of state meet at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Ufa, Russia, in 2015. Photo: AFP / Alexander Nemenov

Next month the heads of state of India and Pakistan will attend, for the first time as full members, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit, being held in Qingdao, China. Pakistan was already engaged with SCO member states through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Joining the SCO will reinforce Pakistan’s position and integration into the region.

However, regarding India, there are few clarifications needed. What will India’s role be in the SCO? How well can India integrate into the SCO? What are the expectations?

Let’s view some of the historical facts. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was created to stage a combined front of the South Asian states for economic development and market access to member states within the region and beyond. India tried to hijack the forum, and later boycotted the summits, rendering the SAARC platform dysfunctional.

India was a driving member of the Non-Aligned Movement since its inception in 1956, but when the Cold War ended India realized non-alignment was not an option any more if it wanted to realize its geopolitical motives. Though India is still a part of the NAM, it has practically dissociated from it by aligning itself with the West.

To understand this behavior, we need to understand the basics of Indian foreign policy as laid down by the ancient military and diplomatic genius Chanakya. Chanakya said, “Your neighbor is your natural enemy and the neighbor’s neighbor is your friend.” This was the basic thought behind Chanakya’s theory and other clauses revolved around this basic principle.

Following this path, one can understand India joining the “Quad” group also consisting of Australia, the US and Japan, but it is not clear if such a policy can work in parallel to the regional SCO alliance. Samsraya, or the principle of alliance-building, is that states seeking the protection of a stronger king could entering alliances or by sign treaties.

The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) is a clear example of this, where the US and India can jointly use each other’s military installments for logistical purposes, hence giving both immense mobility in terms of naval warfare. Chanakya gave the principle of dvaidhibhav, or double dealing, which advised states to have peace with one state in order to pursue hostilities with another.

India is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which postures itself as representing the democratic forces in the Asia-Pacific region. The group’s hidden motives are to counter China and Russia, which they believe are undemocratic forces.

Today, India is the second-largest beneficiary of US aid after Israel. The US is providing the latest technologies, high-tech weapons, economic and financial assistance, and political and military assistance.

The recent informal talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were aimed at wooing India to join the Belt and Road Initiative. The talks were inconclusive, however, and India still openly objects to the BRI. While all of the other SCO member states are already beneficiaries or supporters of the BRI, India alone is a staunch opponent of it. How will this affect the BRI’s inclusion into the SCO agenda?

The SCO is basically a regional security bloc. Under the SCO defense ties are expected to be increased, but India’s recent deal to acquire the S-400 missile system faced anti-Russia sanctions by the US before it could be implemented. This casts serious doubts on the extent of India’s defense cooperation with the SCO member states, while keeping close ties with West simultaneously.

Under this situation, how can India accommodate its own interests with these diverging blocs? The SCO has its own agenda for regional security and cooperation that the member states are committed to. On whose side will India stand? Can the SCO offer India a better package to involve itself with regional partners rather than trans-regional partners?

India is engaged with the US, Australia and Japan in the Indo-Pacific Dialogue. Meanwhile China and Russia – major drivers of the SCO – are on the US hit-list, as President Donald Trump specifically targeted those two countries in his State of the Union speech in January. Can India join the SCO and at the same time safeguard Western interests? India has to come out clearly on its standing so that bold decisions can be made at the SCO Summit next month.

In view of the above, understanding the whole situation, let the SCO member states judge or predict the Indian role in the organization.

In fact, the SCO constitutes one of the world’s most densely populated areas, rich in natural resources, yet the common man suffers. The provision of adequate food, potable water, education, health care, and security are still major problems. It is hoped that through the SCO platform, its members may achieve more cooperation, more connectivity, more trade, increased economic activities, more jobs and better law and order.

I am very optimistic that the day is not far away when we may be able to solve such issues for the majority of human beings.

Zamir Awan

Professor Zamir Ahmed Awan is a sinologist at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) Chinese Studies Center of Excellence, Islamabad, Pakistan. Posted to the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing as science counselor (technical affairs) from 2010-16, he was responsible for promoting cooperation between Pakistan and China in science, technology, and higher education.

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