SCO’s geopolitical contours and India’s growing stature in the World order

| Viswapramod C
  • Though China and Russia have always played a major role in the SCO, with India at the forefront, the SCO will have a much larger and expanded role in the global political and economic landscape.
  • India has kick-started several initiatives, which will impact the nature and functioning of SCO in a very significant manner. 
  • China’s main motive is to prevent the growth of the western strategic alliances in the Indo-Pacific, hence it would further push Russia towards its peril and will continue to threaten India, and the other South-East Asian countries
  • Contemporarily, India is in a geopolitical sweet spot, as it has maintained stable and good relations with both the USA and Russia

The SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) recently concluded its summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The three powerful leaders from China, India and Russia, followed by the heads of states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and the host country Uzbekistan gathered for the summit, which focused more on international security concerns and alliance building, to establish a potent counterbalance of power, and to confront the western allies. In the backdrop of the ongoing, far-stretched and devastating war between Russia and Ukraine, and the western strategic support for Ukraine, SCO becomes a main geopolitical bulwark in Asian geopolitics which calls the shorts in devising an Anti-West security strategy and navigating a challenging and turbulent tide, of remaining strategically relevant and powerful in the contours of the emerging new world order.

SCO is a regional grouping which is considered the largest regional grouping in the world. It is larger than SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation), ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), bigger than NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in terms of manpower, which is because of population and geographical size. India and China combined together consist of 40% of the world’s population, which is represented in the SCO. The SCO countries also represent the largest geographical landmass held by any regional organization. But a very pertinent question arises about its political heft and geopolitical clout and whether it holds similar attraction in the world as the ASEAN does, which is driven more by geo-economics rather than geo-politics, or does it have the potential to gain the same traction as NATO, which is a treaty-bound international security alliance. It is beginning to gain that traction now as many western countries now consider SCO as a hedge against the western alliance or a counterbalance against the west which, (especially in the context of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine) is led by the USA, France, Germany, United Kingdom etc.

China and Russia have always played a major role in the shaping and development of the SCO alliance, but now with India at the forefront, the SCO will have a much larger and expanded role in the global political and economic landscape. India’s growing economic and political heft in the world will be the main driver in elevating the status of SCO from being just Asia-centric to becoming geo-centric with India’s expanded role in the Indo-Pacific region and the Central Asian region with special strategic partnerships with several central Asian countries, which is being swiftly worked out by India’s diplomatic community with a clear political mandate to gain the strategic dept and expand the horizons of India’s sphere of influence.

SCO began as Shanghai five (5) in the year 1996, with Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Their main concern at that point in time was internal security, terrorism, radicalization and the threat it posed to the Internal stability of these countries. So we can easily say that it was a loosely stitched security alliance of the 1990s. Slowly, it expanded and gained global traction. Uzbekistan, the current host joined in the year 2001. That was the time when SCO was formally announced as a regional grouping.

The military significance of SCO has also increased in recent years, wherein India, Pakistan, China, and Russian armies carry out joint military exercises and military manoeuvring within themselves for cooperation in counter-terrorism, narcotics control, and countering radicalization. This indeed drives the curiosity of the world, as the hostile countries make an effort towards strategic cooperation on several fronts which are critical to the international balance of power in the diplomatic and security paradigms.

The growing significance of India in the SCO

The SCO summit is something that India looks forward to attending every year as it provides an opportunity to understand the developments in Central Asia, and how China and Russia are keeping these countries under their security ambit and imposing their cohesive control mechanisms. By carefully reading the leaves of security architecture which are being carved out in the SCO, India has kick-started several initiatives, which will impact the nature and functioning of SCO in a very significant manner. India has initiated the NSA’s (National Security Advisors) meeting on central Asia which interestingly has Iran’s startling presence along with the other central Asian countries. Their NSA and security czars were in India in November 2021, where India hosted the strategically significant NSA meet, which was followed up in other locations as well. Through this, India is trying to strengthen its foothold in the Central Asian region, which is important for India in terms of gaining a strategic stranglehold and stimulating International trade.

The military significance of SCO has also increased in recent years, wherein India, Pakistan, China, and Russian armies carry out joint military exercises and military manoeuvring within themselves for cooperation in counter-terrorism, narcotics control, and countering radicalization. 

In fact, India has played a key role in including Iran in the SCO as its permanent member. Iran’s geostrategic advantages as having one of the world’s largest crude oil reserves, as a bordering country to Afghanistan, and as a transit to central Asia are well known to everyone. India in its larger geopolitical game plan has an agenda to drive its foreign policy and diplomacy towards extracting the strategic vantage point of a strong and coherent Iranian alliance. Mainstreaming Iran in such a manner would certainly diminish the Importance of Pakistan’s geo-strategic location. 

SCO leadership and challenges

India potentially has become the second most important player in SCO after China, and by leaving behind Russia. As per a few reliable top sources in the government, it is being said that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not willing to attend this year’s SCO summit, and had decided to skip the summit. Despite the personal requests made by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping to Mr Modi, it was not confirmed that he would attend the summit.  But then, just two days before the summit, the Chinese agreed to withdraw their troops from the PP (Patrol Point) 15 of the Gogra hot springs region of Ladakh, where the deadliest clash took place between Indian and Chinese troops in June 2020. And soon after this news reached New Delhi, PM Modi left for Samarkand to attend the summit. Though there were no expectations from this 16th corps commanders meeting between Indian and Chinese military officials, this breakthrough happened after two years of escalated situation, which promised to establish a new status quo. 

The Chinese withdrawal is a tactical gain for India, which can be converted into a strategic victory if persistent efforts are put into exerting pressure on the Chinese establishment.

Although there is a long way to go, in order to complete the process of de-escalation to disengagement, disengagement to de-induction and de-induction to de-militarization, which would bring about an arrangement for a permanent settlement in the conflict, in order to establish peace. In fact, both sides have not turned out victorious in this withdrawal process, and this situation has led to a strategic stalemate. Interestingly Mr Putin has also offered to be a mediator between India and China in resolving its long-standing border dispute as a gesture of being a strategic partner, but India has stated clearly that this is a bilateral issue and would be resolved through diplomatic negotiations between both the countries, as India intends to avoid the further internationalization of its standoff with china. However, this Chinese withdrawal is a tactical gain for India, which can be converted into a strategic victory, if persistent efforts are put into exerting pressure on the Chinese establishment. This development demonstrates the fact that a decisive political leadership with clear-headed strategic foresight, can outmanoeuvre the cohesive deterrence of the hard power dynamics in geopolitics.

Russia’s rumblings in SCO and its larger Geopolitics

Most of the discussions within the SCO summit were shadowed by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In fact, this summit had very interesting developments. This was the first time when PM Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin met after the Russia-Ukraine war broke out, Xi Jinping travelled out of China for an international conference for the first time (after two years) since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, mainly to address the rising geopolitical challenges in Asia in the aftermath of Russian strategic dilemma and the long drawn confrontation with India. Ever since the Invasion of Ukraine, the central Asian countries including the former Soviet allies are seriously worried about the new despotic nature acquired by Russia. They are concerned about the coercive military power and the erratic political power possessed by Vladimir Putin. Old peace treaties with Russia have become just an “Ink on paper”, as the trust factor between the old central Asian allies and Russia has been completely eroded.

This concern further intensifies with the bold statement of support issued by Mr Li Zhanshu, the Chairman of the CNPC (Chinese National People’s Congress) who is supposed to be the second most powerful office bearer in the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) after Xi Jinping, in the backdrop of the SCO summit said, “The US and NATO threatened Russia at its own door, forcing it to a corner. It’s only natural for Russia to Fight back to protect its core national interest. China fully understands Russia and has assisted it in various ways.” This outright support for the Russian actions in Ukraine indicates the level and degree of the Chinese confrontation with the USA and its international strategic heft. But with the hegemonic tendencies of China and the Nuclear deterrence of Russia (as Russia has the largest number of nuclear warheads, far greater than the US), Asian and European political stability has become permanently volatile and is in a state of precarious conflict and confrontation dilemma. 

Ever since the Invasion of Ukraine, the central Asian countries including the former Soviet allies are seriously worried about the new despotic nature acquired by Russia.

China’s main motive is to prevent the growth of the western strategic alliances in the Indo-Pacific, hence it would further push Russia towards its peril and will continue to threaten India, and the other South-East Asian countries to assert its hard power through its wolf warrior and gunboat diplomacy. This is the reason why Americans have expanded their diplomatic and Strategic role in India’s neighbourhood, by announcing economic packages or soft loans to Nepal and Bangladesh. Despite India’s opposition, the US has approved$450 million in assistance to Pakistan, to support the upgradation of Pakistan’s F16 fleet. With the deep American penetration and overarching Chinese hegemony, India’s foreign policy and strategic choices are in complex conundrums of political decision-making. India has to be extremely careful in making its future choices in international politics, which will have a significant bearing on its geo-strategic framework.

Contemporarily, India is in a geopolitical sweet spot, as it has maintained stable and good relations with both the USA and Russia. With its cautious, vigilant and measured foreign policy and its sturdy diplomatic manoeuvring, India has been able to navigate through strenuous situations and complex strategic challenges, with firmness and decisiveness in its political posturing. But given the extent of drastic changes in the world order, India needs to gear up its institutional stability and structural frameworks to an advanced scale.

(The author has an MA in International Relations. The views expressed are the author’s own)

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