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Name of Event:
  "India and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: An Opening to Central Asia"

  16 July, 2011

  Asia Centre, Bangalore


In recent years a number of factors have combined to make the Central Asian region an area critical to global peace and stability. The collapse of the USSR and the eastward expansion of NATO, the gradual recovery of Russia and its re-assertive stance in the region, the US-led war on terror against Afghanistan, and China’s economic and political resurgence have significantly changed the dynamics in this region. Situated as it is, India can ill afford to be sanguine about the problems and processes in the region, and one of the active forums where it can address its concerns would appear to be the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

A seminar on “India and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: an opening to Central Asia” was held at the Asia Centre, Bangalore on 16th July, 2011. The seminar was jointly chaired by Shri AP Venkateswaran, former Foreign Secretary, and Shri ST Devare, Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs. The guest speakers at the Seminar were:

       - Professor Nirmala Joshi, former Chairperson of the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
       - Lt General (Retd) RK Sawhney, former Director General Military Intelligence and
       - Shri B R Muthu Kumar, former Ambassador to Kazakhstan.

The seminar was timely, coming as it did within a few weeks of the 10th Summit of the SCO held in Astana, Kazakhstan. It gave an opportunity to the participants to assess the growth of the organization from its inception, India’s present role and future expectations from the character of India’s involvement with the SCO, in the years to come. The mutable content of existing geopolitical realities and how India should respond to these and future changes in the region was covered extensively during the session. The seminar was addressed by the three panelists mentioned above who had deep knowledge about the organization and the member countries, and all of whom had interacted with their respective counterparts in the course of their professional careers.

All panelists emphasized that in recent years the Shanghai Cooperation Organization had assumed a new geo-political role in Central Asia. Established in 2001, the SCO had emerged as a significant mechanism in Eurasia and its increasing influence and weight has been acknowledged in the international arena. This has been reflected in the SCO gradually expanding beyond the Central Asian region into the wider southern Asian region.

Lt Gen Sawhney emphasized that two different views were prevalent about the SCO; that it was a good model to create a synergy between Russia and China by bringing the two great powers together, and that it set a situation for close cooperation in the wider region. In a sense, even the US had also probably learnt the lesson that it was better that the quest for democracy in these countries start from within rather than being imposed from without. He drew attention to the strictness being followed in admitting new members to the SCO and expressed the view that possibly the idea generated through Chinese direction.

From India’s standpoint, the speaker emphasised that full membership of the SCO would provide India greater visibility in the affairs of Eurasian region. Engaging China and, hopefully, Pakistan in the crucial regional context was also listed as a major advantage. He held out the potential for mutual cooperation in the three crucial areas of energy, connectivity and terrorism and its facilitation through SCO channels as a major plus. For India, of the three major areas of cooperation under the SCO, the most important one was connectivity with Central Asia which would be a fulcrum, for economic, commercial and strategic reasons. It was elaborated that it would greatly help India if a common strategy to build corridors can be worked out within the SCO framework. This would provide many opportunities for India, the Central Asian republics and even for countries beyond.

General Sawhney sounded the caveat that if India joined the SCO it would have to face the challenge of playing second fiddle to China and Russia. He emphasised that India needed to contend with China’s exploitation of the SCO to enhance its own role not only in the Eurasian region, but also in southern Asia. As China had always supported Pakistan’s role in the SCO, an important question was how Pakistan would use this forum to further its interests in the region if it became a full member. Islamabad’s desire to use this forum in the favour of Kashmir issue also needed attention. While India could gain many advantages by joining the SCO, it also posed many challenges, the conversion of which into opportunities would be a major task.

The second speaker Prof Nirmala Joshi explained the raison d’être of the SCO and traced its evolution as a successor to the Shanghai-5, with its Central Asian character. She clarified that in this evolution Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and even Tajikistan had lost a lot of territory while settling the border with China and that these states, having no means at their disposal to enforce any of their claims, had had no option but to sign on the dotted line.
The constancy of refrain in the SCO on good neighbourly relations and good neighbourly attitude along the border was a noticeable feature. China’s desire that the Uighurs should not demand special autonomy, separate autonomy or even a separate state was a driving factor.

Focusing on the highlights of the decade-old SCO, Prof Joshi pointed out that the economic aspect of the SCO was rather weak. Many declarations had been issued, a business council for private entrepreneurship had been formed, a development fund had been established, and talks had been held about energy club and agreements reached on improving transport; but nothing tangible had happened.

The future of the SCO would now depend to a great extent on the nature of the relationship between Russia and China. With the present alignment of interests the SCO is useful to both; but there are already some differences between Russia and China, particularly on Central Asia. If these differences surface, and China becomes more confident, it is quite possible that the SCO may get affected.

Another challenge the SCO faced was that there existed a surfeit of regional organisations. In this context, it was observed that the Central Asian States’ perceptions about the SCO were crucial. Their reactions and assessments have ranged from not wanting any Chinese money for fear of this leading to economic imperialism (as cautioned by a Kazakh scholar) to President Nazarbayev’s comment at the recent Astana summit that the complex problems of Central Asia could be dealt with by a council to tackle territorial settlement within the region on the basis of intra-regional security threats. Prof Joshi quoted a Russian scholar as saying that it was still not clear whether the SCO would remain a discussion club or whether it would become or exceed APEC or ASEAN.

The last panelist Ambassador Muthu Kumar dwelt on the Afghanistan aspect vis a vis Central Asia and the SCO. Commenting on the multiplicity of regional organisations and the members’ connection with them, he pointed out that with the exception of China all were OIC members and partners for peace with NATO. Russia was a member of the council of Europe while Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan participate in the deliberations. The US was a member of the OSCE and NATO and a participant in the council of Europe. One could thus imagine US consternation at the SCO having no space for it despite its overbearing presence in the region.

Among issues occupying the attention of the SCO members were the war and infighting in Afghanistan, the presence of NATO troops there, the Western pressure on Iran, and the Indo-US nuclear deal. The developments in Pakistan were a de-stabilising factor in the region and a cause for worry among the Central Asian countries.

Assessing the most important achievement of the SCO and the precursor of the Shanghai Five, Ambassador Muthu Kumar said that this had been the “no-nonsense” diplomacy and peaceful resolution of border problems. After many rounds and more than 6 years of negotiation by all sides, pragmatic compromises had been made to finalise the demarcation of the border. Details about how much each country had ceded to China were also mentioned. The border settlement was the most visible achievement that resulted in the establishment of direct routes and transport links, and had enabled a thriving cross-border trade and commerce. He observed that the SCO’s priority after settling the border issue was to combat the three evils of religious extremism, terrorism and separatism.

The speaker emphasized that with the exception of Russia and China the SCO is a group of poor and impoverished nations. Though blessed with rising foreign exchange reserves Russia and China are reluctant in extending full assistance to poorer partners like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The internal differences within the SCO were also highlighted. The rivalry between China and Russia could not be wished away - China would like to wean Central Asian republics away from Russia’s influence; but retaining influence over its ex-Soviet partners is a priority of Russia’s foreign policy. Such internal pressures were worthy of deeper examination. In this context, one should not be surprised if the SCO was unable to make the most of its potential to emerge as an effective international organisation.

Shree Muthu Kumar expressed the view that the future of the SCO rests with Central Asia, as the geo-strategic, political and economic factors all arise from the large central Asian profile. The dismantling of the Soviet Union had initially created a power vacuum in Central Asia, but with the passage of time Russia had re-emerged to assert its influence and power. This had dissipated the ambitions of Iran and Turkey, leaving three powers - China, Russia and the US - to vie for influence in the region.

Dwelling on the Indian story in Central Asia, he observed that we had wasted 20 precious years in the region, because we had not taken the region seriously. This weakness would affect our future role even if we became a member of the SCO. The speaker felt that in the circumstances, it would be better to stay clear of SCO. India should not join SCO just to engage Pakistan, as it was unproductive to carry our baggage of tension and mutual doubts to yet another forum.


India is geographically closer to Afghanistan than to the Central Asian members of the SCO. We therefore need to look at the SCO in the extended neighbourhood framework. The views expressed in the seminar differed on the desirability of India joining the SCO as a full member; whereas two speakers saw both advantages and disadvantages, one was more forthright in his recommendation that India should stay clear of the SCO. India’s membership of the SCO does not carry unmixed advantages, and would be effective only if the Afghan situation improves and trouble-free connectivity to the Central Asian Region is reestablished.

There were also divergent views on whether India should use this forum to engage Pakistan. The overall picture that emerged was that this is a region that has not received the attention it deserved in the past. While India should engage with the SCO in greater depth and frequency owing to our geostrategic location, we should evolve a comprehensive approach towards the future growth of our engagement with the region in general and the SCO in particular.