India needs to provide fresh impetus to SCO

Written By: P Stobdan
New Delhi, Delhi, India Updated: Nov 28, 2020, 07:41 AM(IST)

PM Modi at SCO Summit. Photograph:( Twitter )

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Considering India's profile and benign image, the forum is well suited to play a balancing role vis-à-vis its ties with the U.S while simultaneously keeping China's regional ambitions in check

India is all set to host the virtual summit of the SCO Heads of the Government on November 30, in which Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is expected to participate.
Surprisingly, within three years of joining, India is seeking integration with the organisation considered as arch-rival of the United States. India ardently participated in a series of SCO's annual activities except in this year's military exercise "Kavkaz 2020" citing the pandemic related constraints.
Twenty years in, the SCO isn't an effective regional powerhouse as yet. But, given the current conflation of global economic uncertainty, and against the Chinese assertion, the SCO is a useful platform for India to espouse its strategic autonomy in the global affairs. 
The charters of the SCO are less confrontational and the decisions are consensus-based. Considering India's profile and benign image, the forum is well suited to play a balancing role vis-à-vis its ties with the U.S while simultaneously keeping China's regional ambitions in check. 
It's obviously in no one's interest to let Eurasia once again becoming a chessboard of great game rivalries or a hub of terrorism and extremism. India’s persistent strong voice to combat terrorist networks is already having a region-wide positive effect. An urge in Central Asia to deepen and expand its regional autonomy vis-à-vis Russia and China cannot be simply ignored by India. 
First, New Delhi should use the summit to restore the SCO’s original commitment to function in compliance with its basic Principles and Charters, which has been eroded by some member states while repeatedly dragging bilateral issues in the agenda.
Second, in view of the dramatic weakening of global governance amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, India should use the SCO platform as a test-bed for promoting its development model. Interestingly, at the 19th SCO summit, PM Modi presented a new template for cooperation i.e. in healthcare, economic cooperation, alternative energy, literature, and culture, terrorism-free society, and humanitarian cooperation.

They form a part of his vision of building a "Self-reliant India" in the post-pandemic world. And, if the national capacity-building efforts are clubbed with economic multilateralism, they will prove to be a force multiplier for the global economic recovery. This needs no binary great-power politics. India's Covid-19 relief diplomacy is a success. Its pharma-industry has helped more than 150 countries with essential medicines to save humanity.
In the next stage, India’s massive role in the manufacturing and delivery of vaccines would greatly shape the post-pandemic world order. As for the SCO, a credit line of $1 billion has just been announced by India for stabilizing the sanitary and epidemiological situation in Central Asia. 
In Moscow, there appeared a near congruence of interests between India, China, and Russia to address the pandemic crisis. 
Incidentally, both PM Modi and President Xi shared an identical view on the unique value of traditional medicine in the battle against COVID-19 – hence the need for learning from each other. 
When President Xi called for establishing an SCO community of cultural exchanges, PM Modi gave outright support to celebrate the 20th anniversary of SCO next year as "SCO Culture Year" where New Delhi would show-case its shared global Buddhist heritage. That’s fresh!
Third, some member states are trying to keep India out of the Eurasian regional synergy. This may perhaps not work. PM Modithis time brilliantly evoked from the past when he said "India shared centuries of enduring historical and cultural bonds with Eurasia”, for he also reminded that “our ancestors kept them alive with their untiring and persistent contacts.”So far, such a sentiment was often heard from the Chinese pronouncement. 

Clearly, as in the past when Eurasia played a springboard role for globalizing Indian civilization, New Delhi should find this time a new destiny to recouple with the region. Of course, after having invested a lot in the International North-South Transport Corridor, Chabahar Port, and Ashgabat Agreements, India cannot leave out its regional connectivity aspirations. Geopolitical hurdles are created but the states need to adhere to the SCO’s core principles of respecting one another's sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

Interestingly, during the COVID-19 repatriation flights, the Indian civil aviation industry discovered a huge potential market in Eurasia – hitherto unexplored. The industry seems developing a portfolio of traffic routes (air-corridor) and cargo-network into the Eurasian market similar to the one that transports Afghan products to New Delhi and Mumbai.
Fourth and importantly, after a thirty years gap of lost opportunity, New Delhi appears serious about pursuing a substantive trade and economic agenda with the region under the SCO agenda. India has already advised SCO countries to give a clarion call to leverage their economic strength to boost trade and investment that would ensure speedy economic recovery from the pandemic crisis.
Recently, India has shown willingness to share its unique startup ecosystem, based on ‘creativity, innovation, and disruption’ that would help foster mutual innovation, promoting trade, and providing market access among the SCO countries.
Fifth, with the weakening of the effectiveness of global governance amidst the pandemic, India is likely to push for radical reforms in multilateral institutions including in the United Nations. There are other global challenges such as climate change and terrorism that is being overlooked. India should be using the SCO to tackle these impending issues. 

Seventh, there cannot be any let-down on India focus on voicing against terrorism, illegal arms proliferation, drugs, and money laundering. Possibly, terrorists would be seeking fresh opportunities to exploit the pandemic for disruption, recruit more people, and propagate extremist ideology.
Finally, the utility of the SCO platform to hold bilateral meetings on the side-lines is now being denied by the coronavirus. Premier Li Keqiang’s presence should be utilized to push for redefining India’s economic agenda with China, especially if the two can forge a common agenda in Eurasia.
To be sure and rhetoric apart, member states will continue to follow the bilateral arrangements. Being an inherently fragile grouping, the interests of Russia and China differ. The positions of others also fluctuate in line with their interests. It is, therefore, best to build on bilateral leverages, for the Central Asian states instinctively carry lots of expectations from India. They are sensitive and also pragmatic. They would start comparing India with China in terms of performances. If nothing else, the limited immediate benefits of joining SCO will be more than compensated for by improved bilateral cooperation with them.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer)

P Stobdan

P Stobdan is an expert on Eurasian Affairs. He authored the volume (book) ‘The Afghan Conflict & India

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