As Sino-India Relations Enter Free-fall, New Delhi Finds Itself at the Margins of the SCO
High in the mountains of Ladakh, Asia’s economic giants India and China came to blows in June in their disputed border area, the deadliest incident between the two countries in over 40 years. Signs have also emerged that China is aligning with its all-weather ally Pakistan to drive India out of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a turn of events that would shift the balance of power in Eurasia as New Delhi prepares to host the SCO summit in November.
India desperately sought to join this forum back in 2005. The SCO charter’s ideals, neatly packaged as the “Shanghai Spirit,” appealed to India’s own desires for joint solutions to regional challenges and a spirit of good-neighborliness. New Delhi sought to leverage the SCO to expand its political and economic ties with Eurasia, and to enhance connectivity and promote cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
Strategically, the SCO was valued by India as a way of balancing its ties with the United States, while simultaneously keeping China’s regional ambitions in check.
New Delhi was finally admitted to this club of ex-Communist countries in 2017 with Russia’s help, but along with rival Pakistan. Three years in however, India finds itself faced with a geopolitical paradox: The desire to remain involved in a de facto anti-American organization while simultaneously bridging relations with Washington in the face of a more assertive China.
As Washington and Beijing’s relations enter a state of free-fall, India’s decision to stay engaged with the Chinese-led SCO will come under intense scrutiny. Multiple conflicting interests already intersect for India, especially when its positions on global and regional issues tend to be at odds with those of the organization’s other members.
Beijing remains the core agenda-setter in the organization. The SCO (since 2001) was an offshoot of the earlier 1996 “Shanghai-Five” between China, Russia, and the newly independent republics of Central Asia, to advance Beijing’s regional objectives: Securing its borders; keeping the Uyghur diaspora in check; and acquiring a pivotal link to Eurasian markets. In more recent years, Beijing used it as a critical instrument for limiting U.S. influence in Eurasia, filling the Russian power vacuum in Central Asia, and forestalling any Islamic threat to China’s western borderlands.
It was Russia that brought India into the SCO as part of its ploy to water-down China’s influence in a region it sees as its sphere of influence. Ironically, this occurred just as Sino-Russian relations began to transform into a full-fledged strategic partnership. It is no longer clear where India fits in this “new era” of Sino-Russian relations. And Moscow, increasingly dependent on Beijing, is finding it harder and harder to resist Chinese strategic maneuvers, such as the stationing of troops in Tajikistan since 2016.
On regional security, the SCO’s focus is more about settling the Afghan conflict and thwarting the perceived flow of terrorists into Central Asia and Xinjiang – not curbing Pakistan-sponsored jihadis. For New Delhi, the gains, so far, have proven lackluster. India’s active participation in the organization’s Regional Anti-Terror Structure (RATS), military drills, for example, didn’t prevent the February 2019 terrorist attack by Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad in Kashmir which left 46 Indian troops dead.
India’s trade with Central Asia still stumbles along at just $2 billion, with Russia accounting for a further $10 billion. The bulk of India’s trade with SCO members (90 percent) is with China – and the SCO is not necessary in achieving this.
The SCO has also offered New Delhi little advantage in promoting connectivity. Plans to build a 610km railway from Chabahar to Zaidan, and then into Afghanistan and Central Asia remain in limbo; while the flagship TAPI gas pipeline between it and Turkmenistan has proven to be little more than hot air.
As tensions between New Delhi and Beijing flare, many question the utility of further involvement in an organization that so effectively promotes Chinese interests. Under Xi Jinping, China’s grip over Eurasia has only grown stronger with the advent of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). And the SCO has proven itself to be a key lynchpin in promoting BRI-related projects.
Increasingly, the promotion of Chinese high-speed rail and energy networks in Eurasia benefit the PLA’s plan to enhance its military capabilities and potential to project power. Once Central Asia switches to a 1,435 mm railway track gauge, China will gain an edge in its efforts to unite Eurasia (including Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan).
Surprisingly, even Pakistan is gaining ground in the SCO – effectively using the regional forum to advance its regional security agendas in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and using it to lobby on behalf of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Gwadar deep water port.
The recent incident of Pakistan “deliberately” displaying a map claiming disputed parts of Kashmir as being their territory at the SCO-National Security Advisor’s meeting was shocking but not unsurprising. The incident led India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval to stage a walkout in protest. Earlier, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister had pitched a campaign against New Delhi hosting the next SCO Heads of Government meeting in November, citing Covid-19’s spread in India.
Pakistani officials claim that SCO members overruled India’s objection to Pakistan’s political map and even Russia did not accept “India’s perspective.” Russian NSA Nikolai Patrushev (the Chair) did try to persuade Pakistan not to use the map, even though it continued to be displayed throughout the meeting.
Tensions with China continue to complicate India’s place in the SCO. The upcoming SCO summit in New Delhi will be held against the backdrop of the ongoing India-China standoff on the Ladakh border.
While the SCO may prove to be a zone of convergence, pulling the two back from the brink of conflict, current trends point in the opposite direction. As China deepens its relations with Russia and its ally Pakistan pushes to marginalize New Dehli’s role in the group, India looks set to remain the odd one out in the SCO.
Phunchok Stobdan is former Indian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and founder of the Ladakh International Centre. He is on the Advisory Council of Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs.