SCO: What India Has Gained So Far From The Grouping And Key Takeaways From Samarkand Summit

The 22nd heads of states’ meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on September 15-16 drew a lot of attention in India as all eyes were on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s possible bilateral meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and also Pakistan PM Shahbaz Sharif, on the sidelines of the summit. Though these meetings did not materialise, the summit reiterated the necessity of friendly and brotherly behaviour among the member states of the SCO that was formally set up in 2001.  

The Samarkand summit of the SCO was high in rhetoric but remained low on concrete visible ground action. From India’s perspective, the outcome of the summit, in the form of a joint Samarkand declaration, was a reminder to rival member states to ensure peace and security by settling international and regional conflicts by exclusively peaceful, political and diplomatic means to strengthen relations between the member states so the friendship of their people is passed on from generation to generation. The SCO member states had committed to this in 2007, when they collectively signed the “Treaty on Long-term Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation of the SCO Member States”. 

Celebrating the 15th anniversary of this treaty, the Samarkand declaration once again referred to this significant and solemn promise made to the citizens of SCO, on whose behalf and for whose welfare the SCO was said to have been brought into existence. 

The eight-member SCO comprising almost one third of humanity are supposed to resolve their issues in a friendly manner, but the irony is that the original promoter of the SCO, i.e. China, has itself brazenly disregarded these precepts. Much to the chagrin of China, however, the SCO is functioning in a democratic manner where all decisions are taken by consensus. No member, however powerful they may be, can impose their will on the whole organisation. For example, India thwarted the attempts of China to include its much criticised One Road One Belt initiative as an SCO agenda, by opposing this move and expressing strong reservation against it.

Why SCO Was Formed And How India Became Part Of It

The SCO was founded in 2001, though the idea germinated from its previous avatar, the Shanghai-five, which comprised Russia, China and the three Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Proposed by China, this five-member group had been set up in 1996 with a view to dominate the oil and mineral-rich Central Asian region. However, Uzbekistan was later included in 2001 to form the six-member SCO. 

In the Western strategic circles, this was initially dubbed as an effort to counter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, as the member states began military exchanges and joint exercises among themselves. 

Since the organisation was not getting much traction in the international fora, Russia proposed the inclusion of India, on which China had initially expressed its reservation. Sensing Russia’s strong desire to include India, China proposed the inclusion of its all-weather friend Pakistan to counter India. As a democratic power, India’s inclusion gave certain credibility to the organisation. On its part, India was eager and serious to join this group as it wanted to use the organisation to protect and promote its national interest and make its footprints in Central Asia much more visible and proactive.

Indian diplomacy succeeded in getting itself included in the eight-member SCO as an equal partner in 2017. By placing itself on the High Table of SCO, India is able to better engage with the five Central Asian states, something which they welcomed. India was also able to thwart an anti-India agenda like the initial efforts to invite the Afghan Taliban representatives to the summit as observers. India’s prime purpose of joining the SCO was to make its presence felt in the Central Asian states. India could not have protected its national interests by keeping itself out of the SCO.

Cut To Samarkand, And The Key Takeaways

India played a very constructive role during the SCO Summit, according to observers. From India’s point of view, the main outcome of the summit was the Samarkand declaration, which included many of India’s concerns including those on terrorism, and denial of transit rights to member states etc. As a concrete outcome for India, Indian diplomacy succeeded in getting Varanasi (Kashi) in Uttar Pradesh declared as the first ever SCO tourist and cultural capital for the year 2022-23. There would be several events organised by the UP government, in collaboration with the Centre, in Varanasi to celebrate this recognition, which Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra said “opens the door for greater cultural and people-to-people ties between India and the region”.

In fact, many Indian initiatives were welcomed and found mention in the Samarkand declaration. 

Indian diplomacy dominated the summit by way of many constructive ideas. During a media briefing, Kwatra said: “The leaders also adopted a statement in response to climate change at our initiative.” 

The SCO has also decided to create a special working group on the start-up and innovation system, and approved another Indian initiative through the setting up of an expert working group on traditional medicine, an area where “India has global leadership capabilities”, as Kwatra put it.

On terrorism, the SCO agreed to work towards developing a unified list of terrorist, separatist and extremist organisations whose activities are prohibited on the territories of the SCO member states. According to Kwatra, “…each of the SCO Member States was very, very clear in recognizing the threat that this challenge poses to our region and through the membership of the SCO.” 

In view of the China-Pakistan tango to prevent a UN listing of Pakistan-based anti-India terrorists, this is very significant.

With the assumption of SCO presidency, India would be hosting the 2023 SCO Summit, which will further highlight India’s role and standing in the Central Asian and Eurasian region. Next year, Iran and Belarus would be present in New Delhi as a full member. Iran has been very helpful to India in promoting India-Central Asia connectivity through its Chabahar Port. India expects to push forward the desire expressed in the Samarkand declaration to extend transit rights among all member states and take concrete action on the issue of terrorism.

The author is a strategic affairs analyst.

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