|India inches toward Shanghai
By Sreeram Chaulia
Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna declared his country's
desire for "a larger and deeper role" in the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization (SCO). That pronouncement at the
forum's recently concluded tenth summit makes supreme sense
for India, since as a geopolitical and geo-economic reality
that bridges the former Soviet space, East Asia and South
Asia, the SCO is hastening the global shift towards
India shares with the SCO the limited goal of a more
"democratic international system", wherein power is widely
diffused among multiple centers even as many of the
organization's member states - China, Russia, Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - and applicants have
Yet, as the summit in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana
negotiations for India (and Pakistan) to join the SCO, New
Delhi will be aware that its eventual promotion from
"observer" status to full membership of the group will
necessitate subtle policy shifts that would require moving
away from its close embrace with the United States on
If the historic purpose of NATO was to "keep the Germans
down, the Americans in and the Russians out", then SCO is at
least minimally united around the motto of "keeping the
Americans out". India's strategic establishment is
contradictorily keen on keeping the Americans in Afghanistan
for as long as possible, believing that a US withdrawal
would throw open the doors to renewed Pakistani (and
indirectly Chinese) hegemony in a geostrategic lynchpin.
However much the SCO's leading lights - China and Russia -
verbally deny that the SCO is a countervailing military
alliance against the US-dominated North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO), it has undeniable value in the "new
Cold War" that Moscow has broached on and off.
The latest iteration of an impending escalation was uttered
by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last month in the
context of the United States pressing ahead to build a
recalibrated missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.
Russia used the summit in Astana to reinforce this warning
to the West via a denunciation of "unilateral and unlimited
build-up of missile defense" in the joint declaration from
all member states.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that this
veiled attack on the US was a "consolidated position" of all
six members of SCO and that Moscow did not have to push to
get this critique included in the final summit communique.
Most interestingly, he added that the US's missile shields
"also covers the Southeast Asian region" - an allusion to
China's fears that Washington is encircling it with a chain
of anti-missile systems operable from Japan, South Korea and
As has been the practice since the SCO was created a decade
ago, China lets Russia do the hard talking and snorting
against the US, but agrees behind the scenes that it too
would like to whittle down American power and military
encroachments in the territories and waters that it prefers
to dominate in Asia.
Characterizations of the SCO as a "NATO of the East", or as
a present-day Warsaw Pact, may therefore be inept insofar as
there is no single principle setting its agenda, but the
comparison is not preposterous as the SCO does act as a
counterbalancing power center against the US. The more SCO
matures in joint military exercises and its use of
diplomatic pressure against American expansion, the less
becoming the fiction that it is a purely regional entity for
fighting terrorism and sharing intelligence.
India must be conscious that its impending full membership
of SCO would entail being called on to make statements
similar combative to the one just out of Astana. The SCO has
suffered from absence of unanimity on key global questions
in the past, and it would be an exaggeration to expect that
its two major patrons will impose conformity on all other
Some observers consider that even Russia is now making an
exception to its phobia for US military presence in its
extended neighborhood and is riding piggyback on an American
solution to the jihadi virus that stems in
Afghanistan-Pakistan and seeps into Central Asia. An SCO
with India as a full member could see the organization split
right down the middle on the contentious question of whether
to welcome, resist, or play a mix of both, vis-a-vis the US
military hunkering down in the Af-Pak region.
Still, the consequence of a move by India to a more
equidistant position between the United States and SCO
members in the new Cold War is a price New Delhi considers
worth paying. The SCO has material benefits in store for
India, including integration into the about-to-be-launched
"energy club" that will facilitate contracts for supply and
demand for oil and gas between consumers like China and
India and producers like Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan
(a non-member, but an active participant in SCO's affairs).
SCO's general secretary Muratbek Imanaliyev has delineated a
practical vision for this "club", viz "satisfying the
interests of these two groups."
The SCO provides an umbrella to catalyze existing energy
projects like the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline and
pipelines from Kazakhstan to China, and from Russia to
China. The arrival of India and Turkmenistan as SCO members
will add one major gas buyer and seller to the mix, thus
enabling more competitive price setting and weaving a web of
thicker inter-regional interdependence. India's presence as
a full member will offset concerns that China presides over
a monopsony situation in the SCO's energy market.
Eventually, India will need to sculpt a vertical energy
corridor that taps into Russian and Kazakh gas supplies via
underground pipelines passing through Chinese territory. For
all the brouhaha over nuclear energy that was kicked up
during the passage struggle of the India-US civil nuclear
agreement, it is gas that in the decades to come will rule
the energy strategies of most countries.
According to a new scenario from the International Energy
Agency, a "golden age of natural gas" may be dawning as it
is cheaper and more plentifully available than oil, which
has probably peaked, and is more politically acceptable than
Gas-abundant countries like Russia, Kazakhstan and
Turkmenistan are set to make hay on this trend and it is
vital for India to tap into the SCO's "club" mechanism for
its own energy security. The chances of the
Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline fructifying
and being supplemented by other India-specific gas
agreements with Russia and Kazakhstan increase with New
Delhi around the table as a full SCO member.
An Indian seat in the SCO is just around the corner, subject
to procedural adjustments to the charter which are likely to
be enacted soon by the existing six members. While for
different reasons, China and the US may be uncomfortable to
see India as a full member, a deeper role in the SCO serves
Indian interests and balances the global power scales.
Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Vice Dean of the
Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India,
and the author of the newly published book,
International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power,
Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (I.B. Tauris).
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