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    South Asia
     Jun 21, 2011


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 multipolarity.

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 undemocratic regimes.

Yet, as the summit in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana finalized
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 certain issues.

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 Taiwan.

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 members.

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 nuclear power.

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).

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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