A new route to Central Asia

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A new route to Central Asia

Tuesday, 18 June 2019 | Abhishek Pratap Singh

For India, the SCO’s significance lies in enhancing peace and security and accelerating economic ties in the Eurasian region

The recently concluded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Bishkek marked a key development towards “strengthening multi-lateral cooperation” in the vast Eurasian region. The summit holds importance given the much media hype and speculation surrounding India and Pakistan, unilateral US sanctions against Iran following the former’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the ongoing trade war between China and the US. The summit was set to advance a wide-ranging multi-lateral agenda as agreed under the Bishkek Declaration (May 2019). Discussions around global security, multilateral economic cooperation, people-to-people exchanges and issues of regional importance were key highlights of the meet.

As an important trans-regional grouping, the idea of SCO was envisioned by China in 2001 to address its peripheral concerns and traces back its origin to Shanghai Five (1996). Over the years, the group has evolved itself as a “primary political and security organisation” in the Eurasian region. The SCO has evolved its agenda for cooperation on security, trade and investment, connectivity, energy and culture among partner countries. The “added space”, which SCO membership provides, also makes for good show of political statesmanship. For Russia, India and China, the SCO provides an expansive platform for engagement beyond the BRICS framework.

Ever since it got the role of observer status in SCO (2005), India has been keenly displaying its desire “to play larger, wider and more constructive role in the SCO.” After becoming a full-time member in 2017, it emphasised its key role to advance its ‘Connect Central Asia’ diplomacy. Crucially, India had bilateral meetings with Russia and China at the sidelines of the summit. The “wide-ranging discussions” meeting between Prime Minister Modi and Russian President Putin was significant to boost the India-Russia strategic relationship with a focus on next year’s summit. Both countries seek to capitalise on concerns about China and it exercising disproportionate influence in Central Asia. The combined trade share of both countries with Central Asian states is far less in comparison to $100 plus trade between China and Central Asia. India also received invitation to be the ‘main guest’ at the Eastern Economic Forum, 2019 hosted by Russia. Both nations reiterated wider cooperation in energy sector, Arctic region, transfer of technology and joint projects under ‘Make in India’ initiative and also aimed to attract Indian manpower in resource-rich far East Russia.

The bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi noted the gains of strategic communication as agreed upon last year in the context that both have been able to resolve long-pending issues like opening of the Bank of China branch in India and the listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. The warmth of the ‘Wuhan Spirit’, based on broader understanding, was well evident as both leaders had fruitful delegation level meeting and President Xi accepted the offer of second informal summit in India this year. The inauguration of ‘India Kyrgyz Business Forum’ was the key development during the summit as both states noted the developments on Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement and the bilateral investment treaty. Almost 15 agreements were signed.

The summit endorsed India’s efforts to build global consensus to “fight terrorism” and exposed state sponsors of terror. All member countries came to a consensus on a statement against terrorism, which was reflected in the joint declaration. During his address, Modi emphasised that “countries will have to come out of their narrow purview and unite.” On other issues of concerns, India pushed for flexible visa norms for SCO countries, stability in Afghanistan for the establishment of regional peace and acceleration of economic ties. The Prime Minister’s speech highlighted the importance of “security and peace” as a key concern.

India has always looked upon SCO as a key platform towards fostering “constructive engagement” among partner states. Its main goal is to enhance economic cooperation with Eurasian states and benefit from security frameworks. The geographical and strategic spaces, which SCO covers, remain critical for India’s interests. The historic visit of Prime Minister Modi to five central Asian states in July 2015 had called for wider cooperation with the region, which proved how India enjoys “immense goodwill” and “soft power appeal” among Central Asian states. Given the rising US protectionism and constraints in the international economy, India will have to navigate the US-China situation, as noted by Indian Foreign Minister, which also impacts SCO countries. The economic component of SCO still remains at “nascent stage” and the summit did make some forward moves in this direction. It is necessary that SCO remains attached with its consequential economic role for the Eurasian region in a more open, balanced and multi-lateral framework by forging developmental cooperation in areas such as economy, trade, investment, energy, connectivity and capacity development.

(The writer holds PhD in East Asian Studies from JNU)

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