India and SCO: relevance and challenges – Explained, pointwise

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India recently hosted the 23rd summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in a virtual format. This marked the first time India chaired the summit since becoming a full member of the organization in 2017. The theme for the summit was ‘Towards a SECURE SCO’, which is an acronym coined by the Indian PM.  It stands for: S: Security, E: Economic development, C: Connectivity, U: Unity, R: Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, E: Environmental protection. 

What is SCO? 

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is an inter-governmental organization that was officially announced in Shanghai, China, on June 15, 2001.  

It was formed by Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.  

Prior to Uzbekistan’s inclusion, the other five countries were part of the ‘Shanghai Five,’ established in 1996 by China to address border security concerns with its neighboring nations.  

Following Uzbekistan’s membership in 2001, the body was renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. 

Read more: Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – Explained, pointwise 

What are the highlights of the summit? 

During the summit, Iran officially joined the SCO as the Ninth Member Country.  

Member countries expressed the need for the establishment of a “more representative” and multipolar global order in global interest.  

The issue of Afghanistan received widespread consensus. 

Several agreements were signed, including the New Delhi Declaration, as well as two joint statements addressing the issues of countering radicalization and digital transformation.  

Indicating a lack of consensus, India opted out of statements on economic cooperation and on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

Read more: 23rd SCO Summit – SCO calls for multipolar world order as Iran joins grouping 

Why SCO is relevant for India? 

Strategic significance: The SCO platform is a key part of India’s policy on multi-alignment and strategic autonomy, especially balancing India’s widely perceived tilt towards the West. By engaging with the SCO, India can balance its relationships with other regional and global powers effectively. For example, India is also a part of QUAD, which is referred to as Asian-NATO by China. India’s participation in SCO will balance this perspective. 

Dealing With Pakistan & China: Within the SCO framework, India can better evaluate China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the region. It is important for India to be an active participant, especially as Pakistan is a member. It would help in addressing challenges like terrorism originating from Pakistan and its efforts to prevent closer links between India and Central Asia. 

Expanding footprint: SCO is expanding, which, again, increases its importance for India. Iran’s acceptance as a permanent member is a significant geopolitical step. Having India’s neighbours like Nepal and Sri Lanka as dialogue partners adds to the importance of the SCO platform.  

Central Asia: As an emerging power, India must be involved in Eurasian geopolitics. India’s economic rise gives make it a more attractive economic partner for Central Asian countries as they seek to reduce over-dependence on China. India is also pursuing regional connectivity projects linking it with landlocked Central Asia to access Central Asian markets and resources 

Economic Potential: The SCO has the potential to create an economically constructive alliance. Member-countries make up 40 per cent of the world’s population and 30 per cent of global output. With Iran, it will control 20 per cent of the world’s oil reserves and about 44% of natural gas reserves.   

What are the challenges facing SCO? 

Decline of Russia: India’s full membership into SCO was premised on the prime position of Russia in SCO. India trusted Russia to be able to help advance India’s ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’. But Russia’s war in Ukraine is raising questions about its capacity to sustain primacy in its backyard as the Central Asian states are looking to reduce their reliance on Russia. 

Gap between purpose and practice: The SCO advocates peaceful resolution of conflicts, respect for territorial integrity, counteracting terrorism, extremism and separatism in all its forms etc. But these norms are violated by China and Pakistan in their relations with India. Pakistan continues to nurture jihadi groups and promote terrorism against India, despite the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of the SCO. 

Becoming China-centric: Shared borders, growing political importance, and rising regional security profile is increasing the prospects for China’s emergence as the dominant force in central Asia. Most members of the group are recipients of infrastructure aid from China’s BRI. The inclusion of Iran in the SCO is likely to further consolidate China’s position within the orgnaisation as Iran has moved strategically closer to China in recent years. 

Limited institutional capacity: The institutional capacity and decision-making processes of the SCO are comparatively weak. This pose challenges in effectively implementing agreements and responding to crises. 

“Anti-West” forum: SCO is increasingly seen as an “anti-West” forum and entry of Iran in SCO has made the situation difficult for India. The expected induction of Belarus next year will only strengthen this image of the SCO. 

What should be the future course of action? 

Improving Connectivity with Central Asia: The lack of adequate connectivity with the Central Asia has been a major constraint for India. Iran’s induction into SCO will help India build its connectivity strategy through Iran’s Chabahar port, where it operates a terminal and through the International North South Transport Corridor that goes through Iran and Central Asia to Russia. This will also help India circumvent land-based trade through Pakistan. 

Counterterrorism and Security Cooperation: India should actively engage with SCO members to address shared security concerns, particularly in the areas of counterterrorism, countering extremism, and ensuring regional stability.  

Protecting interests: India must protect its own interests amidst a rapidly changing regional power distribution in China’s favour by actively participating in SCO to shape the organization’s agenda and contribute to its decision-making processes.  


 Sources: Indian Express (Article 1 and Article 2), The Hindu (Article 1 and Article 2), Business Standard, Outlook 

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