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Ayan Singh asked: What is the significance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)?

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  • Rajorshi Roy replies: The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has emerged as a prominent Eurasian organisation in the last few years. Today, it has expanded in geographical reach, scope and importance. Along with its eight full members as well as dialogue and observer partners, SCO today straddles Central, South, West and North Asia. This makes it one of the world’s largest pan-regional organisations. SCO’s growing heft is reflected in it contributing 30 per cent of the global GDP and 40 percent of the world’s population.

    Incidentally, the binding glue of SCO is the objective of ‘safeguarding regional security and promoting regional economic development.’ This broad canvas has led its members to explore viable ways to address emerging non-traditional security threats while simultaneously boosting mutually beneficial economic collaboration, anchored to regional connectivity projects.
    However, it has not been smooth sailing for this organisation. Trends of unilateralism, mini-coalitions, parochial outlook, festering bilateral differences and China-centricism have undermined consensus building, including on SCO’s raison d'être of being a non-Western body seeking to address regional security and economic concerns.

    In terms of SCO’s salience for India, there appears greater merit in India sitting inside the SCO tent, where decisions are taken on the basis of consensus, thereby making India a Eurasian stakeholder, rather than sitting outside. Inevitably, developments in Eurasia, which is part of India’s extended neighbourhood, have a direct bearing on India’s geo-strategic calculus. In this vein, SCO provides India with a viable platform to address a number of its continental interests and concerns. These include strengthening its outreach to Central Asia, discussing the evolving situation in Afghanistan and tackling the ‘three evils’ of separatism, extremism and terrorism. India’s membership of SCO also inherently strengthens multipolarity in Eurasia with India’s emphasis on open, inclusive and transparent connectivity projects, anchored in the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), giving regional countries options beyond the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is looked upon favourably by the key SCO protagonists in Russia and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) who have shared concerns of a Eurasia dominated by China.

    Meanwhile, sitting inside the SCO tent allows India to address the China–Pakistan tandem which has sought to undermine India’s outreach to CARs. Paradoxically, SCO also provides India with a stage to engage both China and Pakistan bilaterally on the side-lines of SCO meetings. These could provide an opening to potential thaw in ties.

    However, this is not a one-way street. India’s membership of SCO provides the organisation with greater legitimacy on account of India’s growing global heft amidst Western allegations of SCO’s raison d'être being a parochial and disruptive anti-West body.
    As the rotating President of SCO for a year, having taken charge post the 22nd SCO Summit held in Samarkand during 15–16 September 2022, India is likely to have its task cut out to forge a consensus to strengthen mutually beneficial regional cooperation. The complexities of SCO would invariably require deft diplomacy, anchored in pragmatism, to explore areas of overlapping convergences in this multilateral set-up.

    Posted on 30 December 2022

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.