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India and the SCO: A significant partnership

PM Narendra Modi attends the 22nd Meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 16, 2022 (File image courtesy: PIB)

India assumed the annual Presidency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for 2023 from Uzbekistan in September last year. It will be holding the Summit of the Heads of State/Government of the SCO Member States on 3-4 July, 2023 in New Delhi.

During the tenure of its Presidency so far, India has organized a large number of meetings and activities. The two meetings held recently between the Defence Ministers and Foreign Ministers of the SCO countries attracted the greatest media attention, though not for the right reasons. The Foreign Ministers’ meeting which was attended by Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, was in the news not only for the malicious and distasteful comments made by Zardari at the SCO Meeting but also for his interviews to two Indian journalists and a press conference with journalists who had accompanied him from Pakistan.

There was a feeling in certain quarters in India that SCO being a China-led and dominated Institution was more of a burden than benefit for India. This is a highly distorted assessment of the situation.

India’s Membership of the SCO

The SCO came into existence as a successor to the Shanghai Five which was formed in 1996 between China and the four former Soviet Republics ie Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, to settle and demarcate the borders between these countries. Uzbekistan was inducted as a new member of the Organization which was established in June, 2001. The principal objectives of the Organization are to ensure and safeguard security of the member states and promote economic and commercial development and cooperation between them. India (along with Pakistan and Iran) became an Observer in the Organization in 2005. It, along with Pakistan, was upgraded to the status of a full member at SCO’s 17th Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan in June, 2017. Kazakhstan and Russia were staunch supporters of India’s membership of the SCO. On the other hand, China made sure that Pakistan also became a member when India did!

The journey of India over 12 years from being an Observer to a full member status was tortuous and full of pitfalls. It was principally China’s anathema to India’s membership that delayed the latter being brought into the fold. Initially, India was not convinced that it should apply to become a member of the SCO. This stand was opposite to the approach adopted by other countries who became Observers along with India in 2005 viz. Pakistan and Iran. Both these countries were extremely keen to join the grouping as quickly as possible and put in their papers for membership in 2006 (Pakistan) and 2008 (Iran). India bided its time. It ultimately put in its formal application in September 2014, after all rules for admitting new members had been finalized by the group earlier that year. Iran’s membership did not move through seamlessly because of the UN sanctions against it. Iran is expected to join the Organization at the New Delhi Summit in July, 2023.

India’s Prime Ministers never attended any SCO Summit in the capacity of an Observer while Pakistani and Iranian leaders, including Presidents Musharraf, Zardari, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani, attended several summits in different capitals to press home their position for full membership of the organization. The only summit attended by former Prime Minster Dr. Manmohan Singh while India was still an Observer was in Yekaterinburg, Russia in 2009 when the host, Russia, in deference to India’s position to not attend a summit where it had no substantive role to play, organized the BRIC and SCO summits together. The same savoir faire was employed by Russia in July 2015 when both the BRICS and SCO summits were held back-to-back in Ufa, Bashkortostan and were attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This was the first expansion of the SCO since its establishment in 2001.

Achievements of the SCO

Since its establishment, the SCO has concluded several wide-ranging agreements on security, trade and investment, connectivity, culture, proposal to establish an SCO Bank, sign a Free Trade Agreement, form an Energy Club etc. Their implementation, however, has remained uninspiring. This is partly because the SCO lacks coherence. Having been created at China’s behest with Russian support, the SCO has been grappling to evolve as a well-knit entity. Nevertheless, the significance of the SCO cannot be underestimated because it straddles large territorial, geopolitical, strategic and economic spaces and strength.

The entry of India and Pakistan made the SCO the world’s largest regional cooperative organization representing the biggest section of global population. With Iran’s inclusion later this year, its heft is bound to increase further. Many significant global economic and strategic players like Turkiye, Saudi Arabia, UAE and others have indicated their keen desire to engage more actively with the operations of the SCO.

Advantages of SCO Membership for India

India has both continental as well as maritime interests and concerns. India has a 15,000 kms land boundary with several neighbours. Its relations with two of them are adversarial. It has a 7,500 kms coastline which it needs to safeguard. It would also want to secure its maritime trade through the oceans. As India stays engaged with the maritime domain through initiatives like the Indo-Pacific, the Quad, Indian Ocean Rim Association and others, so also it needs to have a hands on approach with countries of the Eurasian landmass. SCO is the most significant of institutions encompassing a wide swathe of territory and population of Eurasia. Some other institutions in the region are the Eurasian Economic Union (India is negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with it), Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) but SCO is the most comprehensive and effective of all of them.

India has not been able to expand its partnership with Central Asia because contacts between the top leadership of India and Central Asia have been inadequate and perfunctory. Possibly the most significant advantage of SCO for India is to provide opportunities to the Indian Prime Minister, Ministers and senior officials to meet the Presidents and counterpart Ministers and officials respectively from the 4 Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) which are members of the SCO. In addition to annual summits at heads of state/government level of the SCO member-states, a large number of meetings at ministerial and senior official levels also take place to expand cooperation in diverse areas. The annual summits and meetings provide a valuable opportunity to Indian leaders to meet and interact with their counterparts including between national security advisors, businessmen, industrialists, experts etc. from Central Asian countries.

While India enjoys civilisational and historical ties with all countries of Central Asia which it refers to as its ‘’extended neighbourhood,’’ its relations with these countries have not realized the desired potential because of the absence of common borders with any of these countries. In the absence of such contiguity, frequent meetings at the highest level can provide significant opportunities for expanding engagement with these countries.

All the Central Asian countries are extremely rich in natural and mineral resources including oil, gas, water, uranium, gold, iron ore and many others. These countries can effectively contribute to meeting India’s energy security needs if some way can be found to transport these minerals conveniently from the region to India. Work on TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) gas pipeline has been under way for many years but has not made significant progress on account of the adverse security situation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

To circumvent the lack of contiguity of borders, India has been working for many years on establishing connectivity through the International North South Transport Corridor and the Chabahar sea-port in Iran. Although progress on both these projects has been rather slow, the last few years have witnessed increased activity and significant forward movement.

Security, stability and peace in Central Asia are vital for peace and tranquility in India. This has become especially important after the Taliban usurped power in Kabul in August, 2021. A large number of terrorist groups like the Jaish, Lashkar, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, IMU, Hizb ut Tahrir and more exist in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries. India has extensive experience in dealing with terrorist groups as well as against radicalization. India and Central Asia work together to quell the scourge of extremism, fundamentalism and radicalization.

Membership of the SCO helps India to keep abreast of and actively participate in any initiatives that emerge to effectively deal with threats and dangers from terrorism, radicalization and extremism in the region. Central Asia has emerged as one of the most dangerous areas from where large numbers of young men and women went to join the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Many of the most visible terror attacks in different regions of the world bear the footprints of perpetrators from Central Asia, particularly from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan also plays an important role in this endeavor.

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It is imperative for India to keep actively engaged in all discussions that take place on ensuring stability and peace in Afghanistan. India can continue to support issues like gender equality, representation of the minorities in an inclusive government in Kabul, protecting rights of women and girls etc. by being a part of deliberations on this critical subject. It is recognized that regional countries need to play a more proactive role in bringing peace, stability and security to Afghanistan after the departure of the US and NATO forces in 2021. It is imperative for India to proactively articulate its point of view at every forum in which the future of Afghanistan is discussed.

India’s membership of the SCO and its regular and frequent contacts with leaders of the Central Asian member states also contribute significantly to promoting trade and investment between India and these countries. India has developed strength and expertise in several areas which it can share with Central Asia. These include pharmaceuticals, start-ups, computer software, digitization, digital identity, digital payment infrastructure, auto components and many more. Indian companies have also obtained access to multilaterally funded infrastructure projects in housing, roadways, power plants, transmission lines etc. Even without the SCO membership, Indian companies would have access to such projects but India’s active participation in the SCO significantly enhances such possibilities.

The SCO platform also provides opportunities to Indian leaders to meet their counterparts from Russia, China, Iran (after it becomes a full member in July, 2023) and others during the regular annual meetings. Such meetings between PM Modi and President Xi Jinping in Astana in 2017, and between Indian Defence and Foreign Ministers with their Chinese counterparts in Moscow in September, 2020 served a useful purpose.

Foreign Minsters’ Meeting in Goa

In his Opening Remarks at the SCO Foreign Ministers’ Conclave in Goa, India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr S. Jaishankar said that ‘’India attaches great importance to the development of multifaceted cooperation in the SCO and to the promotion of peace, stability, economic development, prosperity and closer interaction between our people.’’ He referred to the Vision of SECURE (Security, Economic Development, Connectivity, Unity, Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and Environmental protection) enunciated by PM Modi at the Qingdao SCO Summit in 2018.

EAM said that under India’s ongoing Presidency, it had ‘’successfully concluded more than a hundred meetings and events, including 15 ministerial level meetings’’ with the enthusiastic participation from Member States, Observers and Dialogue Partners of SCO.

Some of these events include the ‘’SCO Millet Food Festival, Film Festival, Cultural showcase at Surajkund Mela, the SCO Tourism Mart, Conference on Shared Buddhist Heritage’’ etc. Varanasi as the first SCO cultural and tourist capital for 2022-23, hosted several colourful events with active participation from Member States. As SCO Chair, India had initiated an unprecedented engagement with SCO Observers and Dialogue Partners by inviting them to participate in more than 14 socio-cultural events.

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While referring to the adverse impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, EAM drew the attention of the assembled Ministers to the continuing ‘’menace of terrorism.’’ He reiterated India’s firm belief ‘’that there can be no justification for terrorism and it must be stopped in all its forms and manifestations, including cross-border terrorism. The channel of finances for terrorist activities must be seized and blocked without distinction.’’ He reminded the members that ‘’combating terrorism is one of the original mandates of the SCO.’’ Speaking about the unfolding situation in Afghanistan, he said that ‘’our efforts should be directed towards the welfare of the Afghan people. Our immediate priorities include providing humanitarian assistance, ensuring a truly inclusive and representative government, combating terrorism and drug trafficking and preserving the rights of women, children and minorities.’’

EAM expressed India’s readiness to share its experience of success in the field of startups and innovation. India has established more than 70,000 startups in India of which more than 100 are unicorns. He conveyed satisfaction and gratitude to the member states for supporting India’s proposal to create two new working groups on Startups and Innovation, and on traditional medicines.

EAM sought the support of the SCO Member-states to India’s proposal for ‘’a New Delhi Declaration as an SCO Summit Declaration and four other thematic joint statements on cooperation in De-radicalization strategies, promotion of millets, sustainable lifestyles to address climate change and digital transformation.’’

It is expected that in addition to the deliberations at the FMs’ Meeting, the coming months will be utilized to finalize the above mentioned documents which will contribute significantly to the more effective functioning of the Organization.

The SCO FM’s meeting was a big success if looked at from the perspective of the SCO mandate. India was able to successfully advance the agenda and make progress in areas of its priority. The media however focused on the shenanigans of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari without paying much attention to the substantive accomplishments of the SCO FMs’ meeting. The common man on the street will not be able to distinguish between the two or realize that discussions on bilateral disputes or issues cannot be undertaken under the mandate of the SCO. Zardari misused his visit by commenting not on SCO-related issues but on bilateral matters and India’s internal politics.


Bilawal Bhutto Zardari did a dis-service to himself, his country and his people by conducting himself in an obnoxious and offensive manner. It was quite clear even before the start of the meeting that there would be no bilateral tete-a-tete between EAM and Zardari in Goa. However, to reach out to his domestic constituency in Pakistan, Zardari indulged in unseemly and deplorable statements and behaviour. Relations between India and Pakistan are at one of their lowest ebbs in recent years. Zardari performed the remarkable miracle of pushing them down even further. Thanks to Zardari, it will now take even more time and effort to restore bilateral ties than would have been required earlier.

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Home Minister Amit Shah at the meeting of Heads of Departments of SCO Member States responsible for Prevention and Elimination of Emergency Situations, in New Delhi (Image courtesy: PIB)

It is imperative for India to stay engaged with Central Asia and the broader Eurasian region. Increased association with the SCO at Member, Observer and Dialogue Partner level will promote India’s interests of strengthening cooperation with friendly countries of Central Asia, Russia and others, and provide a platform to interact with China on the sidelines of the meetings, if considered useful. For instance, India will be hosting the leaders of all the SCO Member states and Iran and of some Observers and Dialogue Partners at the Summit in July, 2023 in New Delhi. This will help India to advance its ties with most of the participating countries.

It is also pertinent to remember that all the Central Asian states are looking out of the region, beyond Russia and China, to strengthen their cooperation with other countries. Russia’s image and influence in the region after its aggression of Ukraine in February, 2022 has taken a hit. China is strenuously trying to expand its footprint in the region. This has made the Central Asian nations uncomfortable. They are looking at expanding their partnership with other countries to balance the expanding influence of China. India is a very promising option for these countries not only because of its commendable democratic and liberal credentials but also because of its rapid economic growth, the size of its market, its scientific and technological, particularly digital prowess, and talented workforce. The SCO is an important platform, among others, to expand India’s partnership with Central Asia. It needs to be fully leveraged and taken advantage of.