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Why India should be excited about the Samarkand SCO summit  

The SCO summit is being held in Samarkand, a shining icon of eastern civilizations (Photo: Twitter)

The ancient and historical city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan is all set to host the 22nd summit of the heads of members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). This summit will be a unique one. It is the first summit since 2019, following the pandemic, which will be held in person. The earlier two had been virtual ones. And it comes in the aftermath of major geopolitical shifts and three seminal events: the pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine and the Taiwan Straits conflict, and the beginning of the de-dollarization of the world economy. The world has effectively been split into pro-NATO and pro-Russia camps, though some like India and Turkey swear that they are neutral.

This year’s summit is set to be one of the biggest since the organisation’s inception: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, the heads of all the Central Asian states, Pakistan’s Shahbaz Sharif will be participating in the conclave. Iran’s Ibrahim Raisi will also be present as Tehran will be signing the MoU for its accession to the grouping as a full- fledged member. Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia will be attending as Observer Nations with the process of registration of Belarus membership in the SCO. Azerbaijan, Armenian, and Turkey will be attending as dialogue partners, as will Turkmenistan, the only Central Asian Republic not a member of the SCO.

A host of other countries will be attending in various capacities. The SCO is set to sign memorandums with Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia designating them as dialogue partners. According to Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov, “A decision will also be taken to launch a procedure for granting a similar status to Bahrain, Kuwait, the [United] Arab Emirates, Myanmar and Maldives,” Besides senior members of ASEAN and the UN will also be in attendance.

The SCO, often touted as the eastern NATO, was launched in 2001, driven by geopolitical dynamics around Afghanistan, and also to balance Russian and Chinese interests in Central Asia. Its scope was expanded with the inclusion later of India and Pakistan. While Russia facilitated India’s inclusion, China facilitated Pakistan’s. It is a reflection of the enormous potential the grouping promises that so many other countries have since evinced interest in participating in it in various ways. It marks the beginning of Eurasian integration, as the world’s biggest regional organization, representing 3.2 billion people and nearly a fourth of the world’s GDP.

Yet, tensions persist. While the grouping was initially launched to balance Russian and Chinese interests in Central Asia, post the Ukraine conflict Russian-Chinese relations and cooperation have deepened with the former far more dependent on the latter in economic and geopolitical terms. The tension over the Taiwan straits has deepened the confrontation between the West/NATO and Russia and China. This summit is also meant to be a show of strength for the two member-states. With their entry India and Pakistan has brought in their tensions. The Ukraine crisis has created a new set of tensions in the region – between Russia and Central Asian states, in particular with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two most powerful and resource rich states in the region. They have neither endorsed Russia’s intervention in Ukraine nor its support for breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, given ramifications for their Russian speaking enclaves. At the meeting of the SCO Security Council Chiefs, the message of Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev to the Central Asian countries to avoid military drills with the US for the “high costs involved” have not gone down well with them. They do not want the SCO to be perceived as an anti-West bloc.

In an Op-ed written on the eve of the Samarkand Summit, outlining Uzbekistan’s perception and plans for the SCO, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has underscored this point that the “basis for the SCOs international attractiveness is its non-bloc status, openness, non-targeting against third countries or the international organizations…” warning against the “risk of reviving the bloc thinking stereotypes”.

China is clearly in the strongest position and it will be a confident Xi Jinping who will be attending the summit, his first foray abroad since the beginning of the pandemic. All the Central Asian member states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have close relations with China to varying degrees, all have signed on to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), are economically closely coupled with it, and those like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan dependent on Chinese investments as they also face Chinese debt traps.  Xi is also clubbing state visits to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with the summit. Iran, which is to accede to the group formally also enjoys a cozy relationship with China as does of course iron friend Pakistan. Turkey, which may receive observer nation status also shares significant economic relations with China as does its ally Azerbaijan, while both have strained relations with India.

Yet, the geo-political shifts in the region offer up exciting possibilities for India. India offers an alternative to both Russian and Chinese dominance in the region. The Central Asian states together with states that can become members at a later stage like Mongolia and Armenia, would also continue to seek good relations with the US, as part of their “multi-vectoral” policy. The recent military drills that Tajikistan – a close friend and ally of Russia and China – is holding with the US, is a case in point. India is one of the few members of the group that enjoys good and close relations with the US. On the other hand, there are states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt who would like to move away from the US orbit, without joining an anti-US bloc. The SCO offers them a middle path.

Second, Indian investments – both public and private—are coveted in the region. The main player Russia does not have the resources; China is the major economic player. While modest, they do help in eliminating the problem of the Chinese ‘debt trap’. For instance, China accounts for 45.3% of Kyrgyzstan’s external debt, while the recent establishment of a Chinese military base is widely believed to be an outcome of Tajikistan’s enormous debt to China. Loans from China account for 16%-17% of GDP of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; meanwhile, the external debt of all the CARS has been increasing.

Another edge that India has is in the cultural and religious sphere. With Afghanistan being the central (and neutral) topic on the SCO agenda, the threats facing all the member-states remain the same. India’s religious pluralism and Sufi heritage is an antidote to the extremism and fundamentalism of Afghanistan and member state Pakistan. Even Iran’s religiosity and Turkey’s Islamist orientation is a source of discomfort for the Muslim but secular Central Asian states, almost all of whom have battled political Islam, Islamist insurgencies on their territories; and now are battling the ISIS challenge. The Buddhist heritage of the region also forms a special link with India and so the SCO cultural center will be established on Indian soil.

The SCO offers a platform for India to interact annually with its Central Asian partners and as the geographical scope of the organization expands, it will offer India the platform to annually interact with many more states. India’s participation in the organization will also help keep it non-Western rather than anti-Western and a regional Eurasian organization, shorn of a bloc mentality.

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