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State of friendliness

Closer ties with the Central Asian states would benefit India

By Kanwal Sibal
  • Published 9.07.15
Narendra Modi arrives in Ufa, Russia, Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The July 9-10 meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Ufa in Russia is expected to approve India's membership of the organization, along with that of Pakistan. It would have taken India, which got observer status in July 2005, 10 years to obtain full membership, largely on account of China's resistance to open the doors for India without letting Pakistan in too. Russia has been politically supportive of India's quest for SCO membership but has questioned for some years Pakistan's eligibility because of the threat that its terrorist affiliations and its truck with extremist religious groups presented to the stability of the Central Asian states. China, on the other hand, because of its solid geopolitical relationship with Pakistan and the political cover it has consistently given to it on terrorism-related issues would have opposed giving preferential treatment to India, even if India's candidature had no negative dimension and was welcomed by the Central Asian states.

The parity of treatment with India that Pakistan obsessively seeks and China panders to has not prevented the latter, however, from participating in the Russia-India-China trilateral dialogue that lifts India's stature to an altogether different level. China is also a member of BRICS, a group that excludes Pakistan. China could have viewed India's inclusion in the SCO as a further consolidation of the tripartite equations with Russia within the RIC and BRICS formats. But, in the case of the SCO, China has wanted to bracket India with Pakistan. China has forged a close economic relationship with Iran, which has observer status in the SCO. Iran is an integral part of the Central Asian geography much more than Pakistan is, as it has a common border with Turkmenistan (which is not a SCO member) and has close linguistic affinities with Tajikistan. But it is not being considered for full membership at present. A major reason for excluding it from the envisaged expansion is the nuclear issue. Both China and Russia are part of the P-5 plus1 dialogue with Iran, and as permanent members of the security council are party to the imposition of United Nations sanctions on it. They would obviously want the nuclear issue to be resolved before offering SCO membership to Iran. If for cogent reasons Iran can be made to wait, even though politically and geo-strategically it is a vital player in the region, the priority given to Pakistan's inclusion is anomalous and shows the solidity of China's support to a country that is the epicentre of terrorism and religious extremism in the region, whose ambitions can throw Afghanistan into serious turmoil once again, with dangerous consequences for all the Central Asian states and beyond. Whereas Pakistan had no say in Russia's moves to promote RIC and BRICS, it has used its China relationship to thwart a higher profile for India in Central Asia. It would have been a humiliating diplomatic defeat for Pakistan, which considers itself the gateway for India to Central Asia and intends to keep that gate closed, to have to wait for SCO membership while India walked in with China's concurrence.

Unlike in the case of the RIC or BRICS which were sponsored by Russia (and it is Russia that provided the political momentum to these two groupings and set their agenda at their inception), China is the progenitor of the SCO through its previous incarnation, the Shanghai Five, that was set up in 1996, initially without Uzbekistan. China has for long played second fiddle to Russia in the RIC and BRICS, but the equation within the SCO between the two is different. China is the leading force in the organization and shapes its agenda, especially economic. The SCO is headquartered in China. The organization has become a vehicle for extending China's economic interests in Central Asia, especially access to the region's oil and gas resources. Already oil and gas are being piped from this region to China. Because of its increasing clout, China has been able to delay consideration of India's membership of the SCO by securing the desired recognition of its strategic equities in Pakistan from Russia.

Ironically, the geographical area in which China is making its weight increasingly felt was for long a part of Tsarist Russia and later the Soviet Union, and hence a legitimate sphere of influence for the new Russian Federation. Russia has had to yield considerable economic and, by extension, political influence, to China in this erstwhile Russian space. This is the inevitable by-product of the political and economic weakening of Russia after the Soviet collapse and the phenomenal economic rise of China. Today, with China announcing its One Belt (land based) initiative that would link Eurasia even more with China, and aiming to invest $40 billion in this and the One Road (maritime), the Russia-China equation is rapidly changing in favour of the latter. The United States of America/North Atlantic Treaty Organization's political, military, economic and ideological pressure on Russia has constrained its room for manoeuvre and compelled it to move closer to China. This has consolidated the Russia-China equation, but to China's advantage. China is securing its vast Eurasian hinterland in cooperation with Russia in order to better challenge US power in the western Pacific.

India has limited ties with Central Asian states, even though bilateral exchange of visits at the highest levels, especially from the latter, has been significant. For the Central Asian states, closer ties with India create a better balance in their foreign relations, apart from the prospect of harnessing India's competence in certain areas for their development. For India, lack of direct access to these landlocked states is a huge handicap. Energy links with these states are difficult to forge not only because of lack of contiguity but also Pakistan's determination to impede our ties with this region for strategic reasons, as well as continuing instability in Afghanistan. India could potentially obtain access to Central Asian gas through the TAPI project, if and when it is implemented. With Kazakhstan we have achieved some success in the energy area, including access to its uranium resources. India's trade with the region has averaged only $300 million between 2000 and 2011 and rose to $500 million in 2012. Tajikistan is of particular strategic importance in the context of the withdrawal of US/Nato from Afghanistan and the resurgence of the Taliban. India has refurbished air force bases in Ayni and Farkhor in Tajikistan. We have strategic partnership agreements with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan which, along with Kyrgyzstan, support India's permanent membership of the UNSC.

Our membership of the SCO will not bring about any dramatic change in our ties with the Central Asian states. It will have no impact on our relations with Russia and China, which have bilateral strengths or are marred by bilateral problems independent of the SCO. Our membership is expected to take a couple of years to become operational. Meanwhile, in a commendable initiative, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, will visit all these states after the Ufa meetings. Our gains from a heightened attention to these states may not be great now, but our longer term strategic loss in paying inadequate attention to them can be costly.

The author is former foreign secretary of India