By Nitin Pal, NDTV,
Foreign policy continuity is often a good thing: it reassures both the international community and the domestic establishment that the ship of state will generally hold its course, despite the comings and goings of political leaders. If it were not so, and if every incoming government decided to go off on its own direction, India’s credibility would suffer and other countries would hesitate to engage in cooperative, long-term projects with us.
So it is that the Modi government has consummated a process that the Manmohan Singh government started more than a decade ago: to become a member of the China-led geopolitical bloc called the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Unfortunate, because sometimes – as in this case – foreign policy continuity is a bad thing. For it is not in India’s interests to become a paid-up member of a Chinese bandwagon.
In a world where China is challenging the United States for global primacy, India’s interests are best served by being a swing power. For this India must enjoy better relations with each of them than they do with each other. India must also demonstrate that it has the ability to tilt the balance in either’s favour on issues that are crucial to them. In other words, our value lies in having the capacity to make a difference to the outcome of crucial US-China contests. Why join any one side when you gain a lot more by not joining either?
Being a swing power is not old-style non-alignment where a poor, weak India sought to insulate itself from great power rivalry and the Cold War. It is about dynamic alignment and deft diplomacy: for instance, simultaneously siding with China on climate and trade, but with the United States on freedom-of-navigation in the world’s oceans. Today’s India is powerful enough and capable enough of playing such a sophisticated game.
It’s a pity then that soon after rightly boycotting one Chinese club (Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Summit), India has joined another, the SCO.
The SCO started off as a military alliance with Chinese characteristics, when, in the late 1990s, Beijing felt it necessary to secure its Western frontiers with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia. Uzbekistan joined in 2001, and after 9/11, this group served as a way for Beijing to engage its Central Asian neighbours in countering Islamist terrorism. A core part of SCO is the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) that helps member countries tackle terrorism, separatism and extremism.
The terrorism, separatism and extremism the group aims to tackle is mainly the one in China’s Xinjiang province. Why should New Delhi join this initiative when Beijing has consistently shielded anti-India terrorist groups operating out of Pakistan? Will the mere fact that India has joined the SCO persuade the Chinese to have a change of heart and stop protecting Pakistan’s jihadi proxies? Well, since Pakistan joined SCO the same time as India, the chances of that happening are pretty slim.
Over the past decade, SCO has expanded its scope beyond counter-terrorism: it is now a proper multilateral bloc. There have been proposals for economic cooperation and even a free-trade zone among member countries. But India’s access to the Central Asian states runs through territories controlled by Pakistan and China, parts of which we claim as our own. Will SCO make Pakistan allow us transit access to Afghanistan and Central Asia? Fat chance. China might allow overland connectivity through Aksai Chin, provided we agree it is their territory. Will we concede that? Again, fat chance. If there is an economic cooperation story here that stands to benefit us, well, it’s hard to see one.
What remains is a strategic alliance directed against the United States, which happens to be an adversary of both China and Russia. But it is not our adversary. On any anti-US issue at the SCO, India is bound to be outvoted. So why are we a member of an anti-US security alliance? There are no good reasons for India to be part of any multilateral bloc that aims to counter the United States.
Remember we used to cry foul when Washington hyphenated us with Pakistan? Well, China has already hyphenated India and Pakistan by engineering a simultaneous entry. It is in Beijing’s interests to equate India and Pakistan. Is it in our interests to be party to such an equation?
Are there any good reasons for New Delhi to join the SCO? I can think of two: the first is that in general, it is better to be inside a tent than outside; because you know what’s going on, and you have some influence on how things go. Yet, retaining observer status would have sufficed: full membership was not necessary.
The second is that India joining SCO will balance China entering SAARC. Fine in theory, but in practice, India is unlikely to be able to get Central Asian states to make common cause against China. On the other hand, India’s neighbours will readily rely on China to check India’s dominance in SAARC. China’s entry into SAARC will convert that outfit from being merely useless to positively anti-India. For that reason, New Delhi should not allow that outcome. Do you think India’s membership of SCO make China’s membership of SAARC more likely or less? Think about it.
None of this is to say New Delhi must be locked in conflict with Beijing. Far from it, as I have argued elsewhere, we can and we must engage China in ways that benefit us. We don’t need the SCO for this.
We do not share much in terms of interests with other SCO members. Nor do we share common values: no other country in the SCO is a liberal democracy. In future years, we might wonder just why we sleepwalked into this club.
(Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, a think tank and school of public policy.)