In Astana, Kazakhstan, this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will tick off a box that has long been on India’s wishlist — full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). But the context in which Delhi had so eagerly sought membership of the SCO has yielded place to a more uncertain dynamic among the major powers and in the region around us. That Pakistan will be admitted along with India adds to Delhi’s potential difficulties with this forum.
India’s prolonged quest to join the SCO brings into sharp relief an enduring tension between competing geopolitical ideas that have animated India since the end of the Cold War. Put simply, the question is this: Where should Delhi pitch its tent? In the continental or maritime domain? Should it align with the heartland powers or stitch together a rimland coalition? Must India define itself as a Eurasian or Indo-Pacific power? A review of the two important factors that drove India towards the SCO help clarify the debate.
One is Delhi’s romance with Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. If the idea of civilisational contacts — from the Aryans to the Mughals — provided the overarching theme of engagement, the presumed need to compete with other powers — the Great Game meme — provided the justification. But India’s experience since 1991 suggests that Delhi can’t overcome the tyranny of geography in inner Asia.
With Pakistan blocking India’s access to the region, there is little that Delhi can do to decisively influence the geopolitics of inner Asia. Even the powerful British Raj did not have the resources to penetrate deep into inner Asia and beat the continental powers. Calcutta had settled for a defensive game in inner Asia that focused on preventing the continental rivals from encroaching into the Subcontinent. The Partition has, of course, left India in much a less influential position in inner Asia.
The other source of India’s clamour to join the SCO was the focus on building a multipolar world. Afraid of the so-called unipolar moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union, India joined, willy nilly, the Russian campaign to construct a Eurasian coalition that would limit American power. Delhi believed this would be a useful complement to its intensive engagement with the United States and the West after the Cold War. India believed that Russia and China would provide an insurance against the presumed unreliability of America as a partner.
This calculus saw India join the trilateral forum with Russia and China, the BRICS, the SCO and the AIIB. India’s trance was only broken with Delhi’s recent refusal to participate in the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing last month. What has changed is the recognition that it is rising China’s power that poses problems for India more than the United States and the West. Becoming a full member of a Chinese-led forum, the SCO will hardly address that problem.
Consider, for example, India’s concerns on terrorism. Combating terrorism, extremism and separatism are among the major objectives of the SCO. While China might talk the talk, it is unlikely to put any pressure, verbal or real, on Pakistan to stop supporting cross-border terrorism and separatism in Kashmir. To make matters worse, China might use the SCO to bring pressure on India to engage and negotiate with Pakistan on Kashmir in the name of “good neighbourliness” that SCO wants to promote regionally. As Russia draws closer to China and Pakistan, Moscow is unlikely to come to India’s rescue on Kashmir, as it used to in the past.
The SCO is also focused on promoting connectivity and regional integration in inner Asia. Any hope that this might work to benefit India looks improbable for the moment. In any case, Delhi has concluded that China’s belt and road initiatives are about promoting Beijing’s economic, political and strategic interests — all of which run headlong into India’s territorial sovereignty and claim to regional primacy in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.
All this does not mean that Delhi must thumb its nose at the SCO. What India needs is an unsentimental strategy that does three things at the SCO. One is to prevent Pakistan and China ambushing Delhi on the Kashmir question at the current SCO summit in Astana and in the future. India must remind the region that China is a party to India’s territorial disputes in Kashmir and is an ally of Pakistan. Second, Delhi must also take advantage of the few diplomatic opportunities the SCO might present in intensifying engagement with Central Asian states. The SCO could also provide a forum to reduce India’s current frictions with China and Russia.
Third, Delhi must prepare itself to seize potential shifts in SCO politics over the longer term. The political turbulence generated by US President Donald Trump, and the implicit contradictions between Russian and Chinese interests, are likely to surface at some point. Even as they talk “multipolarity”, China and Russia are eager to cut separate bilateral deals with Trump. Russian and Chinese interests may also not be in total alignment in Central Asia. For now though, India must bide its time and adopt a low profile at the SCO.
As he arrives in Astana, rising out of the vast Kazakh steppe, Modi must ponder over the conceptual tension in India’s post-Cold War strategy. If he is realistic about the limits to India’s role in a continental coalition led by Russia and China, he would double down on building India’s maritime partnerships. If geography constricts India’s forays into Eurasia, it beckons Delhi to build on its natural advantages in the Indo-Pacific.
In Eurasia, the strategy must be to limit the damage from the Sino-Russian alliance and probe for potential opportunities for altering the current negative dynamic. As the US becomes an unpredictable actor that is unable or unwilling to balance the heartland powers — China and Russia — Delhi must turn to the rimland — Japan and Western Europe—to secure its strategic interests. India must necessarily play in both the heartland and rimland. What Delhi needs is a clear appreciation of India’s very different strengths in the two great geopolitical theatres.