Friday, July 31, 2009

India: Expanding Interests in Central Asia

India marked up its presence in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) dubbed as the Eastern NATO with attendance of the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh for the first time in the Summit held in Yekaterinburg Russia on 16 January. The SCO was founded in Shanghai on June 15, 2001 by six nations, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India along with Pakistan, Iran, Mongolia is an observer.

At the last Summit in 2008 in Dushanbe, SCO had decided to lift involvement of Observer States to a qualitatively new level for the first time Observer States and Member States meeting together in both a restricted format and then in an expanded plenary. Thus Indian Prime Minister did not have any inhibitions in attending the summit. The Indian side highlighted the importance of the Summit for Observers to also participate in all the meetings - in the restricted meetings, in the regular meetings and in the delegation-level talks as well. Indian emphasis on participation of the Prime Minister personally had thus possibly paid dividend.

India sees SCO in terms of an extended neighborhood. In his opening remarks at the SCO Summit, the Prime Minister highlighted the factor of connectivity between the SCO and India. “We would like to cooperate in finding innovative means to strengthen people-to-people contacts, exchanges of businesspersons and scholars, and trade, investment and technology flows. We would welcome closer cooperation in the fields of energy and food security, and infrastructure development. The other issue was terrorism, extremist ideologies and illicit drug trafficking haunts our region”, said Dr Manmohan Singh.

India also sees linkages between the SCO and Afghanistan. Thus Dr Manmohan Singh congratulated the Russian Presidency of the SCO for organizing a successful conference on Afghanistan in March 2009. “India is committed to contributing to international efforts for the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan, and promoting stability in that country” were the Prime Minister’s remarks on the occasion.

Vladimir Radyuhin, a Russian commentator remarks on Indian participation in the current summit and compares it with that in previous years highlighting increase in level of the same thus, “It is for the first time that India will attend a SCO event at the highest level. After it joined the SCO as observer in 2005 India was twice represented at the organization's annual summits by the External Affairs Minister, twice by the Petroleum Minister and once by the Minister of State in Prime Minister’s Office. By contrast, other observers — Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia — sent Prime Ministers or Presidents to the meetings”.

India has been highlighting long term relationship with the SCO members based on civilisational, cultural and economic linkages. India’s principal goals in the SCO appears to be economic and counter-terrorism. The Foreign Secretary highlighted that there was a congruence in SCO members on Afghanistan, where, “the defeat of terrorism, of extremism; return of stability and economic growth and development” has become a key concern.

The Prime Minister highlighted that India’s desire to increase engagement with nations in the extended neighborhood. “There are issues which concern both of us, such as the fight against terrorism and extremism and cooperation in areas of energy security, infrastructure development, agriculture, transportation, science and technology and education”, Dr Manmohan Singh. Indian interests were also evident with a number of Central Asian states being key members of the SCO thus providing another forum for expansion of dialogue particularly with energy and uranium rich neighbors as Kazakhstan. Indian Prime Minister also had a discussion with the President of Tajikistan and is likely to visit the country shortly.

India however highlighted that it was not vying for membership of SCO. The Prime Minister indicated that this would depend on the member states. Speaking to the media on his way back from the Summit he remarked, “I believe it is for others. If they feel India will be useful as a member we would welcome it. But I am not lobbying for it”.

The SCO security agenda is also tilted towards counter-balancing the U.S. and NATO in Central Asia and growing security threats from Afghanistan. Thus Vladimir Radyuhin feels that India may be more amenable to participate in security events of the grouping in the years ahead. More over as SCO security chiefs at their meeting in Moscow called for the alliance’s summit in Yekaterinburg demand that Pakistan eliminate terrorist-training camps on its territory, this should be music to Indian ears overcoming fears of the Indian leadership towards such security alliances. Yet these are early days of a larger Indian role in SCO.

Given the dominating role played by China in the SCO, India may remain a hedging rather than an influential member of the SCO community for China would not like to provide space for its competitor in the Asian region in the future, a strong foothold in Central Asia. However Russia and the Central Asian states would like to use this rivalry to advantage to undermine growing Chinese influence in the region. How this plays out will largely depend on the manner in which India’s growth trajectory progresses. The SCO provides India a forum to mark up its presence in Central Asia, New Delhi must cease this opportunity and make good for bilateralism and multilateralism in diplomacy is the way ahead.

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