India did well to moderate its engagement at Shanghai
The only non head-of-government to attend the recent Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) summit was Murli Deora, India’s petroleum minister. The Indian government’s official explanation was that this was not a breach of protocol as India has only observer status. Yet, given that India has been pressing for full membership and the other observers — Pakistan and Mongolia — were represented by their top leaders, it is undeniable that the level of India’s representation was one of deliberate choice. And a right one.
Not because the SCO is a club of dictators who don’t share India’s democratic values. And also not because doing so would attract American ire. But because the SCO is essentially China’s geopolitical platform (that Russia rediscovered) to balance American influence in Central Asia. It has moved beyond its initial remit of tackling the ‘three evils forces’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism into an increasingly vocal and coordinated bloc concerned with America’s presence and policies in the neighbourhood. It also involves strategic calculations over energy supplies and pipelines. While India must ensure that it remains engaged in Central Asia, SCO is not a good forum given its orientation and agenda. Given that its concerns over American presence in the region are not as strong as those of China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran, it is prudent for India to adopt a cautious, calibrated approach towards the outfit. Sending the petroleum minister was therefore a good decision.
It also makes sense for India not to press too hard for full membership of SCO, as it may be forced to reciprocate by admitting China into SAARC. While any potential benefits of India’s membership of SCO will accrue in the long term, China’s entry at SAARC will transform a dysfunctional but ignorable subcontinental cacophony into an immediate headache. The best way for India and China to enter each others’ neighbourhood is to do so very carefully.
In any case, despite being left out of recent cliques, the United States remains an important player in the region. It retains sufficient influence to pursue its interests through bilateral relations with individual Asian countries. For their part, many Asian countries remain wary of China’s growing power. SCO is a long way from being a “Shanghai Pact” on the lines of the Warsaw Pact. So much the better.