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The prime minister's SCO dilemma

By Sheela Bhatt
May 29, 2009 20:49 IST
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Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh will visit Yaketenaburg, the third largest city of Russia on June 15 and 16. This will be his first visit abroad after taking over the top job once again.  

Yaketenaburg is the highly industrialised city which will host the summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on June 15-16 (morning) and the Brazil-Russia-India-China (BRIC) summit on June 16 evening.

In the past five years, Dr Singh has resisted attending the SCO but has sent ministerial level representation. India's excuse has been that since India is not a full member but only an observer, ministerial representation was suitable.

This time the BRIC and SCO summits are being organised in same city and at the same time creating a peculiar situation for India.

According to Deepak Sandhu, media advisor to Prime Minister's Office, Dr Singh will be attending both the BRIC and SCO meetings. But the ministry of external affairs refused to confirm Dr Singh's attendance at the SCO.

Last week when Foreign Secretary Shiv Shanker Menon was informally asked by if Dr Singh will attend the SCO summit, Menon merely said, "May be." 

A leading economic daily has, however, said in its report on May 28 that Dr Singh will travel to Russia for the BRIC and SCO meetings. 

If the prime minister decides to attend the SCO meeting it will be a major departure from the past five years.

Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary, told, "India's absence has been criticised internally in some quarters. Our absence has given rise to comments that either we don't attach importance to the SCO or that we are not there because the US sees this organisation as intended to oppose or limit its presence in Central Asia. If the PM goes it will be a change of policy."

A change it will be. India's presence in the SCO will directly impact the issue of security and terrorism in the region and also, it will have positive impact on India's relations with Russia and China.

The SCO was founded in 2001 by the joint efforts of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Its thrust is on regional security in Central Asia, terrorism and drug trafficking. Many critics view it as the counter-balance to North Atlantic Treaty Organisation nations and some even dubbed it as the Asian NATO. In the last few years economic and cultural cooperation is also increasing amongst its members.

India, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia are 'observer' countries at the SCO while Sri Lanka and Belarus will be becoming 'dialogue partners' this year. Heads of government of observer countries like Pakistan and Iran have been attending the summits earlier.

From the Indian point of view, the important thing is that SCO-Afghanistan contact group which has been formed in 2005 has potential in tackling the issue of the security in Afghanistan.

This template of the SCO is viewed suspiciously by US because it directly challenges American 'monopoly' in solving the security issue of Afghanistan.

A retired Indian diplomat, who has served in Central Asia, told, "After the PM's visit to US in 2005 and because of the Indo-US nuclear deal there was an attempt to harmonise India's regional policy with American strategy. The US sees the SCO as antithetical to its interests, rather a main stumbling block to moving into Central Asia."

The diplomat believes that India's presence is "long overdue". India is the only country which is not represented at the level of the head of government. He adds, "For India, the last five years were a chronicle of wasted time. All serious powers were readjusting their relationships in the last 4-5 years."

Many strategic thinkers in India who have been staunch supporters of the Indo-US nuclear deal have argued that India should not attend the SCO because India is merely an observer.

Strategic expert K Subrahmanyam told, "The idea of the Indian prime minister attending the Shanghai summit as an observer needs to be thought through carefully. This will set a new precedent of India attending conferences of bodies of which it is not a full member. For instance India may be invited to attend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference as an observer in 2010.The disadvantage in that will be that India may be subjected to a lot of criticism by members and its response will be limited to the rights of observers. Do we want to place ourselves in such a situation?"

The SCO is still a developing entity and it is essentially due to Russian and Chinese efforts. The moot question is can India benefit by attending it?

Many Indian experts who support the case for India's closer ties with the SCO forward the following arguments:

1. It gives one more avenue for India to have a creative engagement with China and Russia.

2. India gets, partially, a better platform to have a dialogue for better access to the gas and oil reserves of the Central Asian countries.

3. America's Af-Pak policy has inherent contradictions which can eventually isolate India. The Taliban is the only asset that Pakistan has in Afghanistan. Why should Pakistan jettison what they have created at enormous financial and human cost? Americans want Pakistan to destroy their strategic asset in exchange for huge money, latest weapons and modern combat aircraft. India will end up watching this in horror, many experts fear. Therefore, the need to diversify and expand options in the region. Some India experts also think that the SCO's perspectives in Afghanistan are quite similar to India's.

4. In Afghanistan, the Americans are working through a single window of the Pakistan military. 

5. If you engage China on regional security and terrorism it will have an affect on the India-Pakistan relationship as well.

But there are arguments against India getting closer to the SCO.

It's believed that after the emergence of the SCO, the Americans have devised the "Great Central Asia" strategy to counter the SCO. What the Americans want to do is to connect the Central Asian region with South Asian countries by developing trade relations. Under that strategy Afghanistan will act as the bridge. American help will get Central Asia direct connection to the outside world. The geo-political part of this was to get Central Asia out of the orbit of the SCO. The Indian establishment expected that India will get huge trade advantage if the idea succeeded. That could be one of the reasons that India went along and diluted its relations with the SCO.

The Americans, obviously, would like India to keep away from the SCO.

Dr Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written in a paper that discusses China's role in the SCO,  that "The capacity of the SCO to be a security organization with a mission in anyway analogous to NATO further diminishes if the SCO takes on new members."

However Sibal says, "But I don't think the visit in itself is particularly important. We are not members, and for PM to go as observer is not quite correct. We can't play second fiddle in a regional organisation where China has a more important formal position. Maybe the PMO thinks this will 'balance' the US tilt to Pakistan, please the Russians and the Central Asians as they gain in dignity. I would still have reservations about PM going, until and unless India becomes a full member."

In case, India attends the SCO at a prime ministerial level what will be its major considerations? The retired diplomat who favours India's closer relations with SCO argued, "India clearly recognises that American priorities are changing. America's containment policy against China is changing. China is becoming stakeholder in America's plans. They are talking about G-2 now. The US is bogged down in Afghanistan so their priority is and will be Pakistan. Eventually, Indo-US relations will suffer."

"What India expected and what George W Bush promised have become things of past. If India attends the SCO it is one manifest of this reality," he said.

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Sheela Bhatt