Mainstream, VOL LIV No 22 New Delhi May 21, 2016
India, Eurasia, SCO: What Needs to be Done
Monday 23 May 2016
by Michael Todd
On account of its preoccupation with efforts to develop strategic ties with the US and advance its “Look East” policy, India has overlooked the importance of the Eurasian region which is at the centre of the interests of the major world powers. Even though New Delhi declared its “Connect Central Asia Policy” in 2012. this was effectively placed on the backburner by the previous UPA Government at the Centre itself. True, present PM Narendra Modi’s tour of Central Asia in July 2015 gave a fillip to reworking India’s policy in the region; but that soon ran out of steam in the absence of any specific follow-up action.
As a consequence New Delhi’s current political and economic presence in Central Asia is quite modest notwithstanding its immense potential as well as expectations of India’s role as a “third alternative” to Russia and China in the region. The reality is tht New Delhi is fast losing out to Beijing which is actively pursuing its New Silk Road initiative and even connecting it with the Russia-sponsored Eurasian Economic Union. At the same time, concerned over the rapid development of the India-US military coope-ration, Moscow is about to alter its stance towards having defence partnership with Islamabad. Needless to underline, Russia had spurned all initiatives from the side of Pakistan to develop such a partnership in the past as Moscow deeply valued its military ties with New Delhi; but now if this position changes that would be highly detrimental to Indian security given the level of India-Russia military relations that have withstood all the vicissitudes of time.
Those fully aware of the pivotal role that Moscow continues to occupy in this area from the standpoint of Indian security, are keen that the prevailing situation be changed for the better at the earliest. It is further understood by close observers of the region that the Central Asian republics are interested in decreasing their dependence on both Moscow and Beijing. Against this backdrop they are prepared to support India in its bid to strengthen its position in the region so as to become an alternative to the traditional players—Russia, China, the EU and the US. Simultaneously Iran’s nuclear deal and Russia’s face-off with the West provide favourable conditions for a qualitative improvement in India’s relations with the Eurasian states.
Economic cooperation with these countries is vital for safeguarding India’s interests. The Eurasian states are prospective long-term partners in energy (oil, natural gas) and natural resources (that include uranium and iron ore). New Delhi should make every effort to help materialise the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. Reaching an agreement on transit (through Iran) or the swap of gas from Turkmenistan also looks promising. Active steps must be taken to join the Transit Trade Agreement between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
To step up multilateral engagment with Eurasia India needs to accelerate talks on the creation of a free trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union.
Another priority is to forge the Iran-Turkmenistan-Kazakhstan rail link by using the international North-South Corridor to its full capacity.
However, the most important objective of India’s Central Asian policy should be to fully join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). This will give it an opportunity to strengthen its strategic ties and security cooperation with the region (imparting military training, countering terrorism, reinforcing the Afghan peace process) on the lines of New Delhi’s “Connect Central Asia Policy”. The economic dimension of the SCO’s cooperation will boost India’s position in the region. Full membership of the SCO will greatly improve its posture in the region and the world at large. India’s membership in the SCO will help New Delhi to have a leverage with the EU and US conveying to them the unambiguous message that while it (India) wants to develop closer ties with them, its trade, energy and security needs are not dependent on them. New Delhi’s enthusiasm for the SCO will help India to allay the fears of its Russian allies as well as China that the Modi Government was not strategically moving towards the West. The Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi’s South Block has already received the text of the “Memorandum of Obligations of India with the Aim of Obtaining the Status of SCO Member-State” and it must adopt proactive steps to overcome Beijing’s opposition to New Delhi’s admission into the Organisation as a full-fledged member. It is reliably learnt that Moscow, Tashkent and Ashgabad are eager to help blunt Beijing’s opposition to New Delhi entering the grouping. Incidentally, China’s feverish moves to reject the Indian application is the most striking proof, if such proof is at all necessary, of the significance of India’s endeavour to join the SCO.
India needs to build upon its traditional friendship with the Central Asian republics in the process. Practically all of them support India’s efforts to get a seat in the UN Security Council and are ready to cooperate with the Government of India in the international fora that also includes the SCO regional grouping. Nevertheless, it must be candidly pointed out that to achieve all its objectives in Eurasia New Delhi must not be hesitant to clutch the helping hand of its time-tested trusted friend—Moscow.