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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 22, May 16, 2009

India in the SCO Today

Monday 18 May 2009, by Mansoor Ali

The instability that has gripped both Afghanistan and Pakistan has caused legitimate concern among other countries of the region, India included; and since the phenomenon shows no signs of abating—rather it is actually growing—it is quite natural that these regional states coordinate their activities to meet the common threats emanating from the two neighbouring countries. Among these are the dangers posed by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. In the meantime the US has evolved a new strategy to counter the problem of the Taliban the danger from which it does not place at par with the threat from the Al-Qaeda, its main enemy, in view of the vitriolic anti-Americanism of its architect, Osama bin Laden. With the radical Afghan militant group along with its Pakistani subsidiary on the rise, Washington is seeking a compromise with the so-called ‘moderate Taliban’ about which the Indian defence and security establishment remains justifiably skeptical as it aptly regards the phrase ‘moderate Taliban’ a contradiction in terms. Washington’s attempts to strike a compromise with one segment of the Taliban could well be in conformity with US interests in the region but this would not be able to meet the concerns of New Delhi or Tehran.

In real terms the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is the only regional grouping which can effectively coordinate the approaches to the Af-Pak conflict zone. For example, the SCO member and observer states could evolve comprehensive measures to contain the combined threat of violence and durgs. One of the long awaited steps of the SCO is to encircle Afghanistan with an anti-extremist and anti-drug security belt. Another move is to exert collective pressure on Pakistan to desist it from building “strategic depth” with the help of its “strategic assets”, including the Taliban, a pernicious policy that could blow up in its face.

The SCO states also have the capacity to help create workable state institutions as well as build a military that is combat-effective alongside ensuring security. In these spheres Indian expertise, which is also sensitive to the local historic, social, religious and ethnic background, would be most helpful. By now the US admission—that India is carrying out in Afghanistan an aid programme which is more successful and efficacious than its Western equivalents—is common knowledge.

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New Delhi must view the SCO as a useful forum for coordinating its policy in the region with those of Tehran, Moscow, Tashkent and Dushanbe. For quite some time India has adopted a reserved and indifferent attitude to the Organisation in view of its perception in wide circles as a counterweight to the US and NATO in Central Asia. The SCO has, however, explicitly ruled out becoming a military bloc even though its security and military agenda have been steadily growing—its first large-scale military exercises were held in August 2007 and since then it has decided to annually stage joint war games.

But New Delhi’s anxiety would be considerably reduced “now that Russia and the US have declared their resolve to push a reset button and reverse the downward trend in their bilateral ties”, as Vladimir Radyuhin has recently pointed out in The Hindu. He has thus observed that because of this new development following the assumption of office by the Obama Administration in Washington, “India may be less apprehensive about taking part in the SCO’s defence activities” in which the Organisation’s observers—India, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia—are being invited. That may come later but New Delhi should forthwith upgrade its level of participation in SCO summits—PM Manmohan Singh had refrained from attending such summits (perhaps in his eagerness not to invite US displeasure) and used to send Petroleum Minister Murli Deora to those gatherings as the Indian representative. It is only to be hoped that in the light of the politico-security situation in the region as well as the change in US-Russia ties the new government installed in New Delhi after the elections would review its approach to the SCO at the earliest and the new Indian PM actively participate in the proceedings of the SCO and BRIC summits scheduled to be held in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, nestling in the Ural mountains, early next month.

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