The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Ramifications of the current Ukrainian conflict have compelled Russia to reclaim the eastern roots of its identity. Two decades of turning westward have culminated in an explosive disruption. It is the SCO which is rising from these ashes.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is the successor of the Shanghai Five. Some perceive it as an anti-American bulwark in Eurasia while others voice concerns over the conflicting regional interests of the participant members, limiting the scope for strong strategic cooperation. However, in recent times, China and Russia have both positioned the SCO directly at odds with the West.

The SCO was founded by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in 2001. India and Pakistan joined in 2017 while Iran’s membership was agreed upon last year, and Belarus has also initiated the membership procedure.

Over the years, the grouping has broadened its terms of engagement to include counterterrorism, intelligence sharing, and military cooperation. It also provides a springboard for regional economic groups to take shape. The Eurasian Economic Union is a contemporary example, albeit with its own gradual progress.

The SCO is also construed by some observers as premised on the revival of Mackinder’s Heartland theory. Both Moscow and Beijing are seen as the principal players in this geography. New Delhi and Tehran also see the region as shadow zones of their own strategic interest. SCO membership allows them to maintain a foot in the door and a seat at the regional table.

Evolving geopolitical dynamics

Western sanctions on Russia after Crimea and now Ukraine has pushed Moscow into Beijing’s arms, solidifying their tactical bonds. However, geography serves us timely lessons and shows that the Beijing-Moscow bonhomie might endure only if Russia acquiesces to the new big brother in its traditional sphere of influence. For now, Moscow seems to have accepted that.

Nevertheless, we need to note that despite China’s inroads, Moscow remains the net-security provider in the region and has a long history of institutional ties with the Central Asian Republics. Thus, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, as demonstrated by recent events in Kazakhstan, remains relevant.

On the other hand, China wants to consolidate its land borders with Russia in the north and the Far East along with maintaining relative calm in Central Asia. This helps it to focus outwards. It knows that it is maritime strength that will pave the way for Asian supremacy.

Beijing’s growing presence and influence in Central Asia is also driven by its thirst for hydrocarbons and rapacity for minerals. Kazakhstan’s oil fields, Turkmenistan’s natural gas, and Kyrgyzstan’s large deposits of mineral wealth allure Beijing into the region.

The Belt and Road Initiative across Central Asia has also created significant influence which could be later used for political purposes. Vladimir Putin deep down knows that Russia’s hand may be weakened in Central Asia due to the rise of China. Nonetheless, he is now battling for economic subsistence and knows the benefits of keeping Xi close.

Samarkand Summit

The upcoming SCO summit in Uzbekistan could most likely be the first in-person SCO summit since the pandemic. It will be Xi Jinping’s first visit abroad in three years. The recently concluded foreign minister’s summit laid the groundwork for the summit in Samarkand. The key agenda of the meeting was SCO expansion with many countries like Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia being accorded the status of Dialogue Partners and the entry of Iran and Belarus as full-time members.

The upcoming summit would help Putin reach out to his Central Asian partners in these turbulent times and symbolize the restatement of his “no-limits” partnership with Beijing. Xi Jinping would also like to reiterate his focus on China’s expanding interests in Central Asia in Samarkand. The projected inauguration of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway link next year and the Termez-Kabul-Peshawar rail line also increase the growing importance of the upcoming summit.

India’s perspective

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is most likely to attend the summit to reaffirm India’s growing outreach to Central Asia. India’s outreach is based on the agenda of improving connectivity and augmenting security ties.

Uzbekistan, the current SCO host, has emerged as an important partner for India in the region, especially with its role in the operationalization of the Chabahar Port and the International North-South Transport Corridor. Both these projects act as a gateway for India into Central Asia, strengthening commercial and trade bonds.

The return of the Taliban in Kabul has also revitalized India’s interest in courting the Central Asian Republics to tackle common challenges like extremism and terrorism. Stabilizing a tumultuous Afghanistan is in the broader interest of the entire region. Central Asian countries also seek to reach out to neighboring balancers like Iran and India to diversify their engagement from the staple Russia-China duopoly. India’s partnership with Central Asia is therefore based on the mutual willingness of all sides for enhancing cooperation.

Experts have posited that the key to India’s fruitful engagement with Central Asia lies in overcoming the geographic limitation of the Pakistan barrier, which has effectively cut off India’s historic connections with Central Asia and Eurasia at large. It is time for New Delhi to engage Persia as a link to reconnect with Central Asia. This will help rekindle old ties and forge new relationships in the north.

Ved Shinde is studying Political Science and Economics at St. Stephens College, Delhi University.