Apart from the discussion of important connectivity projects and events in Afghanistan, the recent Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) Summit was also important because it provided India and China with an opportunity to engage on important issues. The SCO is likely to remain an important organisation in the evolving geopolitical landscape.
The recent Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) summit that was held in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on 17 September was important for a number of reasons. First, Iran was granted full membership. It was the first time that Iran became a full member of a regional bloc since the Iranian revolution in 1979. It was the ninth country after China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (Afghanistan is an observer country), to have been granted membership. The SCO represents over 40 per cent of the world’s population, 20 per cent of global GDP and over 20 per cent of the globe’s land area. It was formed in 2001, and derived from the Shanghai Five grouping that consisted of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Before departing for Dushanbe, the Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, flagged the importance of the SCO, saying:
We attach great importance to regional cooperation, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is one of the active organizations for regional cooperation where the Islamic Republic of Iran will have an active presence.
Later, addressing the summit, Raisi flagged Iran’s foreign policy goals, its vision for connectivity, and its role in Afghanistan. He was critical of US policies, both vis-à-vis Iran and in the context of Afghanistan. He said that Iran was ready to play its role in setting up an inclusive government in Afghanistan and assisting in whatever way possible. While targeting the US, Raisi said:
Hegemony and unilateralism are failing. The international balance is moving toward multilateralism and redistribution of power to the benefit of independent countries.
Raisi was critical of economic sanctions, saying that they could be used against any country that followed a foreign policy that did not align with the US’s. He said that while Iran was in favour of resolving complex issues through diplomacy, alluding to the negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran could not be coerced.
Raisi also referred to Iran’s geographical location and why it was important in the context of regional connectivity. He said that Iran would focus on ‘economic multilateralism’ and ‘strengthening of the neighbourhood policy’.
Importance for India
The Summit was important in the Indian context. First, the Iranian President referred to regional connectivity and the North-South Corridor, which seeks to connect Chabahar Port with Russia through Central Asia.
Indian PM Narendra Modi also spoke about the need for greater connectivity with Central Asia, saying, ‘If the region wants to benefit from fossil fuels or intra-SCO trade, we will need to lay more emphasis on connectivity.’
While Iran has blamed India for the slow progress on the development of Chabahar Port, India has paid greater attention to the project since President Biden took office. New Delhi has also paid greater attention to its relationship with Iran as a result of the changing regional geopolitical situation – the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.
Acknowledging China’s and Russia’s influence in the region, Raisi clarified, however, that different connectivity initiatives in the region – the North-South Corridor, the Belt and Road Initiative, etc. – should not be viewed in zero-sum terms and synergies could be found between all of them.
Second, the Summit is an important platform, apart from BRICS, for India and China to engage with each other. India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, is reported to have not only discussed with his Chinese Counterpart, Wang Yi, the need to resolve their differences on the Line of Actual Control, but, referring to India’s growing ties to the US, made the point that Beijing should not view India through the lens of its relations with a third country. Jaishankar is also reported to have expressed the view that ‘Asian solidarity’ depended on the Sino-Indian relationship.
While China did speak against external interference in Afghanistan, it also pointed to the threats emanating from terrorism. Chinese President Xi Jinping specifically referred to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, saying:
Faced with complex and fluid security dynamics in the region, we need to pursue common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, and take tough actions against terrorism, separatism and extremism, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
In conclusion, the SCO is important for a number of reasons. The most important according to many analysts is that it is a “non-Western” organisation that is expanding to include countries that are important, not only strategically but also in the context of regional connectivity initiatives between South Asia and Central Asia. Iran is especially important in that context because it has good ties with both India and China and, being involved in China-led and other connectivity projects, can find common ground between them rather than adopting a zero-sum approach. Apart from that, all members are important stakeholders in Afghanistan, though there may be a divergence of views – most notably among India, Russia and China. Still, the SCO provides the opportunity to find common ground in areas such as reconstruction.
The SCO is especially important for India; while on the one hand New Delhi has sought to strengthen its security ties to the US in recent years, it also needs to maintain good relations with Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and a working relationship with China. The SCO provides a perfect platform for that endeavour. For New Delhi’s vision of connectivity with Central Asia, as well as ensuring its relevance in Afghanistan, the organisation is extremely important.