The two-in-one location summits in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg last week reflected not only the growing trend of establishing new international and regional forums, but also their strategic implications for the emerging world order and India’s role in it. The ninth summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), whose members include China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, was followed by the first ever Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China) summit.
The SCO summit, disparagingly described by US scholar Robert Kagan as the “league of dictators”, was the first international outing by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh since his government’s re-election in the world’s biggest polls last month. It was also the first time that India, which only has an observer status at SCO (along with Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan), was represented at the prime ministerial level. The reason for this string of firsts is multifold: First is the economic significance of the oil and gas-rich members of SCO for an energy-hungry India as well as the opportunity for Indian firms to be engaged in infrastructure development, particularly in Central Asian states.
Second, SCO, often described as the “Nato of the East”, is a significant step in the development of a multipolar world, especially as it could evolve into a counterweight to the present US-centric world order. Through its high-level representation, India has not only reaffirmed its support for the emergence of a multi-polar world, but has also countered critics who claim that New Delhi has landed in Washington’s pocket. Moreover, the significant presence of the world’s largest democracy not only boosted the democratic quotient of SCO (which was eroded by the presence of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad despite the disputed election results in Iran) and countered the Kagan characterization but also underlined India’s pragmatism in dealing with non-democracies.
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Third, the present focus of SCO members on Afghanistan as well as issues such as terrorism, extremist ideologies and illicit drug trafficking are all also of direct relevance for India. In addition, the special session on Afghanistan allowed for a significant non-Western perspective to be developed as an alternative to the US-led Western approach to the issue.
Fourth, for status-conscious India, the special arrangement that allowed it to be admitted to closed-door meetings and participate in the deliberations, despite being an observer, was a crucial element in the presence of the prime minister. This was a marked departure from past SCO summits and in contrast to G-8 summits, where India is still kept out of some deliberations.
Finally, the SCO meeting also afforded an opportunity for key bilateral meetings, particularly between India and Pakistan. Prime Minister Singh engaged in a one-to-one dialogue with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on the sidelines of the meeting. In doing so, the Prime Minister clearly indicated his desire to resume the stalled process of normalizing relations with India’s most bitter rival and, perhaps, also work with Islamabad to ensure that its territory was not used to launch terrorist attacks in India.
Closer ties: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (left) with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on 16 June.
Whether this Indo-Pakistan non-summit leads to a resumption of the bilateral dialogue remains to be seen.
Although SCO is a useful regional forum for engagement, there are many limits to its effectiveness. In the first instance, there still remain many unresolved differences and disputes among its members and aspirants. The Sino-Indian border dispute and the far from normal relations between India and Pakistan are the most obvious. Moreover, given the dominance of Russia and China and their troubled relations with the US, SCO has an anti-US and anti-Western undertone to it as well as a degree of suspicion of India (given both its democratic credentials and recent rapprochement with Washington). In the foreseeable future and given the observer status of India, New Delhi is likely to be a passenger or at best a back-seat driver in car being driven by China and Russia. Perhaps in recognition of India’s limited prospects within SCO, Singh has already declined to lobby for full membership of SCO.
Thus, the organization appears to be moving towards keeping the US out, managing China and keeping India down.
The first Bric summit, whose four members are responsible for 40% of the global output and population as well as at least 40% of global currency reserves, primarily focused on economic issues. However, given the close linkage between economic power and the emerging world order, there were several political and security implications of the otherwise staid summit. The first was the call for a “stable, predictable and more diversified international monetary system” which, although not a direct attack on the dollar as the principal exchange currency, hinted at the need for a mix of regional currencies to serve as a global reserve.
Related to this was also the demand for the existing international monetary system, which dates back to the end of World War II, to reflect the new economic realities. Both of these are likely to put to rest the prospects of a US-China “G-2” monetary partnership, which some in Washington are keen on. It is also likely to retard the process of the G-20, since the four Bric countries now increasingly speak on behalf of this group. This, in turn, might lead to the possible enlargement of the G-7 into the G-7 plus four Bric rather than an unwieldy G-20.
Similarly, the call in the Bric declaration “for a comprehensive reform of the UN” and the support for the aspirations of Brazil and India to play a greater role in the United Nations is, perhaps, the clearest articulation by Russia and China to support the permanent membership of their two fellow members.
Again, all of these aspirations require a greater deal of interaction and cooperation between the four Bric countries than exists at the moment or is likely to exist in the near future.
Apart from the serious differences that still divide China and India (despite the former emerging as India’s biggest trade partner), there are also indications of the limits of Sino-Russian cooperation. Similar trade and economic disagreements between Brazil and China (despite the latter becoming Brazil’s biggest trade partner) might dampen closer cooperation.
Finally, despite the closer integration of these four economies, the US remains a critical partner for all of them. In fact, all four presently seek closer ties with Washington than they have with each other. Thus, for Bric not to become yet another “talk shop” as Singh cautioned, the members will have to do more.
India, given both its democratic credentials and close relationship with the US, could certainly do more to increase the level of cooperation between the Bric countries and the West in general. This might need yet another forum for interaction but given the proliferation of forums, yet another one that seeks to bridge the gap between the global East and the global West would be a welcome addition.
Will New Delhi choose to become the driver of this new car or will it remain content going along for the ride?
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org