India's SCO Membership - Effective Connectivity Need of the Hour

The host country, Russia has invited the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to attend the 15th SCO Summit. This is an indication that these three countries will get the full membership of the SCO.

The Eurasian concept that was once considered dead and gone after the cold war is now set to revive. This time the Russian township, Ufa will work out wonders. South Asia is slated to be an active partner in the Eurasian concept. India along with Iran and Pakistan will get full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – an Eurasian political, economic and military organisation founded in 2001 and having membership of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The host country, Russia has invited the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to attend the 15th SCO Summit. This is an indication that these three countries will get the full membership of the SCO. Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan at present enjoy Observer Status to SCO. India had formally applied for the membership of SCO prior to Dushanbe Summit in September 2014. China was insisting upon quid pro quo - India help in Beijing getting membership of SAARC and in return it would facilitate New Delhi’s entry into the SCO tent. However, this bargain could not hold well on the ground.

After NATO sanctions was imposed on Moscow following its annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin was eager to show to the Western powers that their economic boycott cannot hold good as long as Russia has friends in the neighbourhood. Ufa, therefore, would be a big show and a rebuff to the NATO powers. Not only the SCO will be expanded with the inclusion of India, Iran and Pakistan, thus carrying major South Asian countries, at the insistence of Putin, Ufa will host simultaneously the 7th BRICS Summit and the Eurasian Economic Union Summit in continuum. The Eurasian Economic Union that was set up in May 29, 2014 has at present Russia, Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan as members.

If Modi's diplomacy with Putin could facilitate New Delhi’s entry into SCO, the latter found the right time to strike the right chord to have a broader framework for the Eurasian concept. Beijing also wanted its 'all-weather friend' Pakistan to join SCO. The SCO foreign ministers, who met in Moscow in June, paved the way for expansion of the SCO.

The leaders of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – will discuss on the theme BRICS Partnership: A Powerful Factor for Global Development, which would define their role in the global architecture. The functioning of the BRICS Development Bank will be much on the agenda. The role of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will be discussed at SCO Summit.

In the BRICS Outreach Session, Russia as the chair of the summit has invited leaders of the SCO – both members and observers – as well as members of the Eurasian Economic Union plus Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Thus, Modi will have the opportunity of meeting as many as 12 leaders. Though Modi’s bilateral meetings with these leaders is yet to be scheduled, it is interesting to note if such a bilateral meeting would be possible with Nawaz Sharif at this juncture!

Connectivity is likely to be an important part of the discussions at both the SCO and BRICS summits. The project for the multi-modal International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) connecting Iran, India, Central Asia, Russia and Europe by ship, rail and road route is likely to get a push in the presence of a broader spectrum of leaders and stakeholders. The route primarily involves moving freight from India, Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia via ship, rail and road. The objective is to increase trade connectivity between major cities such as Mumbai, Moscow, Tehran, Baku, Bandar Abbas, Astrakhan, Bandar Anzali and others. There is some hope of this project moving at a faster pace with the recent inauguration of Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran rail link. Dry runs of two routes were conducted in 2014, the first was Mumbai to Baku via Bandar Abbas and the second was Mumbai to Astrakhan via Bandar Abbas, Tehran and Bandar Anzali. The objective of the study was to identify and address key bottlenecks. The results showed transport costs were reduced by ‘$2,500 per 15 tons of cargo’. Other routes under consideration include via Armenia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

As Bandar Abbas is already congested, Iran has planned developing a deep sea port at Chabahar. India’s Shipping and Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari during his visit to Iran had renewed India’s commitment to the Chabahar project that has paved the way for negotiations for finalising a commercial contract under which Indian firms will lease two existing berths at the port and operationalise them as container and multi-purpose cargo terminals. In the larger interest, Chabahar will connect by rail and road links to Afghanistan to Central Asia and beyond.

Parallel to this plan of connectivity through Chabahar port, Beijing has planned an economic corridor connecting Gwadar port in Pakistan. Its other plans are for Maritime Silk Route and One Belt One Road connectivity in South Asia.

India’s trade with Central Asian countries is hampered due to poor connectivity. Hopes rest on the development of INSTC and using Chabahar port and subsequent rail and road links to transport goods to Afghanistan and beyond.

Along with his visit to the BRICS Summit, Modi has planned to visit natural resource rich five Central Asian countries. His scheduled visit to these countries is timely as India is slated to be a member of SCO to which all except Turkmenistan is a member. His visit to Turkmenistan is likely give a push to the TAPI gas pipeline project, which needs to appoint a consortium leader. Turkmenistan has the fourth largest gas reserves and Kazakhstan is one of the major oil producers and is the largest uranium producer – the feedstock needed for nuclear power projects in India. Indian public sector, ONGC Videsh is slated to begin exploratory drilling in collaboration with a Kazakh firm in Satpayev block. India has Strategic Partnership Agreement with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Modi is likely raise India’s relationship with other three countries to the similar level of strategic partnership.

Central Asian countries hold India in very high esteem and countries in this region have cultural and historical links with India. There is a love for Hindi language, Ramayana and Mahabharata and Bollywood films in this region of India’s extended neighbourhood. Possibilities of cooperation in hydro-power generation and fertiliser production can also be explored. India is already helping these countries in the capacity building IT. With new membership in the SCO, proposed India-Eurasian Economic Union FTA, bilateral engagement with Central Asian countries, India can benefit from this Eurasian region only if effective connectivity becomes a reality.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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