By Nicholas Clement
Jun. 7 – India has renewed its pitch for full membership within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and has supported the organization’s pledge to help stabilize Afghanistan during the withdrawal of all foreign troops. At the same time, the United States has also called on India to increase its relations with Afghanistan as China deepens its connections with the war-torn country. This situation is now seeing the collision of interests between regional powers that will ultimately play a large part in determining Afghanistan’s future.
India, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia currently have observer status within the SCO, which is comprised of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as permanent members. In regards to SCO membership, Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna said that, “indeed, we are looking for full membership. India has conveyed its desire and earnestness in becoming a member of the SCO. We have made our intent known.”
At the 12th SCO summit in Beijing this week, not only will the expansion of membership be on the agenda, but also strategic and economic collaboration over Afghanistan.
“The SCO has been discussing Afghanistan. There is an element of consistency [in that]’ Krishna said.
As the withdrawal date of the U.S.-led NATO forces quickly approaches, regional powers are looking towards the SCO as a body to provide the proper management and stability to allow a peaceful transition. There remain, however, grave concerns about a possible return to Taliban control and an increase of narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan across the borders of SCO members.
Indo-Afghan relations have been growing at a steady rate in the past decade. India has provided US$2 billion in aid to Afghanistan since 2001, and only last year signed an agreement to deepen security and economic ties with the country. However, closer Indian ties with Afghanistan, either bilaterally or through a venture with the SCO, may increase India’s historical distrust with Pakistan. Pakistan currently has considerable influence in Afghanistan, and thus has significant interest in keeping India from gaining any more leverage in the region. There is already evidence of Pakistani discontent about Indo-Afghan relations, as they expressed anger about the establishment of the previously mentioned agreement between India and Afghanistan.
At the same time, Chinese President Hu Jintao has called for greater SCO security cooperation in Central Asia, and the need to play an important role in Afghanistan’s “peace and reconstruction.” China is worried that after NATO leaves, it will create a dangerous vacuum which could create increased instability and chaos in the region. Similar to Western interests, China wants to counter terrorism, separatism and extremism in Afghanistan to create a stable and prosperous environment for trade and the exploration of natural resources (China’s National Petroleum Company has recently won a contract to explore oil blocs in northern Afghanistan). China thus wants to increase regional cooperation through the SCO, while also improving bilateral Sino-Afghan relations.
As such, after years of standing on the sidelines, China is expected to deepen ties with Afghanistan at the SCO summit this week through the signing of a series of strategic agreements. While it is still unclear what this will mean in practice, it nonetheless reflects China’s growing interest in its regional neighbors.
China has similarly stepped up relations with India, with Vice Premier Li Keqiang telling the Indian foreign minister during the SCO summit that Sino-Indian ties would be the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st Century. However, it should not be forgotten that U.S. President Obama has similarly stated that ties between the United States and India will be the “defining partnership of the 21st Century.”
India has thus increasingly found itself placed in the middle of the strategic rivalry between China and the United States. There are signs, however, that U.S.-Indian relations have intensified. During Defense Secretary Panetta’s visit to India this week, talks have been aimed at expanding security and defense ties. Specifically, the United States has requested that India plays a more active role in Afghanistan. With the planned U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan getting closer, they are looking for a regional ally which can not only fill the security-vacuum that will be created, but also to act as a bulwark against China’s increasing activity in the region.
Bilateral arms deals between the United States and India over the past decade have amounted to over US$8 billion, which includes the transfer of Globemaster-III aircraft and Super Hercules planes – both of which have improved India’s potential power projection into Afghanistan. However, whether India will commit to a partnership with the United States in the support of Afghanistan is yet to be seen.
India’s long history of non-alignment with major powers and its preference for independent, bilateral action (such as its current relationship with Afghanistan) may prove to be too much of a determining factor. During Panetta’s talks with India, senior officials have made it clear that India will continue to set its own security priorities, which may or may not align with those of the United States. India has also balked at the notion of sending troops to Afghanistan, instead choosing to bring a small number of Afghan officers to its military academies for training.
The future of Afghanistan is currently being determined by the geopolitical relations of the major powers in the region. Whether the situation is dealt with through a regional dialogue within the SCO, or through bilateral processes headed by China, India and the United States will largely define the future of Afghanistan in the coming years.
*Update (Jun. 7): On the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit today, Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna briefly spoke to Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari about developments in Afghanistan. Zardari reportedly inquired about Indian investment into Afghanistan, with Krishna replying that investments were concentrated in the areas of health, education and capacity building. This is one of the few occasions in which a high-ranking Pakistani official has been willing to discuss Afghanistan with India.
In a further showing of goodwill between India and Pakistan, their foreign secretaries will meet on June 29 in New Delhi to prepare for a crucial meeting of foreign ministers that is planned for the middle of July in Islamabad. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani told reporters at the SCO summit that the foreign secretaries would prepare the grounds for the planned meeting.