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Coming together on defence

The hitch is that multiple conflicting interests intersect at the SCO

Coming together on defence

SCOPE: The scale of India’s defence cooperation with the SCO is limited. PTI

P Stobdan

Former Ambassador

THE upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) defence ministers’ meet in New Delhi would attract global attention, given the continuing war in Ukraine, the evolving Russia-China proximity and the military standoff at LAC. The ministers will discuss pressing regional security matters — tackling counter-terrorism, cutting off terror financing, curbing cross-border recruitment. They will devise action plans and issue a joint communique.

If ‘right to transit trade access’ for India’s connectivity with Central Asia hurts Pakistani interests, the use of incorrect maps depicting India’s borders irks New Delhi.

Lashkar-e-Toiba was banned by the SCO in 2007. Pakistan had to put the Hafiz Saeed-backed terror outfit Tehreek-e-Azaadi Jammu & Kashmir on the list of ‘proscribed organisations’ a day before Pakistan joined the SCO in 2017. Compliance with the FATF’s norms was cited as a pretext.

The SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) plays an important role in tracking terrorist entities and their activities. But that is easier said than done. Numerous Al-Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated outfits continue to operate from Afghanistan. Getting hard inputs on terrorist hideouts is difficult when Pakistan is a member of RATS.

The SCO region is a conduit for about 80 per cent of the world’s illicit opium trade that emanates from Afghanistan. RATS has been working to curb drug trafficking for decades, but the narcotics trade provides a significant source of funding for anti-state terror activities. Yet, the SCO is a neutral forum to discuss terrorism in a broader context of nixing Beijing’s undue favour to Pakistan. As the Belt and Road Initiative moves ahead, more Chinese nationals are getting exposed to threats from terrorist groups in Pakistan itself.

The scale of India’s defence cooperation with the SCO nations is limited, broadly covering training and assistance, military exercises, etc. The annual joint military exercises, ‘Peace Missions’, to combat terrorism are beneficial, but efficacy in terms of interoperability remains rather feeble due to the absence of a common operating language. India, Pakistan and Iran need to stress on the addition of English language to Russian and Chinese at the SCO.

China’s offer to train SCO’s security personnel in Beijing intends to establish direct links with the internal security setups of member countries. India should restrict itself to holding of military exercises, music/band festivals, mountaineering and rock-climbing events.

In 2017, the defence ministers proposed to study historical military heritages. India is home to many forts and castles that are substantiated by documentation and excavation. Conferring awards on individuals contributing towards strengthening better defence cooperation can be another good step.

Defence ministers normally highlight their respective strategic perspectives. The Eurasian region is more fractured today because the Central Asian security outlook towards Russia has undergone a change since the Ukraine conflict. But with the recent harmonisation of policies between Russia and China, concern over the Ukraine crisis is unlikely to feature in the joint statement.

The newly appointed Chinese defence minister, Gen Li Shangfu — the man behind PLA’s modernisation drive — is expected to attend the meeting. Li, who headed China’s Equipment Development Department, is under US sanctions since 2018 for procuring Russian weapons, including a Su-35 fighter aircraft and an S-400 missile system. His appointment is viewed as a rebuke by President Xi Jinping, indicating the latter’s scant regard for Washington’s ban on his military personnel. Instead, the appointment reflected a reward for Li’s contribution to China’s military.

Li has been a ‘technocrat’ General who worked for 31 years as an aerospace engineer at China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Centre. His appointment signalled China’s rise as a space enterprise power capable of competing with the US.

The defence minister holds a symbolic and ceremonial role in the Chinese system. Also, Li seemingly never dealt with or served along the Indian border, which means he would not be having any direct say in India-China matters, but as the highest-ranking state councillor and a CMC member, he enjoys direct access to Xi.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s meeting with Li might offer a chance to discuss LAC disengagement, besides the resetting of ties between the two militaries.

Pakistan defence minister Khawaja Asif’s participation is doubtful amid Islamabad’s recent display of verbal belligerence, perhaps intended to spoil India’s presidency.

The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group was revived in 2017 to counter the growing threat of the ISIS. Last year, Afghanistan was not invited at Samarkand due to opposition from some members. Much has changed since. Will India play host to the Taliban as a special guest at the SCO? The presence of Afghanistan, instead of Pakistan, would be an interesting change in geopolitics.

As the SCO gains traction beyond Eurasia, the focal point of India’s interest is to benefit from economics, connectivity and counter-terrorism cooperation. But real benefits remain elusive due to a lack of clarity in terms of specific functions. Multiple conflicting interests intersect at the forum. India has drawn certain redlines of ‘respect the territorial integrity, unite against terror’.

Pakistan is already playing spoilsport, putting a spanner in the SCO goals. If the issue of ‘right to transit trade access’ for India’s connectivity with Central Asia hurts Pakistani interests, the use of incorrect maps depicting India’s borders irks New Delhi.

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