India has assumed the chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation for 2023, and has planned a series of meetings, including the forthcoming defence ministerial in New Delhi and the meeting of foreign ministers in Goa.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is emerging as an important regional organisation in Eurasia given that its membership (China, Russia, India, Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics) represents more than 40% of the world population and nearly a quarter of the global gross domestic product, or GDP.

In its early years, it focused on security issues and was guided by the “Shanghai spirit”, encapsulating the principles of mutual trust, equality, respect for cultural diversity and the pursuit of common development.

Of late, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has begun to put more emphasis on tangible initiatives of regional economic cooperation.

Its future ambitions were revealed recently at the Samarkand meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation heads of states last September. The leaders agreed to create efficient economic and transport corridors and work jointly on climate change, food security, energy security and reliable supply chains, and to accelerate the pace of informatisation and digitisation.

The theme chosen by India as chair also echoes these priorities: “For a SECURE SCO”, which stands for security, economic connectivity, unity and respect for the environment.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation states have ruled out ideologised and confrontational approaches and have committed themselves to building a “new type of international relations” in the spirit of mutual respect, justice, equality and mutual benefit. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s appeal is certainly growing in the region. Iran is completing the accession process to join it this year. Turkey is a dialogue partner. Many states participate as special guests.

Some analysts are beginning to brand the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as an “anti-West” alliance. It may be too early to reach this conclusion. Firstly, there is no clarity about and discussion on the “new type of international relations”. Secondly, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation countries have forged deep economic and financial linkages with the United States and European countries. The organisation’s own financial institutions, like the SCO Development Bank and SCO Development Fund, have yet to be established.

Despite this, there could be one aspect the US will find disconcerting. The Samarkand summit called for a gradual increase in the share of national currencies in mutual settlements between the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation member states. If this goes through, the US dollar could lose its monetary hegemony.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, in Moscow in September 2020. Credit AFP...

How far India wishes to stand with the region is also yet to be seen. After all, it is a preferred partner of the US in the latter’s Indo-Pacific strategy and a key member of the QUAD (comprising US, India, Australia and Japan), an alliance largely perceived as an instrument to contain China’s rise. For now, India seems to be running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

India will also have to decide how it would accommodate its differences with Pakistan and China within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, particularly as the chair. Will it honour the “Comprehensive Action Plan (2023-2027) for Implementation of Long-Term Good Neighb­ourliness, Friendship, and Coop­eration among the SCO Members” that was adopted in Samarkand to attain alignment in common areas of interest?

India recently denied Pakistan’s participation in a seminar on “SCO armed forces contribution in medicine, healthcare, and pandemics” owing to differences over showing Kashmir as occupied territory on the map. If this is the shape of things to come, it would not be presumptuous to suggest that India could use its position in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to politicise the organisation.

India also wants to project its tourism potential. It hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation tourism ministers meeting in March in Kashi (Var­anasi), designated as the first cultural capital of the organisation, and is planning a G20 tourism working group meeting in Srin­agar in May. Pakistan has expr­e­ssed strong reservations over India’s decision to host meetings in the internationally recognised disputed territory.

India has extended an invitation to the Pakistani foreign minister to attend the May meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation foreign ministers in Goa. Pakistan has recently confirmed that the foreign minister will attend the meeting. This indicates Pakistan’s commitment to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the country’s relationship with the organisation’s two anchors, China and Russia. On the sidelines of the meeting, however, Pakistan need not make any effort for bilateral contact unless India itself takes the initiative.

Regional harmony is critical for India’s own geopolitical interests. Much will depend on how India conducts itself as chair in the current year. If India does not inject its bilateral differences with China and Pakistan into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation ambit, then the organisation has the potential to deliver tangible regional economic cooperation in sync with the Shanghai Spirit.

The writer is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan.

This article was first published on Dawn.