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What Iran's entry into Shanghai Cooperation Org. means for Sino-Indian ties

Islamic Republic to balance China and India while forging an independent foreign policy

SCO leaders pose for a photo prior to their meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Servi...

SCO leaders pose for a photo prior to their meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Servi...

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Iran’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation (SCO) Summit not only gives the country a new platform on which to pursue its foreign policy but also creates new diplomatic dynamics between Tehran, New Delhi, and Beijing.

Long-time coming

The SCO Summit, held at Dushanbe, Tajikistan on Friday (Sep. 17), was a momentous event for Iran, as it had been sitting on the sidelines of such summits for nearly two decades.

By officially joining the SCO, Iran became the organization’s ninth member state after China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Iran’s ascension to full membership has been a long time coming, having been an observer since 2005.

At the event, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahia tweeted:

“Perfectly pleased to announce that the permanent membership document of the Islamic Republic of Iran was approved by the leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Dushanbe in the presence of our esteemed President.”

Iran’s membership was welcomed by all other members including China, Russia, and India.

The SCO was set up initially in 2001 and was a successor of the Shanghai Five grouping consisting of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, which had sought to enhance confidence-building in the military sphere, between Beijing, Russia, and the former Soviet republics.

The SCO has become even more critical in recent years as Central Asia’s economic growth soars and connectivity projects pick up pace. Chief among them is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), followed by the INSTC (International North-South Corridor), which links Iran to Central Asia, Turkey, and Europe. There is also the Chabahar Port, an Indian-operated port located in southern Iran.

Iran at the podium

The Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, used the SCO platform to elaborate on Tehran’s foreign policy and was critical of U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran.

“The international order is shifting towards multilateralism and redistribution of power in favor of independent states,” he said, hinting strongly at the fading of U.S. dominance.

He also highlighted Iran’s stance on Afghanistan and the need for an inclusive government.

Raisi emphasized the SCO is an independent organization and that the BRI, initiated by China, and other connectivity projects, such as the INSTC, could find common ground with one another and need not be looked at from a zero-sum perspective.

This is important because India has been investing in the Chabahar Port with a view to connecting not just with Afghanistan but through Central Asia into Russia and beyond. New Delhi had also proposed other multilateral mechanisms, such as the India-Uzbekistan-Iran-Afghanistan Quadrilateral Working Group for shared usage of the Chabahar Port.

Transcending the Himalayan divide

The SCO is also important because it includes both India and China, giving both countries a chance to clear the air and engage, even in the midst of tensions.

On the sidelines of the SCO Summit, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar agreed to reduce tensions during his meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, and both sides agreed on reducing tensions between the countries.

The two sides agreed to resolve their disputes across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh in accordance with existing agreements.

In a tweet, Jaishankar encouraged Beijing to stop viewing ties with India from the perspective of a third country, namely, the U.S. The timing here was significant as the SCO Summit was held days before the in-person meeting of Quad leaders in Washington, D.C. The Chinese foreign minister said that given their economic prowess, both countries needed to work closely together.

The new world that is taking shape focuses on prioritizing a variety of interests and balancing foreign policy. For Iran, membership in the SCO enables it to better pursue an independent foreign policy, forge forward with connectivity projects and stabilize Afghanistan.

For India, it provides a platform not just for enhancing ties with Central Asia but also to engage with Beijing. At a time when India is moving closer to the U.S., participation in the SCO signals that while New Delhi’s foreign policy orientation may have changed, it does not like to be seen as purely within Washington’s orbit.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based policy analyst associated with OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. His areas of interest include South Asian regional cooperation, BRI, and the role of sub-national forces in foreign policy.