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Sailing in Two Boats

India in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Indo-Pacific ‘Quad’

Atul Bhardwaj ( is a former naval officer and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.


India is presently enjoying the luxury of being a member state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the largest transnational body in the Eurasian region and an important link in the emerging Quadrilateral (Quad) alliance between the United States (US), Japan, Australia, and India. With one foot in Eurasia and the other in the Indo-Pacific, India is walking a tightrope.

India’s “two-timing” strategy is likely to be tested in the near future. As the US steps up its anti-China rhetoric and reactivates the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) propaganda machinery to focus on the treatment of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, the Tibetans, and the Taiwanese (Abbas 2018), India will be required to take sides, which will have an impact on its position in the SCO. The tensions in the Indo-Russian ties are already visible. Although the deal on the supply of the S-400 missile system was concluded at the 19th India–Russia Annual Bilateral Summit on 5 October 2018 between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin, the future trajectory of bilateral ties continues to lie in the realm of uncertainty. China is also testing India’s resolve by urging it to enhance military-to-military ties between the two countries.

The Quad expects to balance China and limit its regional and global ambitions. The SCO, on the other hand, aims at reducing American influence in global politics. It wants its members to shut down American military bases on their soil. In the SCO, India partners with the three big Eurasian powers—Iran, Russia and China—that the US intends to keep separated. Many in the US who are not happy with the integration of Central Asia and South Asia, often imagine India to be their Trojan horse in the SCO. It is assumed that the introduction of India and Pakistan as members of the SCO has increased the prospects of division in the 17-year-old organisation that intends to build a community of shared future for humankind. The SCO agenda includes development as well as anti-terrorism mechanisms, with a focus on combating the “three forces” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. 

Currently, the Indian strategic community seems to be more enthusiastic about being a part of the Indo-Pacific arrangement than the SCO set-up. Their long-cherished dream to be a part of the US-led security arrangement stands fulfilled. The geographic limits of the US Pacific Command (PACOM) have been extended to include the Indian Ocean, and it has been rechristened United States Indo-Pacific Command. For too long India sat along the seam of the US PACOM and Central Command (CENTCOM), and the Indian elite often complained about the US military dividing South Asia down the middle and ignoring the conjoining of strategic issues that extend through India from the Persian Gulf to South East Asia. India always felt that its main strategic concerns related to countering terrorism and protecting energy flows from the Persian Gulf were never addressed by PACOM. Robert Kaplan also believes that the US must extend the concept of its Asia pivot to

Encompass the entire navigable rimland of Eurasia, including not only the Western Pacific but the Indian Ocean as well, with [the US’s] influence following exactly the path of Marco Polo’s return by sea, from China to Venice. (Kaplan 2017: 33)

Kaplan—who sees the differences between regions like Europe, West Asia, and South Asia and East Asia becoming diluted—wants the American navy’s imagination to extend the concept of sea power beyond the number of warships it can put out at sea to merging its presence in the Persian Gulf region with that in the South China Sea and East China Sea. To Kaplan, sea power means

Leveraging the growing naval presence of India, a de facto American ally, in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. More specifically, [the US] will require the 21st-century equivalent of coaling stations in rimland countries whose stability is defensible, where [the US] can pre-position supplies and conduct long-range strikes off ships: Oman, Diego Garcia, India, and Singapore come to mind. (Kaplan 2017: 33)

Continental or Maritime?

India, which has signed two agreements —Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA)—of the three foundational military cooperation agreements with the US, is happy being an American coaling station. Currently, India is in no position to shape geopolitics because it has neither the capacity to be a sea power, nor the money to be a land power. All it has is its geographic location that connects it to the Pacific Ocean and gives it an opening into Eurasia. This peculiar geography, however, gives the Indian elite a feeling that it has a larger role to play in global affairs. But, that larger role at the moment is limited to playing second fiddle to the US, supporting the empire in stemming its decline.

For more than seven decades, independent India was almost oblivious of the possible openings on its northern borders. How the closure of land routes with Central Asia via Pakistan affected trade was never given any cognisance in India’s strategic thought. The strategic outlook of the Indian elite was shaped by Britain, a maritime power, which used geopolitical manoeuvring to ensure that India’s borders with China and Pakistan were sealed.

It was natural for the independence-era Indian strategic elite to imagine that global power flowed from the oceans because their experience was limited to seeing a world dominated by maritime powers; first Britain, and then America. Disputes with Pakistan and China were never seen in terms of these causing the closure of India’s links to Central Asia. That direct rail from Astana to Amritsar could transport goods in less than 25 hours was never even imagined. It has never been assessed as to how the stoppage of cross-border trade helped maritime powers retain the primacy of ports and Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCS) as the fulcrum of international trade.

The control of international trade flows has been a major source of Anglo-American power. The Americanisation and dollarisation of the world would both not have been possible without the control of commodity flows on the high seas. The American Century rolled on unhindered because there was no counter-hegemonic force that stood up to resist its maritime dominance. The rise of the Soviet Union belied hopes because it never challenged the monopoly of international trade flows by American maritime power. Although it bypassed the American banking system by encouraging barter trade with its partners, it never thought of building an exclusive socialist trade route running from China to Poland through Central Asia. Such a route may have contributed to the consolidation of the socialist bloc, but Soviet suspicion of communist China prevented it from fructifying. Russian leadership was always fearful of Mao Zedong becoming a “Chinese Tito” who would undermine the Soviet dominance of the socialist world.

It was not just China that aided the split by joining hands with the US. Russia too abandoned its Eurasian role, forgot that it was predominantly a continental power, and indulged in mock naval fights with the US navy on the high seas. Admiral Sergei Georgiyevich Gorshkov—the chief architect of the Soviet navy during 1956–85 and the author of The Sea Power of the State (1976)—played a crucial role in popularising sea power among medium powers. He advocated “balanced fleet” and sea power as integral components of a nation’s maritime power. He laid equal emphasis on the development of merchant fleet, fishing fleet, research vessels, and ports, and ensured that the Soviets remained orientated away from the Eurasian landmass. The world continued to imagine that the Soviet nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers were a menace to the US navy. However, the fact is that nothing satisfied Americans more than the sight of Soviet warships lurking in the oceans, upholding the importance of seas in international affairs.

The biggest victory for the Americans during the Cold War was the achievement of the Sino-Soviet split; a strategy that ensured that sea remained the main link between Europe and Asia. Once again, the current US strategy is to ensure that Russia and China do not remain together. Therefore, sanctions are being imposed on Russia and it is being forced to stop aiding the Chinese connectivity drive. The Chinese too are being pressurised to keep Russia at bay. Historical experiences suggest that the two are likely to stick together and not forfeit their continental advantages.

The 21st-century power dynamics are different with the rise of China, a continental power that is willing to partake in the oceanic order designed by the West, but is insistent on reviving land routes for continental connectivity. The reintroduction of the land component in international supply chains is something unpalatable to maritime powers who fear that competition is likely to dent the relative importance of shipping in the international political economy. The American response to the dilution of borders is to stop the continents from joining forces by either fuelling old disputes or finding new reasons to keep them apart. The American response to the connectivity of Asia and Europe through railroads and pipelines is likely to be similar to the way Britain responded to the German proposal of the Berlin to Baghdad rail line before World War I. In fact, the rail line became one of the major reasons that led up to World War I. Once again, after a long time, the continental powers have acquired the technological resources and the wealth to revive land connectivity and challenge the oceanic trade routes. The maritime powers currently in control of the global political economy will play games to ensure that the maritime apple cart remains undisturbed and Eurasia remains a pipe dream.

India is getting caught in the maritime–continental whirlpool. Its colonial legacy almost forces it to imagine that it is a maritime power that must keep its Eurasian connectivity spots in the north closed. However, India can ill afford to ignore the developments the Eurasian landmass, where Pakistan is fast emerging as the “zipper of pan Eurasian integration” (Stobdan 2015). India cannot imagine itself being left out of these continental connectivity initiatives in its neighbourhood. For more than three centuries, India has stood firm in support of transatlantic maritime powers, while neglecting its continental heritage. It is time that India revives its land links with Central Asia and Europe to balance the maritime powers.


Abbas, Rushan (2018): “My Aunt and Sister in China Have Vanished: Are They Being Punished for My Activism?” Washington Post, 19 October.

Kaplan, Robert D (2017): “The Return of Marco Polo’s World and the US Military Response,” CNAS Stories, May, viewed on 14 September 2018,

Stobdan, P (2015): “Russia’s New Game Plan,” Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, 18 September, viewed on 15 October 2018,

Updated On : 29th Oct, 2018


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