China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001. There were two more curious additions as full SCO members in 2017: India and Pakistan. Nepal for its part secured the status of a ‘dialogue partner’ during the 2015 summit in Ufa, Russia. At the time, there was much hoopla in Kathmandu’s strategic circles, as they struggled to understand Nepal’s role in this Eurasian economic and security body. When queried, officials of the then Sushil Koirala government were vague. Perhaps they too were clueless.
While I was digging into the source of Nepal’s interest in the SCO back in 2017, I had met Upendra Gautam of the China Study Center. He informed me that it was Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala who first showed an interest in the SCO soon after its formation in 2001. To quote Gautam from my article in Republica, “… the price of oil in Nepal had been steadily increasing. Koirala thought it would be wise for Nepal’s energy security to explore Central Asian oil markets”.
Which was mighty interesting. But even after Nepal secured the status of a dialogue partner in 2015, it could not make any headway in the regional grouping, maybe because it jumped on the SCO bandwagon without any homework. At the 2017 and 2018 SCO summits, Nepal was not even invited. Nor was there any effort from Nepal for a greater SCO role, or for participation in this year’s summit (June 12 and 13) in Bishkek, Kazakhstan.
Russia and China, the two main backers of the organization, are both uncomfortable with what they see as America’s unnecessary encroachment into their neighborhood. No doubt the two Eurasian behemoths have their differences. But as their relations with the US have soured, they have vastly increased their economic and military cooperation. With their long involvement in Nepal, it should not be a surprise if Russia and China start coordinating their Nepal policy—particularly if the Americans and the Indians, as part of the new Indo-Pacific Strategy join hands to limit their strategic space in Nepal.
Theoretically, the SCO gives India and Pakistan a rare platform to talk. This is important, including for a better prospect of the SAARC which Nepal currently chairs. Practically, trying to bring India and Pakistan closer via the SCO is as good as flogging a dead horse. Separately, the KP Oli government might see the organization as a part of its ‘diversification’ policy. But Nepal first needs to be clear on where India, its most important foreign partner, stands on the SCO. Ever wary of China, India has been hesitant to push the SCO idea too far. Nor does it want to jeopardize its relation with the US. This dynamic will play out here in Nepal too.
Nepal has some tough strategic choices to make. Having declared its opposition to joining the Indo-Pacific Strategy, is it in Nepal’s interest to angle for a greater role in a competing security organization? On the other hand, if we are serious about connecting with Central Asia via China—as GPK envisioned, and as the country signing up to the BRI signaled—the Beijing-based organization could be a useful vehicle. Making this difficult choice requires greater clarity on Nepal’s diversification policy.