At SCO meet, Modi and Sharif spar over transit trade access

At SCO meet, Modi and Sharif spar over transit trade access

Prime Minister Narendra Modi flags energy, food crises due to COVID-19 and war

Better regional connectivity is only possible if members grant each other “full transit rights”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, referring to Pakistan’s refusal to give India transit trade access by land to Afghanistan and Central Asia, at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Heads of State (CHS) here on Friday.

In a speech that was otherwise free from references to India’s regional issues on terrorism with Pakistan and on territorial sovereignty with China, Mr. Modi called for greater cooperation in the Eurasian region, and pointed to the “unprecedented” energy and food crisis arising from the twin issues of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine conflict. He also focused on initiatives on manufacturing that India is willing to pilot in the next year, when India assumes the chair of the SCO and hosts the Summit in mid-2023. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon and Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif pose for a family photo before a meeting of the council of heads of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation member states at a summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 16, 2022.

“SCO has an important role in developing reliable, resilient and diversified supply chains. For this, better connectivity is necessary, but along with that, it is also important that we give each other full transit rights,” Mr. Modi said, speaking at the SCO plenary session that also marked the first time he had shared a forum in person with Chinese President Xi Jinping since the 2020 LAC standoff, as well as with Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. 

While Mr. Modi didn’t exchange words with Mr. Sharif or Mr. Xi at the publicly broadcast sessions, he stood next to Mr. Xi, host Uzbek President Mirziyoyev and Russian President Putin during one of the photo-ops for the SCO and observer and dialogue partners. Later, all the leaders attended a lunch together hosted by Mr. Mirziyoyev, which was closed to media.

Speaking at the SCO meet, Mr. Xi congratulated India for taking over the chair of the grouping and promised “China’s support” to India in hosting the event next year. Significantly, both Mr. Xi and Mr. Sharif referred to the issue of terrorism, and the need to collectively fight the “menace” and “monster”.

Briefing the media, Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra said that Prime Minister Modi also raised the issue of terrorism during the “restricted” meeting between SCO leaders, and that all SCO countries have agreed to prepare a consolidated list of terrorist entities and individuals in their respective countries. 

In his speech, Mr. Sharif, who focused on Afghanistan and the flood situation in Pakistan for most part, responded to Mr. Modi’s remarks, calling for a more “structured” SCO approach to connectivity in the region, adding that “if there is connectivity, transit rights will automatically come”. India has developed Iran’s Chabahar port as an alternative to Pakistan for the land route to Central Asia and Russia. At present, delays by Pakistan have meant that even India’s plan to send 50,000 MT of wheat for Afghanistan by the land route has not been completed over several months, as permissions for the last tranche of 10,000 MT to be transported have not been granted. 

The SCO summit declaration ended with an expansion of the group of eight countries, including four Central Asian States, China, Russia, India and Pakistan, inducting Iran as a full member, as President Ebrahim Raisi signed an MoU acceding membership. Among other membership hopefuls are Belarus, indicating that the grouping would have a larger number of countries facing Western sanctions in the future. The group also adopted more than 40 documents, including an agreement on cooperation and good neighbourliness, and a joint statement on climate change.

Mr. Modi said that among the other problems the world faces is ensuring “food security”, an issue that Mr. Mirziyoyev referred to in his opening remarks, pointing out SCO countries make up a majority of the world’s grain exporting nations. 

“SCO member countries contribute about 30% of global GDP, and 40% of the world’s population also lives in SCO countries,” Mr. Modi said in his speech, adding that one possible solution to this problem was to promote the “cultivation and consumption of millets”. Mr. Modi said that India was being developed as a “manufacturing hub” and would be one of the fastest growing economies, and offered to share the country’s experience in innovations, start-ups, health tourism, and traditional medicine.

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