Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | SCO Summit | Missed opportunity for India?

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | SCO Summit | Missed opportunity for India?

In this episode of Worldview, we discuss the recent SCO Summit and whether the differences with China and Pakistan overshadowed the summit 

Last year, WorldView came to you from Samarkand- and a grand summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or SCO there with Putin, Xi, Sharif, Central Asian Leaders and Prime Minister Narendra Modi . This year, the comparison was stark- as India hosted its first SCO summit, online. 

The SCO has emerged as a significant platform for peace, prosperity and development in the entire Asian region. The thousands of years old cultural and people-to-people ties between India and this region are a living testament to our shared heritage. We do not see this area as an “extended neighbourhood”, but as an “extended family,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said.

For those just joining, the SCO is a grouping of Eurasian powers- Russia, China, four central Asian countries- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan that was started in 2001 out of what was called the Shanghai 5. India and Pakistan were inducted in 2017. 

So why was this summit important at all? 

1.     This was the first time India hosted the SCO summit, taking over as chair last year- and holding over that period 140 meetings, including 14 ministerial meetings. Remember, India joined the SCO as an observer in 2005, but became a member in 2017. 

2.     This was an important summit, because Iran was inducted as a full member- this was particularly important for India as it is through Iran that india’s connectivity plans for the region lie, through Chabahar and the INSTC. Also brought in as dialogue partners- Kuwait, Maldives, Myanmar ,UAE, all with strong ties with India 

3.     At a time the Modi government is at an impasse over forging a joint statement for the G20, the SCO Delhi Declaration was passed without similar trouble- as Ukraine was not mentioned in the joint statement. 

4.     For India, which has made fighting terrorism a cornerstone of its foreign policy, the grouping focused on terror issues, and particularly new age terror mechanisms like the use of social media, drone technology etc. The SCO leaders signed a joint statement on countering radicalization leading to terrorism, separatism and extremism, which all countries including Pakistan signed on to 

5.     This is the second SCO summit since the Ukraine conflict- and while clearly there was no criticism of Russia, the joint statement did speak about finding ways around the sanctions against Russia, which they condemned- As leaders spoke in favour of implementing a “Roadmap for gradual increase in the share of national currencies in mutual settlements by the interested Member States” . India did not sign on to the Economic Cooperation Roadmap for other reasons, but has been using currencies other than the Dollar to pay for Russian oil, including Rupees, Dirhams and even the Chinese Yuan. Speaking at the Summit, Iran president Raisi said “any attempt to shape a fair international system requires the removal of this instrument of dominance, the dollar, in intra-regional relations”. 

6.     The joint statement also referred to Afghanistan, for which the SCO maintains a special Contact group. For India, which has joined other SCO countries in opening a mission in Kabul despite the Taliban being in power, it is significant that the statement spoke of curbing terror and drugs in the country, and bringing an inclusive government there. No mention of the rights of women and girls however. 

7.     In addition the SCO issued a joint statement on Digital transformation, which is a key objective of the Modi government, and spoke about the need for using digital payments 

Given what seems like a substantive agenda- where did the problems lie? And did they overshadow India’s SCO chairmanship? 

India’s bilateral differences with China and Pakistan underpinned many of the problems with the summit: 

1.     India’s opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative that includes parts of Pakistan occupied Kashmir, was recorded in the joint statement. Mr. Modi also referred to it in his speech

“Strong connectivity is crucial for the progress of any region. Better connectivity not only enhances mutual trade but also fosters mutual trust. However, in these efforts, it is essential to uphold the basic principles of the SCO charter, particularly respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Member States, PM Modi said. 

2.     Mr. Modi also referred to double standards on terrorism- a reference to China’s blocking Indian attempts to add terrorist names to the UNSC’s designations list- including the most recent block on 26/11 attacks handler Sajid Mir. And he spoke about the problem of cross-border terrorism, a reference to Pakistan. Heres what he said, and the response from Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif

3.     India was  isolated over an agreement on Economic Cooperation Roadmap 2030- that was agreed to by all other SCO members- while it is unclear with what exactly India objected to in the draft text circulated by Tajikistan- references to BRI, Chinese imprint, or the dedollarisation plan. 

4.     Indian proposals for making English a formal language at the SCO- which would be more representative of the membership, as well as initiatives on Millets, and Lifestyle for Environment, 2 of PM Modi’s pet projects were reportedly blocked by China 

5.     The timing of the SCO summit- in between Mr. Modi’s visit to Washington in June and to Paris next week- also led to some discomfort given the anti-western slant of the grouping, especially with the induction of Iran and proposed membership to Belarus next year, this becomes a tougher tightrope walk for India. 

6.     Perhaps due to all these reasons- including the optics of hosting President Putin at this time, the problems with China at the LAC, and with Pakistan in general, the government decided to cancel plans for an in-person summit and hold a single session virtual meet instead- disappointing in particular, the Central Asian countries that had already confirmed their participation. Remember the India-Central Asia meet for republic day last year also had to be cancelled due to Covid. The online summit meant Pm Modi missed an opportunity to speak to Russian and Chinese leaders about G20 summit communique- ahead of the Sherpa meet next week in Hampi to finalise the draft. 

Given the obvious discomfort and disunity at the SCO Summit, many are already asking if India’s membership is even warranted. Let’s just look at why the SCO is important for India still: 

In an increasingly polarized world, the SCO membership allows India to keep its balance, strategic autonomy, and place in a non-western world without needing to pledge allegiance either way. 

The SCO countries represent 

-42% of the world’s population 

– 24% of its GDP 

– 20% of its oil 

– 44% of its natural gas 

And a sizable chunk of world food production, connectivity for future trade etc, and its membership cannot be underestimated 

The SCO began as a conflict reduction and stability grouping, now increasingly looks at connectivity- which are both key concerns for India 

It is a regional grouping India is a part of, even as it has rejected SAARC and walked out of RCEP  The link to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries is increasingly important, both as a market, and as a resource base 

SCO allows India to be part of an alternative economic structure in the world, especially as sanctions on Russia and Iran make it difficult to do normal trade with them. More on this will be seen at the BRICS summit next month in South Africa 

WV TAKE: Having done the hard work, and accepted the risks of non-alignment for decades, India stands in a stronger position today- as a balancing power, and one whose demand for strategic autonomy is respected by all. To give up or undermine its SCO presence is to give up a foothold in an important part of the world, that is at India’s own borders. India’s hosting of the SCO summit lost the opportunity to assert its leadership in the grouping, although the discomfort with the SCO’s anti-west slant, pejoratively called the Association of Autocrats is simply a sign of the times India has to learn to navigate. 

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