Founder, Ladakh International Centre
THE recent virtual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Moscow, which brought together top Chinese, Indian and Russian leaders face-to-face, could hardly respond to the emerging global situation in the wake of Joe Biden’s victory in the US elections.
The summit — also held amid the pandemic, heightened India-China tensions, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and turmoil in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan — entailed some outcomes.
China and Russia tacitly remained silent over Biden’s victory as they rolled out a post-Trump era plan to stick to multilateralism and stay united amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
President Xi Jinping had to vent out why the world needs China for prosperity as he called for an end to politicising the pandemic — a view endorsed by Putin as well.
The single most important outcome of the summit was a decision to collectively mitigate the impact of the pandemic, sharing of vaccines among SCO states along with jointly speeding up economic recovery.
Incidentally, both PM Modi and President Xi in their speeches shared an identical view on the unique value of traditional medicine in the battle against Covid-19 — hence the need for learning from each other.
It was out-of-their-way to discuss the border tensions. Both leaders in their address made some conciliatory remarks, with President Xi calling for “resolving disputes and differences through dialogue and consultations” as he went on to add, “history has proven, and will continue to prove that good neighbourliness will prevail over a beggar-thy-neighbour approach, mutually beneficial cooperation will replace a zero-sum game, and multilateralism will win over unilateralism.”
The summit helped break the ice, and the soreness suddenly subsided — paving the way for stuttering peace to start. On Xi’s call for forging “greater synergy between BRI and other national development strategies,” PM Modi emphatically made it clear that “to deepen connectivity, it is important to respect one another’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The SCO isn’t an ‘alliance’, but what appealed to India were its charter’s ideals, neatly packaged as the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ aimed at building “mutual trust and neighbourliness” while adhering to “mutual respect of sovereignty, territorial integrity of States” among others.
Of course, New Delhi wanted to leverage SCO to reach out to Eurasia, to enhance connectivity and cooperation in the fight against terrorism. It was aimed at balancing India’s ties with the US while simultaneously keeping China’s regional ambitions in check.
Russia helped New Delhi join the grouping in 2017, but along with Pakistan. Three years later, however, some conflicting interests, if not a paradox, already seem to intersect for India — especially its desire to remain involved in a de facto anti-American organisation, while simultaneously bridging relations with Washington in the face of a more assertive China.
When the US-China relations during the Trump era entered a state of free fall, India’s decision to stay engaged with the Chinese-led SCO came under intense scrutiny.
Beijing still remains the core agenda-setter of the organisation. Russia initially brought India into the SCO to water down China’s influence. However, it is no longer clear whether Moscow, which is increasingly getting dependent on Beijing, is now finding it easy to resist Chinese regional manoeuvres.
Three years down the line, India’s gains are lacklustre. On regional security, the SCO’s focus is more about thwarting the perceived flow of terrorists from Afghanistan into Central Asia and Xinjiang — not curbing Pakistan-sponsored jihadis. India’s regular participation in the Regional Anti-Terror Structure (RATS), military drills, for example, hasn’t helped prevent Pakistan from sending terrorists from across the border.
India’s trade with SCO is around $100 billion, of which 90 per cent is with China — and the SCO is not necessary in achieving it. The SCO also offers little help to India promoting its connectivity plans — most of them remain in limbo.
As tensions between New Delhi and Beijing flare up, many would question the utility of further involvement in an organisation that so effectively promotes Chinese interests. So far, the SCO has proven itself to be a key lynchpin in promoting BRI-related projects including CPEC that violates India’s sovereignty.
On the contrary, Pakistan seems to be gaining ground in the SCO, effectively using the forum to advance its agendas i.e. Afghanistan, Kashmir and the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
In September, signs had emerged that China was aligning with Pakistan to drive India out of the SCO. Pakistan was encouraged to display a map claiming disputed parts of Kashmir as being its territory in a blatant violation of the SCO’s core charter. The incident led India’s National Security Adviser to stage a walkout in protest. Pakistan claimed that SCO members overruled India’s objection. The Russian persuasion to bring down the map had no effect. The map remained on display throughout the meeting.
Pakistan also pitched a campaign against New Delhi hosting the next SCO Heads of Government meeting in November, citing the spread of Covid-19 in India. And, this time, Pakistan even brought the UNSC resolutions on Kashmir to the SCO agenda.
PM Modi aptly snubbed Pakistan for flouting the Shanghai Spirit. Days later, Russian Deputy Envoy to Delhi Roman Babushkin backed India’s objection, but it was only meant for assuaging the local sentiments in Delhi. Clearly, Pakistan’s repeated attempts to use the SCO forum against India are deliberate and not without a purpose and direction.
While the pandemic crisis has overshadowed everything else this time, attempts are being made to marginalise New Delhi’s role in the group. Clearly, the tensions with China continue to complicate India’s place in the SCO. The only silver lining is the nearly identical agendas laid down for the future by PM Modi and President Xi. Eventually, the SCO may prove to be a zone of convergence, pulling the two back from the brink of conflict. As New Delhi prepares to host a summit-level meeting on November 30, it should lay out a fresh template for the SCO’s future growth.
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