An SCO message to China and Pakistan The Statesman 09 Jul 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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An SCO message to China and Pakistan

An SCO message to China and Pakistan The Statesman 09 Jul 2024

          EAM Dr S Jaishankar represented India at the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) summit held on 03-04 Jul in Kazakhstan’s Astana. India headed the organization last year, when it conducted the summit in a virtual format. PM Modi, prior to announcing that the EAM would participate on his behalf, spoke to Kazakhstan’s president, Kemeluly Tokayev and conveyed his unavailability. The SCO represents 42% of the worlds’ population and 25% of the global GDP. Dr Jaishankar delivered PM Modi’s address to the organization.

Multiple reasons guided the PM’s non-attendance, while officially the reason was the ongoing parliament session, though this could have been managed. While Delhi was aware that Pakistan’s PM, Shehbaz Sharief, and China’s President, Xi Jinping, would be present, this was again not a reason for PM Modi to miss the event.

He could have easily avoided meeting them, if desired, as also not planned a bilateral with them. He did the same with Xi Jinping during the BRICS summit in Johannesburg last year, though they did exchange pleasantries. In Bali, during the 2022 G20 summit, hosted by Indonesia, Modi and Xi did have a short pull-aside conversation, details of which emerged later.   

PM Modi had also attended the SCO’s summit in 2022 at Samarkand, where he held a bilateral with Putin, amongst others, and made his famous comment, ‘today’s era is not of war.’ There was no interaction with either the Pak PM nor the Chinese president, despite both being present.

It was to avoid an official handshake and a compulsory bilateral as the chief host, that India switched to virtual mode for the SCO summit last year. Xi not attending the G20 summit in Delhi was possibly for the same reason. Any exchange of pleasantries with either Xi or Shehbaz, at this juncture, could reverberate in parliament, embarrassing the government. 

          The SCO is dominated by China as almost all members are part of its BRI (Belt Road Initiative) and financially beholden to it. It therefore largely pushes Chinese agenda, which India does not endorse. India, in earlier SCO summits, had refused to endorse the BRI.

With Russia and China dominating this year’s proceedings, comments and addresses by leaders would be anti-west, again going against India’s current strategic perspective of balancing both camps. The entry of Belarus this year only added to the organization’s anti-west charter. It should be understood that within days of being sworn in PM Modi attended the G7 summit in Italy and even addressed a session on Artificial Intelligence.

India was brought into the SCO by Russia as a counter to China, while Pakistan’s entry was pushed by China to balance India. At one time, it was Russia and India opposing Chinese proposals. However, since the commencement of the Russo-Ukraine conflict, Beijing-Moscow proximity has increased, while India has outgrown Pakistan, changing the dynamics of SCO.

Russia, which had adopted an independent approach to the west is currently beholden to China and both are facing western pressures. The statement issued post the recent Putin-Xi bilateral in Beijing was evidence enough that the focus of the summit would be west bashing. Both Xi and Putin are pushing the SCO as their vision of an alternative world order, alongside the BRICS.

As expected, Xi spoke on the West’s ‘cold war mentality,’ while Putin suggested making the SCO ‘a new architecture of cooperation, indivisible security and development in Eurasia, designed to replace the outdated Eurocentric and Euro-Atlantic models, which gave unilateral advantages only to certain States.’ By Modi being absent, India is conveying that it does not endorse the direction the organization is being currently pushed. 

          The main intent of PM Modi in Astana would have been a bilateral with President Putin of Russia as also with leaders of Central Asian Republics (CAR), with whom a meeting has been long overdue. The heads of CAR were to have been chief guests for the 2022 republic day parade which was cancelled due to COVID. The commencement of the North South corridor has enhanced India’s engagement with Central Asian nations.

PM Modi is currently in Moscow and has had a bilateral with President Putin, undistracted by the SCO. India has balanced its ties with Russia and the west and this is visible during PM Modi’s short Moscow visit. The world is observing this visit and expecting PM Modi to once again press for dialogue as a way forward to end the conflict with Ukraine.   

However, India would not be willing to be a negotiator as terms and conditions projected by both sides leave little room for negotiation. Further, support from the west to Ukraine and China, Iran and North Korea to Russia have ensured that peace can be ignored for the present.  

Another reason for non-attendance of the PM is collusion of Pak and China, though engagement norms of the SCO prohibit raising of bilateral disputes. India’s message to curtail cross-border terrorism, hinting at Pakistan, was conveyed by the EAM and included in the joint declaration.    

Further, most members of the organization are autocracies or quasi-democracies, enhancing the democratic-autocratic divide. For the organization, the presence of democratic India as also the world’s fastest growing economy, is a benefit. While the SCO is China dominated, BRICS is not. Hence, PM Modi will attend the BRICS summit in Russia in Oct this year.

Non-attendance at the SCO also sends the message to China that all is not well in the relationship and India is unwilling to participate in any institution dominated by it. This message was conveyed by Dr Jaishankar in his interaction with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. The non-issuance of a joint statement at the end of their meeting implied continued disagreement.

The presence of President Putin at the SCO summit as also PM Modi’s Moscow visit conveys that the west’s attempt to isolate Putin has failed, despite the issuance of an ICC (International Criminal Court) warrant.

India’s engagement with the SCO is likely to witness a further withdrawal as the next SCO heads of state meet is scheduled in Pakistan in Oct this year and the 2025 summit in China, unless thorns in Indo-China and Indo-Pak relations are removed, which is unlikely. Anywhere India turns down an invite, it sends a strong message of disapproval.  

        

           

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