SCO meet throws up unexpected outcomes The Statesman 03 Mar 2023 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


SCO meet throws up unexpected outcomes The Statesman 03 Mar 2023

          The SCO defence ministers meet was held in Delhi last week. While the meet was attended by all defence ministers of the organization, less Pakistan (which attended virtually), statements emerging from discussions and bilateral meetings displayed differences between main players of the SCO. There were more accusations than acceptance between them. Rajnath Singh, as the chief host, held bilateral discussions with all his counterparts. All were productive less that with China. The Indo-China bilateral resulted in both nations issuing their own statements indicating there was no common meeting ground and differences continue to exist.

          Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart, General Li Shangfu, did not shake hands prior to the meet, indicating initial disagreements. The Indian statement read, ‘The Raksha Mantri categorically conveyed that development of relations between India and China is premised on prevalence of peace and tranquillity at the borders.’ He added, ‘all issues at the LAC need to be resolved in accordance with existing bilateral agreements and commitments.’ The Indian stand has not changed and is in sync with comments made by the foreign minister, S Jaishankar, to his Chinese counterpart.

          India also rejected the Chinese proposal to recommence military engagements between the two sides. India projected its determination to continue with the standoff and keep relations frozen at the current state unless the LAC is resolved.

China, in its statement insisted that the situation on the border was generally stable and that both sides continue communicating through military and diplomatic channels. It added, ‘It is hoped that the two sides will work together to continuously enhance mutual trust between the two militaries and make due contributions to the development of relations between both countries.’ China was hinting that India accept the LAC in its current form and move forward with bilateral ties. For India, restoring ties implies conveying that it has accepted the changed LAC as the new normal. Hence, while diplomatic engagements continue in multilateral forums, tensions remain.

          The other interesting bilateral was between India and Russia. The bilateral statement, issued by India, read, ‘They (both defence ministers) expressed satisfaction over the continued trust and mutual respect between the two countries, particularly in defence and reiterated their commitment towards strengthening the partnership. They acknowledged the unique, long-lasting and time-tested relationship between India and Russia.’ The statement was diplomatically positive but what followed in the meeting was not.

The Russian defence minister, General Sergei K Shoigu, in his address to the SCO body accused the US of working to contain China. He stated, ‘The US and its allies are actively opposing the formation of a multipolar world in the Asia-Pacific with counter measures through military and political alliances such as the QUAD and AUKUS. The conflict in Ukraine is a clear demonstration of this criminal policy. Its real aim is to inflict strategic defeat on Russia, threaten China and maintain its monopoly position in the world.’ Russia was sending the message of its proximity to China and distrust of growing Indian alliance with the US.

Comments of the Iranian defence minister, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, towed the Russian line. In his address he stated, ‘expansionist policies of the West and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have accelerated in a bid to revive the unipolar world. The West and NATO’s actions in the Ukraine crisis are signs of this fact. Proxy wars and terrorism are means in the hands of some big powers who seek domination.’ Iran’s anger against the US and its allies was evident as also expected.

The Chinese defence minister offered ‘to implement the Global Security Initiative (GSI), deepen strategic mutual trust, enhance anti-terrorism cooperation, expand fields for cooperation and improve cooperation mechanisms, so as to contribute to global and regional peace and stability.’ China has been selling the GSI as a counter to the US, but with little success. 

Rajnath Singh, while addressing the gathering concentrated on terrorism, radicalization, respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and taking care of legitimate interests of nations of the group. The hint was obviously Pakistan and China. Pakistan’s special advisor to their Prime Minister on defence, was present through video conferencing. Rajnath stated, ‘If a nation shelters terrorists, it not only poses a threat to others, but for itself too. If we want to make the SCO a stronger and more credible international organisation, our top-most priority should be to effectively deal with terrorism.’ Terrorism as a topic impacts all members of the organization.

At the end of the meet, all member countries signed a protocol, expressing their collective will to make the region secure, peaceful and prosperous, as against an agreement. As compared to recent G 20 meetings, the SCO defence ministers meet did arrive at a consensus on some subjects. While the meet may be considered a success and the aim set forth achieved, differences between major members of the organization as also between Asia and the west were clearly highlighted.   

India, which was the host is a member of the QUAD and a US partner. It had sought to avoid dragging the US and its allies into formal discussions of the SCO but was aware it would happen, especially with Russia, China and Iran in the group. Both Russia and Iran hinted that India’s growing proximity with the US may not bode well in the long term. China has already sent that message on multiple occasions. Growing Russia-China proximity will remain a matter of concern for India despite normal bilateral ties. Moscow, henceforth, may either remain neutral or ignore Indian concerns.    

Indo-China relations currently appear frozen with no signs of a thaw in coming days. With both nations refusing to bend from their current stance, India seeking de-escalation and disengagement and China insisting on India accepting the current alignment of the LAC, tensions will continue as will attempts at Salami Slicing. Will the foreign ministers meet of the SCO, scheduled this week in Goa bring about a change in Indo-China ties remains to be seen. This could possibly be the last chance before Xi visits India for both, the SCO and G 20 meets. Finally, US and western bashing can be expected to continue in Goa.