The SCO summit Much ado about nothing The Excelsior 15 Jul 2023 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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The SCO summit: Much ado about nothing The Excelsior 15 Jul 2023

          The recently concluded SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) summit displayed existing differences between nations of the organization, rather than unity. India, moving the summit to an on-line mode from an in-person event, had multiple intentions. Apart from avoiding the embarrassment of PM Modi interacting with Shehbaz Sharif, in an election year, it was to dent global criticism of Putin visiting India while under an International Criminal Court arrest warrant.

There is still no confirmation of Putin attending the G 20 summit later this year. The online meet, while displaying India’s strategic autonomy of partnering multiple blocks, also conveyed that India considers the G 20 a higher priority than the SCO.

Iran, currently under US led sanctions, has become a member of the SCO this year. With China, Russia and Iran within the organization it is bound to swing anti-west. The SCO, possesses almost 40% of the world’s population and nearly one-third of the global market. The organization is dominated by China as all Central Asian nations and Pakistan are part of China’s BRI (Belt Road Initiative) and indebted to it.

          Both India and Pakistan became observer states of the 2001 created SCO in 2005, becoming full-time members in 2017. India’s entry into the SCO was pushed by Russia to counter Chinese domination, while Beijing backed Pakistan as a counter to India. The SCO charter bans raising of bilateral issues and disputes; hence nations highlight their disputes without naming adversaries. For India, disputes are with Pak and China.  

          Inaugurating the summit, PM Modi harped on issues concerning India, calling out member nations, without naming them. Hitting out at Pakistan, he mentioned, ‘Terrorism has become the prime danger for both regional as well as global peace, and decisive action is necessary to deal with it. Terrorism in whichever form or expression, we have to collectively fight against it. Some countries use cross-border terrorism as instrument of their policies and harbour terrorists. SCO should not refrain from criticising such nations.’ India has always called out Pakistan’s support to terrorism on global platforms.

          Aiming at China, which blocked listing of Sajid Mir as a global terrorist and supports Pakistan, Modi stated, ‘There should not be any place for double-standards on such a serious issue (terrorism).’ Reiterating from the joint Indo-US statement, post his recent visit, he added, ‘We should also increase cooperation to deal against terror financing.’ This was again intended towards Pak and China. Challenging Xi’s pet project, the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) Modi added that connectivity projects must ‘respect sovereignty and territorial integrity’ of member states. India has never accepted the CPEC as it transits disputed Gilgit Baltistan.

          Shehbaz had to counter Indian accusations. He said, ‘The Hydra-headed monster of terrorism and extremism must be fought by full vigour and conviction. Any temptation to use it as a cudgel for diplomatic point-scoring must be avoided under all circumstances.’ Pakistan was peeved when the Indo-US joint statement also mentioned Pakistan’s support to terrorism. Ignoring its own handling of minorities and globally criticized Blasphemy laws, Shehbaz went on to mention treatment of minorities (in India) while indirectly accusing Delhi of suppressing human rights in Kashmir.

          India and Pakistan displayed that differences between them are here to stay.

          China’s concerns have been US actions in the Indo-Pacific which have been supported by India. For China, Taiwan is a red line. It has always considered the QUAD as a challenge to its intent to dominate Asia. Hitting out at the US, President Xi stated that nations ‘should truly respect each other’s core interests and major concerns.’   

Lamenting on US creating blocs in the Indo-Pacific, including India, Xi added, ‘we must be highly vigilant against external attempts to foment a new cold war or camp-based confrontation in our region.’ He added, ‘We must resolutely reject any interference in our internal affairs.’ China was hinting that Indo-US proximity is a stumbling block in bilateral relations.    

Russia displayed neutrality, while accusing the west of arming Ukraine. The other nations backed Indian mention of containing terrorism.

The joint statement issued at the end of the summit was almost a repeat of last year’s Samarkand declaration. India again, as has been the custom, refused to back China’s BRI (Belt Road Initiative). The statement listed countries which backed the BRI, leaving out India. India was also unwilling to support the Economic Development Strategy (EDS) as Delhi believed it pushed Chinese intent.  

India’s refusal to back the EDS did cause a flutter within China. Beijing’s mouthpiece, the Global Times stated in an editorial, ‘It (EDS) was initially proposed by Tajikistan with the aim of promoting regional economic cooperation and integration. It is illogical for India to refuse to join simply because there are Chinese catchphrases in the document. It is probably not a good thing for India.’ It added, ‘India’s distinctive character, combined with its wariness, vanity, and desire to compete with China, has created an unusual sensitivity or even rejection of China’s voice.’ India’s anti-China stance is here to stay.

On terrorism, apart from a change of a word or so, the statement was a repeat of Samarkand. Ukraine was never mentioned, though it was hinted at with the statement mentioning that the organization backs, ‘peaceful settlement of disagreements (in Samarkand the word used was conflicts) and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultations.’

Overall, despite multiple meetings, including that of SCO foreign ministers, in May in Goa, the final declaration had little to offer. There was no statement to enhance functioning of the organization, deal with issues impacting member nations, including the must talked about North-South corridor. It was simply nations coming forward with their individual agenda and accusing others for gaining advantage in local politics.

For India it was terrorism emanating from Pakistan and support from China. For Pakistan, it was diplomatic exploitation of terrorism by India resulting in it facing global embarrassment and reinstatement of Article 370 in Kashmir. For China, it was India joining the west in containing it. For an organization which represents a large global community, the SCO appears to be fading. India may be proud of the Delhi declaration but at the end of the day there were hardly any deliverables.