SCO Summit: India makes its presence felt at the otherwise lacklustre Samarkand meet
India’s participation was desirable and the 24-hour sojourn of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Samarkand was meaningful for India’s national interests and foreign policy goals
The 22nd summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) had full attendance of the eight-member countries and several other observer nations, but its performance appeared to be quite lacklustre. Yet, India’s participation was desirable and the 24-hour sojourn of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Samarkand was meaningful for India’s national interests and foreign policy goals.
As a grouping of nations, SCO undoubtedly possesses international political heft. It consists of four nuclear weapon powers — one former superpower, Russia, which has gained huge strategic importance in the wake of the Ukraine crisis; one emerging superpower, China, that threatens the unipolar position of the United States in the global order; one new global player, India, that asserts its strategic autonomy; and, one nuclear weapon power, Pakistan, that seems to be a rapidly failing state. In addition, there are four Central Asian Republics with huge mineral and energy resources. SCO also has economic weight as it accounts for about 30 per cent of the global GDP. The demographic significance of this organisation is echoed in the fact that about 60 per cent of the global population reside in the SCO member countries.
However, one cannot ignore that there are enormous internal contradictions within this organisation. Bilateral hostility between India and Pakistan, China and India, fear of Russia in Central Asian Republics, and Russian apprehensions about Chinese economic dominance in its near-abroad are too obvious to gloss over.
When Shanghai Five was formed in 1996 by Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the initial goal was “reduction of military forces” along their border regions, and promotion of regional cooperation. This development took place in the backdrop of the emergence of the United States as the only superpower after the Soviet collapse and the rush among the major powers to fill up the space in Central Asia vacated by the USSR. Moscow at that time perhaps was more comfortable with China’s entry into its “near-abroad” region. Within five years, the membership and scope of cooperation was expanded and another Central Asian Republic — Uzbekistan joined the Shanghai Five to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or SCO in 2001.
A few months after the launching of the SCO, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States shook the global order. The unipolar power, the United States, was unable to prevent such deadly assault by non-state actors on the symbol of prosperity (World Trade Centre) and symbol of power (the Pentagon Building). Russia and China were now less to worry over the behaviour of the “only superpower” of the world for quite some time, as the latter was deeply occupied with the “global war” on terror. The SCO’s subsequent evolution ensued when the US was in need of comprehensive international support to wage the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda elsewhere in the world. Significantly, the SCO itself included in its objectives the need to combat terrorism, as Islamic terrorism and extremism posed threats to Russia, China and the Central Asian Republics as well.
For the next decade and a half, as the United States was largely focussed on combating the Taliban in Afghanistan and the ISIS in the Middle East, members of the SCO had nothing much to complain about and they extended measured support to the US in the fight against terrorism. China in the meantime emerged as a gargantuan economic powerhouse and Russia began to assert its role in Eurasian geopolitics. SCO as a grouping was not an anti-Western, anti-US body, as the Russian, Chinese and the Central Asian governments were cooperating to varying degrees in the US war against terror groups.
However, China soon began to contest the US in the economic turf and Russia dared the US in the geopolitical turf. Russia and China were not yet united in challenging the US primacy. Russian intervention in Georgia, annexation of Crimea and backing of the Assad regime in Syria did not have much Chinese support. Chinese economic growth, muscle flexing in the South China Sea and East China Sea did not receive direct Russian backing. Both were having parallel differences with the United States.
Significantly, the entry of Donald Trump to the Oval office in the White House and changes in the US approach to conducting foreign policy may have some influence in bringing Russia and China together. There may not be direct correlation, but interestingly the SCO was expanded to include India and Pakistan in 2017 with Russian support to India’s membership and the Chinese sponsorship of Pakistan. The SCO and BRICS, where Russia, China and India had common membership, soon appeared to have been geared towards working harder for a multipolar world order in the face of unilateral policy decisions of President Donald Trump on world affairs.
India in particular has been interested in promoting a multipolar world order and did not see robust growth of its strategic partnership with the US as a contradiction. For India, membership in SCO was also important to enhance its economic presence and political ties with Central Asia. India’s membership in BRICS and SCO, among other things, sought to contest unilateralism and promote multilateralism.
India nonetheless continued to deepen its strategic ties with the US even as China turned more aggressive and assertive in the Indo-Pacific region. Thus while remaining part of the Russia-China-India Triangular Dialogue mechanism, SCO and BRICS, India actively joined the Quad security initiative to maintain strategic balance and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific that faced fast erosion by a revisionist power like China.
Three developments in the last couple of years affected cohesion in SCO. First, the COVID-19 pandemic did not permit the summit level interactions among the SCO members for two years to take place. Second, the Russian invasion of Ukraine started a new kind of Cold War between Russia and the US-led West. And, third, the fourth Taiwan Strait crisis was sparked by the visit of Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taipei.
The Samarkand summit of the SCO was organised in the backdrop of those developments that have led to Russia and China coming together against the US. The spill-over effect of the Ukraine war on Europe and, in fact, the rest of the world and the psychological effect of Chinese threat to use force against Taiwan to unify it with the mainland in the Indo-Pacific influenced the proceedings in the SCO summit. Both China and India had certain reservations on the Ukraine war and it was indeed clearly mirrored in the statement of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet, the United States and its European allies are visibly uncomfortable with the Indian position and terribly concerned over China’s strategic moves to take advantage of the evolving situation.
The Samarkand Declaration is a set of run-of-the-mill kind of statements, goals and promises and the proceedings were also banal that left nothing substantial to analyse. Yet it was important for India to make its presence felt and significant for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to refrain from engaging China and Pakistan in bilateral dialogues on the sidelines of the summit, project India’s achievements and offer India’s help in promoting connectivity, setting up regional resilient supply chains and combat terrorism.
India traditionally is opposed to bloc formation and India happened to be the only country in the SCO that could not have been pressured to take anti-Western stands. The Samarkand summit of SCO indicates that Russia and China would not be able to make the body an anti-Western regional body, despite their current bonhomie. Yet, it is important to keep SCO as a mechanism to back multilateralism; and thus India assuming the chairpersonship of this body will be a test for Indian diplomatic skill in the run-up to the next summit in Varanasi to promote multilateralism in the emerging world order. India’s success will underline the relevance and value of its “strategic autonomy.”
The writer is editor, ‘Indian Foreign Affairs Journal’, founder and Honorary Chairperson of Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies, and formerly professor of JNU. Views expressed are personal.
Western countries have raised questions about India's stand on Russia's invasion of Ukraine many times. Now Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has justified India's neutral stand with a strong statement
The kind of money Europe has been spending on the energy crisis is not what it can afford
a member of President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party said that Ukraine's infrastructure would be destroyed and the country would be pushed back to the 18th century