SCO Summit 2017: Forget Pakistan, India-China interplay is real issue and Narendra Modi made a promising start

Though Indian media predictably went into a tizzy over a few pleasantries exchanged between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit, it is Modi's brief rendezvous with Chinese president Xi Jinping on Friday that carried more significance.

India-Pakistan relationship is diseased for now with no cure in sight, never mind Modi's genteel query about Sharif's health. Peaceniks getting excited over that fleeting moment should take a deep breath. Politeness shouldn't be mistaken for an overture. This is no precursor to resumption of talks.

Quite simply, the Pathankot, Uri attacks have changed forever the dynamics of India-Pakistan ties. India's position on the resumption of talks remains consistent and clear. Pakistan Army, too, is in no mood to relinquish its hold over the civilian government and remains hell-bent on using terror as tools of its asymmetric war. Talk of talks, therefore, is little more than an opium-fuelled dream.

File image of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met at SCO summit. Reuters

File image of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

The media theatrics over India-Pakistan 'talks' at Astana shouldn't distract us from weightier concerns. For India, the SCO is both a threat and opportunity.

Let's take the opportunity angle first. New Delhi's long-standing desire to become a full member of the China and Russia-led central Asian bloc stems from its desire to increase regional connectivity, bypassing the obstructionism of Pakistan. As a full member, India also gets the chance to share its concerns on terrorism in a bloc that was formed primarily as a reaction against the cesspool of violence created by radical Islam. Little wonder that Modi's address at the SCO Summit on Friday carried multiple references to the global scourge.

Modi wasn't going to let go of the opportunity to highlight the menace of state-sponsored terrorism in a platform that had leaders from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan listening in along with a poker-faced Sharif.

His words on Friday, that "it is impossible to reach a solution (on terrorism) till all make concerted efforts on preventing radicalisation, terrorist recruitment, training and financing", leave no space for doubt that India intends to use SCO as a forum to expose Pakistan's double standards.

Calling terrorism a "major threat to humanity," Modi added that "we have full faith that SCO would give a new push to fight terrorism". He also flagged terrorists as the chief violators of human rights.

Apart from greater cooperation among inner Asian nations on terrorism, Modi's other focus area in the SCO Summit was greater connectivity and access to regional resources in central Asia. Hemmed in by geography and Pakistan's obstructionism, India has been working at length to create an alternate route through Iran. Chabahar Port provided an option before India got sucked into the vortex of United States president Donald Trump's disruptive politics. Reaching central Asia through Europe is torturous, circuitous and unviable.

This is where India's biggest opportunity lies as a full member of SCO and Modi harped on that point during his address.

If opportunity provides one reason, threat perception from China provides the other compelling rationale. New Delhi is keen to ensure that it is not kept out of the heartland power perimeter in a China-Russia coalition where Pakistan, as China's favourite lackey, also stands to gain some scraps.

Viewed from here, India's joining is imperative if only to prevent Pakistan and China from making SCO a platform for a one-way discourse on Kashmir. Despite its stated position of "non-interference", China's stakes in Kashmir are considerable. Beijing has flouted India's protests, put a number of eggs in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that cuts across Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and is steadily altering the geopolitical and ecological balance of the disputed Himalayan region through massive infrastructure projects.

In his piece for The Indian Express, Carnegie India director C Raja Mohan writes of three ways in which India may shape its SCO strategy. "One is to prevent Pakistan and China ambushing Delhi on the Kashmir question… Second, Delhi must also take advantage of the few diplomatic opportunities the SCO might present in intensifying engagement with Central Asian states… Third, Delhi must prepare itself to seize potential shifts in SCO politics over the longer term," keeping a "low profile" for now.

In the backdrop of this complex interplay, and also the fact that both the plenary session of Nuclear Supplier's Group (NSG) and United Nations Security Council deadline for designating Masood Azhar as a terrorist are coming up later this month, Modi's meeting with Xi assumes added importance. However, both leaders were under no illusions that none of the things they demand from each other (India's concerns around NSG, Azhar, CPEC and China's frustration in watching India stay out of One Belt One Belt (OBOR) initiative) would even remotely move towards closure.

There was, expectedly, little more than optics in the Modi-XI meeting. The differences at this point between the two sides are far too many. However, the importance of the meeting – at the margins of SCO – lies in the fact that India-China bilateral ties, which may define the global geopolitical context in upcoming years, should never be allowed to remain hostage at the altar of differences, no matter how insurmountable these may seem.

The meeting was a signal that both nations are willing to look at the bigger picture and hedge the ties on increasing trade and people-to-people links while simultaneously trying to keep all channels of communication open. Importantly, both leaders appeared to hit the right notes, focusing on areas of convergence and avoiding the issues of divergence except in broad terms.

As a report in Outlook points out, "Modi said the two sides should tap their potential in cooperation, strengthen communication and coordination in international affairs, respect each other's core concerns and appropriately handle their disputes", while Xi said that "two sides should increase communication and coordination in multilateral affairs and appropriately control and handle disputes and sensitive problems".

As much as India tries to prevent China from increasing its regional hegemony by using SCO as another tool to go along with the OBOR initiative, it needs to use multiverse forums like these to present its side of the picture. But that alone won't help India in countering China's rising sphere of influence. On the geopolitical aspect, it must simultaneously invest in maritime coalitions while domestically, it must improve its own digital infrastructure.

As Samir Saran and Arun Sukumar write in Economic Times, "India’s most effective antidote to Chinese influence in Asia is the creation of an open domestic market, serving the ‘Digital India’ goals of inclusive and affordable connectivity, but secure and reliable enough that other jurisdictions can emulate as their own."

For now at least, in securing the full membership of SCO and flagging India's concerns on terrorism and regional connectivity, Modi has made the right start. Harder, more disruptive work lies ahead.

Updated Date: Jun 09, 2017 17:36 PM

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