THE 23rd Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was recently convened under the chairmanship of India, albeit in a virtual format. The decision to opt for a virtual summit, despite the easing of pandemic-related restrictions, has sparked curiosity. India, known for its active participation in international events, including Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to the United States and the successful hosting of the G20 meeting, prompts us to question the rationale behind the virtual SCO summit. This article delves into the aims, objectives, and agenda of the SCO to shed light on these concerns.
The significance of the SCO: The SCO is a permanent inter-governmental international organization that seeks to strengthen confidence and foster good-neighborly relations among member countries. It aims to facilitate effective cooperation across various domains such as politics, trade and economy, science and technology, culture, education, energy, transportation, tourism, and environmental protection. Additionally, the SCO endeavors to maintain peace, security, and stability in the region while aspiring to establish a new, democratic, just, and rational global political and economic order. Rooted in the Spirit of Shanghai, the SCO’s internal policy is guided by principles of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equal rights, consultations, respect for cultural diversity, and a shared vision of common development. In its external affairs, the SCO upholds principles of non-alignment, non-targeting, and openness.
Membership and India’s presidency: The SCO was established on June 15, 2001, in Shanghai, China, by the Republic of Kazakhstan, the People’s Republic of China, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Tajikistan and the Republic of Uzbekistan. Currently, eight countries enjoy full membership in the SCO: India, Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Additionally, Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia hold observer status, while Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey, and Sri Lanka have a dialogue partner status. During the 23rd Summit, Iran joined as the ninth member country. India’s SCO presidency was guided by the theme “SECURE,” emphasizing Security, Economic development, Connectivity, Unity, Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and Environmental protection. The summit aimed to address regional security concerns and explore avenues for enhancing connectivity and trade. Notably, this marked President Putin’s first participation in a multilateral summit since the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
India’s approach and concerns: According to Parveen Sawhney, India, as the host of the event, diverged from other SCO members in two key aspects: Firstly, India chose not to sign the Economic Development Strategy 2030 and secondly, India refrained from endorsing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), citing concerns over its potential to lead to a debt trap. It is important to note that the BRI has garnered support from 149 nations, including 49 out of 54 African countries. China’s BRI seeks common prosperity and cooperative security, challenging the notion of a zero-sum game. Through infrastructure projects, cyberspace connectivity, and revolutionary developments, China aims to connect the region via land, sea, and space routes. The United Nations has endorsed the BRI for its potential to meet sustainable goals and objectives. President Xi introduced the Global Development Initiative in 2021, which closely aligns with the BRI, incorporating the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In 2022, President Xi unveiled the Global Security Initiative, operating within the UN framework. The SCO plays a crucial role in advancing these shared objectives.
Prime Minister Modi’s remarks: During the SCO Summit, Prime Minister Modi emphasized that “today’s era is not an era of war.” This statement raises questions about India’s stance and diplomatic language. Additionally, Modi underscored the significance of the Chabahar Port and the International North-South Transport Corridor, which bypass China and Pakistan. This prompts us to consider Iran’s position, as it aligns itself with India while potentially opposing SCO countries, particularly China and Russia. Furthermore, Modi addressed the issue of terrorism emanating from Pakistan. It is noteworthy to evaluate if these remarks emerged in the aftermath of Modi’s visit to the United States, where counterterrorism and eradicating violent extremism were central themes, especially concerning Pakistan. Besides these statements, the SCO Summit received limited media coverage, necessitating in-depth research to uncover updates. India’s simultaneous chairmanship of both the SCO and G20 this year has been approached differently. While India projected the G20 meeting with great fanfare, the SCO Summit was comparatively low profile and held virtually.
China’s perspective and India’s role: From China’s perspective, the SCO Summit’s virtual nature represents a setback. China, alongside Russia, serves as a driving force behind the SCO, making statements of utmost importance. Did Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United States aim to undermine the SCO Summit, cast doubt on Pakistan, weaken the BRI and its flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), or issue a warning to BRICS members regarding India’s presence? BRICS, composed of emerging economies supported by institutions such as the BRICS Bank (New Development Bank) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, seeks to establish parallel structures to existing global financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF. Considering the gravity of the SCO, India’s choice to hold a virtual summit raises significant questions. India perceives itself as a rival to China in the emerging global order and champions the voice of the Global South, enjoying support from G20 nations. Consequently, India hesitates to endorse any strategy involving China, despite its participation in the SCO and BRICS.
Trust and India’s role in the region: These circumstances raise concerns about India’s credibility and trustworthiness as a member of both the SCO and BRICS. How can other member states place their trust in India’s commitments? India’s actions at the SCO Summit, coupled with the upcoming BRICS Summit scheduled for August in Johannesburg, South Africa, warrant serious consideration among BRICS countries. It is essential to evaluate whether India’s inclusion in BRICS, which is set to expand with the addition of countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Algeria, Argentina, Mexico, and Nigeria, serves the best interests of the group. India’s economic contribution to BRICS stands at a modest 13% compared to China’s 70%. Therefore, it is imperative to position India appropriately within BRICS to avoid disruptive tendencies in the region and beyond.