India still has deep stakes in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
As the world progresses towards an inevitable US-China clash, and India plays its cards appropriately, the latter can tilt the balance or act as the facilitator of peace.
With the high profile but rather acrimonious Foreign Ministers Meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held in Goa on May 4–5 this year, the summit of the heads of government in early July 2023 was expected to be another landmark event in the year’s international geopolitical calendar. However, after some uncertainty and dithering, the leaders decided to meet virtually, thus taking much of the hype away from the event. The virtual format ensures that an event is ticked off in the calendar and nothing important is attached to it as meetings on the sidelines are foregone, and except for the final joint statement, nothing of substance emerges.
The SCO summit under India’s chairmanship could have been a much sought-after event in the physical mode, especially with the presidents of China and Russia in attendance. While Xi Jinping would have done everything to downplay the summit being organised by India in India, perhaps President Vladimir Putin may have grabbed the opportunity for a more detailed chat with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a follow-up to the recent coup attempt and the offensive actions undertaken by the Ukrainians in the war. The war is at a critical stage, and with the Indian PM’s advice to Putin at the SCO summit in Tashkent in 2022, there was scope for a follow-up.
The relative downplay of the significance was quite predictable once the visit of Prime Minister Modi to the US unfolded. It was evident that the US would spare no efforts to convey its importance to India in the emerging strategic environment and new world order. The efforts to wean India away from the Russian supply chain of military equipment and spares were more intense than ever before, with the realisation that this single factor was perhaps compulsively forcing India to adopt a more conciliatory posture towards Russia and pursue its stance of strategic autonomy. For the US, the Indian connection has emerged as one of the most important linkages in the post-Cold War era. Commencing with military agreements such as COMCASA, BECA and LEMOA took them a decade and a half to fructify, aided by the 2+2 Dialogue. The Quad has been a tool to keep India tethered to an Indo-Pacific commitment. In between, there have been instruments such as the IIUU (India, Israel, US, UAE) grouping.
Despite this progressive weightage to get India on board and the strategic partnership in the making being placed on a higher platform, India did not show transformational interest, nor did the US push beyond a limit until now. The activation of Ladakh by China caused much consternation in India and should have triggered the expected surge in the Indo-US strategic partnership. It did happen, but again in no earth-shaking way. The Ukraine war and the coming together of Russia and China in an apparently much stronger bond, with a strategic angle of near-Cold War proportions attached, have probably led the US to look at India with more focus. India’s presence in a strategic equation with the US may not draw US military support at the Himalayan borders in a serious standoff with China; no one even remotely expects that.
However, it’s a golden opportunity for India to come on board with the US to acquire next-generation technologies in aviation, AI, semiconductors, cyber, space and numerous other domains, which will facilitate Indian manufacturing. The spinoffs will give India and its economy the much sought-after surge.
Is the SCO an impediment to Indian aspirations of taking the Indo-US relationship to the next level? There may be an existing sentiment alluding to this. However, India must zealously guard its SCO connection, notwithstanding its US interests. The recent SCO summit must not be taken as an example. Conducting it in the virtual mode was perhaps proposed because of the likely discomfort that both Xi Jinping and Putin may have felt to be in India so soon after one of the highest-profile visits ever by an Indian prime minister to Washington.
The world is clearly in two camps at this juncture. While many may feel that the Indo-US strategic partnership is the future and Indian interests lie there, it is evident that SCO offers the best multilateral setting for India’s regional commitment and the shaping of the strategic order here.
No one can accuse India of ignoring SCO during the year of its chairmanship despite the punishing parallel G20 agenda. For SCO, it organised 134 events, including 15 ministerial meetings, and focused on the right domains. Yet the differences among the SCO members are numerous. India and Pakistan have a strained relationship, the Central Asian Republics are suspicious of the Russian and Chinese intent, and China and Russia are only temporary partners due to current compulsions more than anything else.
The most intense of recent enmities has been the long-standing Sino-Indian feud. Simply giving up the SCO will, for India, be an act of sacrilege towards its larger interests. India has no intention of intensifying conflicts but will strongly defend its interests. Membership in the SCO provides special opportunities to engage with powers that India has deep strategic interests in. India remains the classic balancing power, straddling a thin line between its Quad interests and those with SCO. As the world progresses towards what is considered an inevitable US-China clash, and India plays its cards appropriately, the latter is one nation that can tilt the balance or act as the facilitator of peace. This is a role which India could probably be called upon to play more often in the future.
Lastly, for SCO to flourish, there is a need for connectivity, but Pakistan denies India the same to Central Asia. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is not accepted by India as an economic facilitator and is considered something to achieve Chinese strategic ends. If a common thread joins all, it is the threat of terrorism in the region, a phenomenon which affects all. It becomes the common denominator for at least minimal bonding between the nations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, therefore, rightly chose to speak extensively on this during the summit. It’s a domain of interest to all and will probably facilitate more synergy.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir