Bharat stands tall in the tumultuous and perilous world of international diplomacy, having to walk the tight rope of political sensitivities, while leveraging its strength among its partners at Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit 2019
Prime Minister Modi’s participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit on June 13/14 was his first multilateral engagement after the BJP’s historic win in the 2019 elections. The 2019 mandate is an asset for conducting India’s foreign policy as he will be heading a strong and stable government for the next five years, necessary to ensure India’s steady rise as a world power International relations have taken a turn that makes India’s participation in SCO deliberations a bigger diplomatic challenge than before. Relations between the United States and China as well as Russia have deteriorated very sharply. At the same time, India’s relations with America continue to expand. Pakistan was made a permanent member of the SCO along with India at China’s insistence. China’s policy is to hyphenate India and Pakistan, whereas the US has moved away from such hyphenation. Russia’s relations with Pakistan have taken some new dimensions, which has caused some misgivings in India. India’s relations with Pakistan have taken a sharp dive after the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot air strike by India, ruling out any resumption of dialogue with Pakistan unless Pakistan addresses India’s core concern on terrorism. China-Russia relations have become strategically much closer than before, as both have interest in joining hands against America. All this has altered the play of diplomatic equations within the SCO involving China, Russia, India and Pakistan.
From Left: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Emomali Rahmon and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev pose for a photo prior to a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Heads of State in Bishkek
India too is having problems with the US vis-a-vis Russia because of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) legislation under which America is interfering in our defence ties with Russia and threatening us with sanctions if we go ahead with the S-400 contract. America is also putting unreasonable pressure on us on bilateral trade issues. It has taken the decision to withdraw GSP benefits to India in retaliation against India for not satisfying it on tariff issues involving medical devices, dairy and IT products. Under CAATSA, it is also interfering in our relations with Iran, compelling us to curtail our oil purchases from Iran to zero under sanctions. This is interference in our energy security. Iran has observer status at the SCO and Iranian president Rouhani was present at the Bishkek summit, but a planned meeting between him and PM could not be held due to scheduling difficulties.
India cannot on its own interest make common cause with China and Russia, or Iran for that matter, against America beyond a point as our relations with America are vital in many respectsOn issues of globalisation and protectionism, America’s repudiation of the nuclear deal with Iran and so on, India has shared interests with other SCO members. However, India cannot on its own interest make common cause with China and Russia, or Iran for that matter, against America beyond a point as our relations with America are vital in many respects despite the problems in dealing with erratic US policies that are harmful to our interests. At the same time, in order to keep India’s options open in all directions and acquire diplomatic space with all our partners, PM Narendra Modi has engaged Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan and also had an informal summit with President Putin at Sochi to keep our relationship with both countries on an even keel in our larger national interest. India joined others in supporting the strict implementation of Iran nuclear deal by all parties in the final declaration.
PM Modi at the delegation level meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Bishkek on June 14 2019
Some salient facts about the SCO are important to understand our interest in the organisation. The SCO is a product of Chinese diplomacy; China is the most influential member because of its economic strength. It can contribute most to the physical development of Central Asia. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a vehicle for its expansion in the Eurasian region and establishing a land link with Europe.
India has traditional links with the Central Asian countries. These countries are in our larger neighbourhood; they seek a greater Indian involvement in the region to benefit from India economically as well as balance the weight of China and Russia in it Russia is the most important country on the security side. While Russia has accepted China’s economic dominance in the region in terms of infrastructure development and trade, it has tried to preserve its own role on the security side through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
India has traditional links with the Central Asian countries. These countries are in our larger neighbourhood; they seek a greater Indian involvement in the region to benefit from India economically as well as balance the weight of China and Russia in it. Pakistan has tried to keep us out of the region as much as possible by denying transit links through its territory to Afghanistan and thereon to Central Asia. Islamic extremism is a threat to the region; it has the potential to deteriorate with the rise of IS and its presence in Afghanistan, not to mention the fallout of the Taliban’s stranglehold on power in Afghanistan. India has clear interest in monitoring this threat and combating it in cooperation with the leadership of the Central Asian states who are concerned about the danger of religious extremism and terrorism destabilising the region.
It is in this larger background that our participation in the SCO summit has to be judged. Prime Minister Modi’s decision not to engage Pakistani PM Imran Khan deserves applause. There was a great deal of speculation whether he will respond to Imran Khan’s so-called peace overtures, with many in India advocating some contact with him on the basis of well- known arguments about the need to engage neighbours, ceding to which has proved costly to us in the past as it has exposed our inconsistency and weakness of resolve. This time PM Modi was firm, signalling to Pakistan that our approach will henceforth be different and firmer. It was a bit surprising that Xi Jinping decided to raise the issue of resuming dialogue with Pakistan with PM, knowing that it is the last country that India would have trust in, when it came to Pakistan in view of its “iron brother” ties with our deeply hostile neighbour and use of Pakistan to damage India strategically as much as possible, not to mention the CPEC project. PM rightly told Xi Jinping that India-Pakistan issues had to be dealt with bilaterally and that Pakistan had to create the conditions for a dialogue by acting on terrorism issue.
PM did not hesitate to raise the issue of terrorism openly at Bishkek, knowing that Pakistan was our concern and allusions to terrorism would be taken as alluding to our neighbour. In his remarks at the summit, PM asked that countries responsible for aiding, supporting and providing financial assistance to terrorists be held accountable, adding that SCO members should also effectively explore the capacity of SCO-RATS to eliminate terrorism. He called for an international conference to combat the scourge of terrorism. The Bishkek Declaration notes that increasing challenges and security threats are becoming cross-border in their nature such as terrorism, the spread of terrorist and extremist ideology, and so on. The term “cross-border” is important from our point of view. The Declaration is strong on terrorism and calls for a consensus on India’s proposal for a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.
India stood its ground on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), without naming it as such, when he mentioned in his formal remarks that respect for sovereignty, regional integrity, good governance, transparency, practicality and reliability should be the basis of connectivity initiatives. He rightly projected India’s own focus on connectivity in mentioning the International North South Transport Corridor, Chabahar Port, Ashgabat Agreement, and the Air Freight Corridor between Kabul and Kandahar and New Delhi and Mumbai since 2017. India did not join other SCO member states to support China’s BRI and praise the results of the second BRI Forum in Beijing.
In view of the Afghanistan peace process becoming a US-Pakistan-Taliban affair, with Russia too promoting contacts amongst Afghan groups that have excluded the legitimate Kabul government, PM rightly emphasized that India’s aim was to support the efforts of the government and the people of Afghanistan for an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled inclusive peace process. Keeping the negative developments on the trade front internationally and US attempts to undermine the WTO, PM spoke against protectionism and in favour of a rule-based, transparent, non-discriminatory, open and inclusive multilateral trading system focused on the World Trade Organization. On Climate Change the PM highlighted the fact that today India was the sixth largest producer of renewable energy and the fifth largest solar power producer and mentioned the International Solar Alliance as a joint initiative of India. As was his wont, PM presented a template for cooperation in the SCO region encapsulated by the word HEALTH for healthcare, economic, alternate energy, literature and culture, terrorism free society and humanitarian cooperation.
In sum, PM highlighted India’s own concerns and initiatives as a member of the SCO while joining others in emphasising interests and concerns it shares with other members. India’s balancing act was successfully executed.
(The writer is former Foreign Secretary)