SCO Summit 2023: A ‘virtual’ opportunity missed

Compared to the hype around G20 and Modi’s visit to the US, India’s pronounced cold-shoulder to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation seems short-sighted

Narendra Modi (photo: Getty Images)
Narendra Modi (photo: Getty Images)

Kumar Ketkar

When the government of India, always keen to host international events and show off its event management skills, decided to hold a ‘virtual’ and not a physical summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in New Delhi on July 4, observers were surprised.

What could possibly be the reason? While officially administrative reasons were cited, the signal it gave out is that the Indian government is wary of the presence of both China and Pakistan on the same platform on its home turf.

Its failure to deal with even Pakistan’s foreign minister at the G20 meeting of foreign ministers in Goa, in the month of May, was embarrassing. It was a grand fiasco with the two foreign ministers snapping at each other, sulking and the Indian foreign minister being demonstrably rude. It could have been actually counterproductive.

The failure on the part of India and Pakistan to even shake hands (as it were) vitiated the meeting and cast a shadow on the participants. A repetition of a similar fiasco at the SCO summit in New Delhi would have been doubly embarrassing.  

The impolite behaviour towards each other in Goa closed the doors on any meaningful dialogue between the two hostile neighbours. It left a bad taste in the mouth of most delegates. But while obviously the current regime must play to the home gallery on Pakistan, there was also the question of China.

Actually, that was more crucial. But no one in this government knows how to deal with either of the neighbours or how to take on both Pakistan and China—who are friends with each other and, while not quite enemies of India, clearly hostile to us—on the same platform and at the same venue.

With Narendra Modi’s bonhomie with the Chinese president on display in Ahmedabad, as they ate dhokla together on the swing at the Sabarmati riverfront garden nine years ago in September 2014, the Modi propaganda team had given an impression that a new era of Hindi–Chini bhai-bhai (India and China brothers together) had begun.

Modi had upstaged Pandit Nehru by taking ownership of his slogan, apparently. But slogans are not visions. It was a photo op, not a policy breakthrough, and certainly not a grand new historic beginning!

Ironically, within a few months of that photo op, the relationship soured and has still not recovered. The government has no answers to serious issues like Chinese incursions in India. From Doklam in Bhutan to Galwan in Ladakh and taking over some villages in Arunachal Pradesh, the collapse of the relationship remains unexplained and unresolved. The SCO foreign ministers would not even seriously discuss those issues.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is more worried about his image at home and his inflated persona internationally. His image within the country is badly cracked and the carefully crafted global persona has been hugely damaged, particularly after his first-ever press conference in the US, where a highly regarded reporter affiliated to the Wall Street Journal was harassed on social media, inviting a reprimand from the White House press secretary.

In any case, the Goa summit could not have solved this issue of international image management, so before the state visit, it was anticipated that Modi himself would act as ringmaster at the New Delhi SCO meeting.

But with everything in a shambles now, he as well as his Man Friday S. Jaishankar realised a physical event would once again be embarrassing, if not boomerang outright—so they have quietly converted the meeting to a virtual one. Of course, there is a qualitative difference between virtual and personal interactions.

It is necessary to understand that the territory of the SCO is one of the best prospective fields for building up fresh, reliable logistic and economic corridors. Those corridors will be free from the direct or indirect influence of the United States. It was possible for India to create this parallel network.

But clearly this government now has cold feet. For it does not want to hurt the US. It also wants to keep India’s long-surviving marriage to Russia (even after the collapse of the USSR) going, while continuing to flirt with, even have a kind of secret affair with the US.

The SCO can actually solve the most burning issues in the Asia–Pacific region, as the key SCO countries are India, Russia and China. But suddenly, India is not game.

It would also have been fruitful for India to support the Russian SCO initiative of reforming the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS). Considering the fact that Russia is at the peak of its confrontation with NATO and the US, Moscow would back the real goals of freedom and independence for the SCO countries. But in the current scenario of India’s relationships, Russia does not seem to have appeared on the scene at all.

The West is constantly trying to split up the SCO connections, sabotage the members’ independent and parallel efforts. India had the opportunity to rise above its infatuation with the US here.

The West must not be allowed to play games in the Asia–Pacific, South China Sea or the Middle East. The SCO can be a little inquest platform to give new direction to world events and create an atmosphere for peace and security in these regions.

If one looks at the history of the SCO, it becomes clear how and why the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could play a pivotal role in global affairs. The SCO has emerged as a signifcant Eurasian political, economic, international security and defence organisation.

One must recognise its size and potential. It is the world’s largest regional organisation in terms of geographic scope and population. It encompasses approximately 60 per cent of the Eurasian area and 40 per cent of the world population, and its combined GDP is 20 per cent of the global GDP.

About 30 years ago, there was an advertisement which had a very interesting tagline: ‘Geography is History’. That slogan was perfectly in tune with the times. The early 1990s had indeed changed both history and geography. After the sensational fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, historians and self-proclaimed commentators celebrated the end of the Cold War.

Divided Berlin was a monument of the Cold War. The free marketeers, neo-liberals and hardcore anti-Soviet lobbyists celebrated the event. By then, it was becoming obvious that the  days of the Soviet Union too were numbered. Predictably, in December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, the legendary leader and president of the then-USSR announced the formal dissolution of the union!

The famous writer Francis Fukuyama wrote a book titled End of History. The right-wing author Kenichi Ohmae wrote the pathbreaking volume The Borderless World. Samuel Huntington wrote his well-known (and controversial) thesis The Clash of Civilisations.

The process of globalisation was formally launched after the Cold War was thought to be over, and the free market ideology and neo-liberal democracy were believed to have won. Though a new world order had not emerged, and there was still considerable confusion and chaos, the efforts to reorganise the world had begun.

Within five years of the collapse of the old world order of the Cold War, a new organisation called the Shanghai Five was formed in 1996. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) took the lead here. Four other nations joined the group of five — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. Now it also has Pakistan and Uzbekistan, and observers have been added by way of Afghanistan, Belarus, Mongolia and Iran.

It is clear the SCO is expanding, and even now it performs a significant role, like that of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). But Modi is no Nehru, and is not skilful enough to steer us through the choppy waters without causing a head-on collision, or even a multiple-nation pile-up.

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