Though some diplomatic opportunities for peace-building were missed, the Samarkand summit of the SCO enabled India and other members to state their positions on issues and find common ground to strengthen cooperation through a regional politico-economic organization outside the UN.
At first glance the Declaration issued after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s summit at Samarkand on September 15 and 16 looks like a string of worn-out platitudes. But the meeting did enable the member countries to state both their concerns and what they would like to do for the organization.
By doing so, the member countries diluted the notion that the SCO is but a Russo-Chinese front against the US, or an arm of China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or that it is Russia’s instrument to cultivate China and the Central Asian Republics to safeguard its eastern and southern from US encroachment. The SCO is emerging as a distinct Central-Asia based organization with a personality of its own. With key powers like Russia, China and India in it, it has got political and global heft. It is on the ancient Silk Route which was a highway to prosperity to many peoples in the region including India, China and Tsarist Russia. It is now truly democratic with no country exercising hegemony over it.
The SCO is made up of permanent members China, India, Pakistan, Russia and the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It was established in 2001 as a political, economic and security organization apparently to counter Western institutions but without becoming a counter to NATO.
On the formal side, the Samarkand Declaration adopted four Joint Statements on Climate Change, Food Security, Energy Security and the Statement on Maintaining Reliable International Supply Chains. The SCO Leaders also approved new initiatives including: a Comprehensive Action Plan for 2023-2027 on the implementation of the provisions of the Treaty on Long-Term Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation; the Concept for Cooperation of the SCO Member States in Developing Connectivity and Creating Efficient Economic and Transport Corridors; a roadmap for Gradual Increase in the Share of National Currencies in Mutual Settlements of the SCO Member States.
Further, four Inter-governmental Agreements were signed: i) on Cooperation on Development of Tourism ii) on Cooperation in Sphere of Trade in Services; iii) an MoU on Cooperation in Museum Matters; and iv) on Cooperation in Plant Quarantine.
However, India missed an opportunity to open informal dialogues with China and Pakistan. This therefore makes it more difficult for India to successfully host the next summit in India in 2023. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping did not even look at each other, despite the fact that there had been a disengagement on the Sino-Indian border. And Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif was cold-shouldered though Pakistan had been devastated by unprecedented floods.
Nevertheless, the proceedings were smooth as all members stuck to the rule that no bilateral issue should be brought up. Therefore, though counter-terrorism was a key concern for all, individual cases were not mentioned. Pakistan did not raise the Kashmir issue. And, as per earlier practice, India and China did not raise issues which bedevil their relations.
Members Stated Their Concerns
However, India, Russia, China, Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics, who are the full members, stated their concerns and goals in which the SCO could legitimately play a salutary role. Indian Prime Minister Modi said that since the pandemic and the crisis in Ukraine had disrupted global supply chains, the SCO must make efforts to “develop reliable, resilient and diversified supply chains in our region, which will require better connectivity.” He also demanded the full right for all to transit.
Modi then tried to sell India as a manufacturing hub with a “people-centric development model, which could be replicated by SCO countries.” Saying that there are more than 70,000 Start-ups in India, of which more than 100 are unicorns, their “experience can be useful for many other SCO members.”
Touching upon food security, another common concern, Modi said that India is promoting the cultivation and consumption of millets. The millet is e a “superfood which is traditional, nutritious, and a low-cost way of meeting the food crisis,” he said. Since the year 2023 will be celebrated as the UN International Year of Millets, the SCO should consider a ‘Millet Food Festival’, Modi suggested.
He then pushed India’s bid to be an “affordable destination for medical and wellness tourism.” He recalled that the WHO Global Centre for Traditional Medicine was inaugurated in Gujarat in April 2022, which is WHO’s first and only global center for traditional medicine. “We must increase cooperation on traditional medicine among SCO countries. For this, India will take the initiative for a new SCO Working Group on Traditional Medicine.”
Neither Modi nor Xi shied away from the Ukraine issue when they had bilaterals with Vladimir Putin. They suggested that Russia should opt for diplomacy. Modi said “this is not the era of war”. Putin said that it was Ukraine which rejected talks but stated that “Russia understands India’s concerns” and “want this to end as soon as possible.” Nevertheless, while both China and India had reservations about Russia’s Ukraine policy, they were not at all keen on shaming and isolating Russia.
Modi’s bilaterals with Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were also significant. Iran is necessary for India to link up with Central Asia and a strong relationship with Turkey will break its nexus with Pakistan. India can have a fruitful relationship with Turkey because both are industrializing countries which can trade “for the benefit of our people,” at the Indian spokesman Arindam Bagchi put it.
Modi discussed the development of the trade route to Central Asia through Chabahar in Iran in his meeting with the Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. “They stressed the need to make concerted efforts to diversify the trade basket and enter into long-term arrangements to promote trade and investment. Connectivity was considered key to unlock the potential in this regard, including the greater usage of the Chabahar port and the International North-South Transport Corridor,” India said.
Some other issues on which India played a lead role were climate change and terrorism. Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra said that the SCO adopted a statement on climate change at India’s initiative. The Pakistani PM Sharif had also raised the climate change issue in the context of the floods in his country.
On terrorism, the SCO agreed to work towards developing a unified list of terrorist, separatist and extremist organizations whose activities are prohibited on the territories of the SCO member states. This was done though China had been blocking the UN’s listing of several Pakistan-based terrorists listed by India and the US.
ABP’s Ranjit Kumar quoting Kwatra said that “each of the SCO Member States was very, very clear in recognizing the threat that this challenge poses to our region and through the membership of the SCO.”
The Chinese President Xi Jinping was preoccupied by the US bid to challenge the One China concept and to overthrow the communist government in China and bring about a regime change in various countries. Xi appealed to the SCO to “work together to prevent external forces from promoting color revolutions” (popular, pro-democracy uprisings in their countries).
“Members should support efforts each country has made to safeguard its own security and development interests and work to prevent outsiders from instigating a color revolution,” Xi said. None of the SCO members would quarrel with that.