A joke during the heyday of the Non-Aligned Movement was that it was totally united except when it held a summit meeting!
Several other international organisations may have had the same fate in the present age of multi-alignments. Their composition may be justified on grounds of geography, history, a common vision and a sense of optimism.
But confronted by specific issues, accord recedes and discord comes to centrestage. In the case of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), its formation itself was a surprise when China took this initiative in 1996 to build special relations with some of the Central Asian States, which were once a part of the Soviet Union. Even though there was an element of Russia-China rivalry, Russia joined the SCO.
India and Pakistan, though not of the region, also joined the Organization, first as observers and then as members, making the SCO the largest security grouping in Eurasia and another forum for India and Pakistan to clash.
The complexity of the SCO was on display in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek when its summit was held on June 13-14. The worsening of the relations between India and Pakistan led to a visible demonstration of India’s determination to isolate Pakistan till the latter abandoned terrorism.
Ironically, the SCO produced an agreed declaration on terrorism, but India and Pakistan remained apart, except for a moment of “pleasantries”, which may not have been very pleasant.
Imran Khan maintained his position that he was ready for talks, but Modi was adamant that talks would be conditional to ending of terrorism. The India-Pakistan standoff must have cast a gloom over the summit.
Even more unpleasant for India was the issue of the Bridge and Road Initiative (BRI) of China, which had been endorsed by the other members of the SCO.
India had scaled down its vocal opposition of the BRI, but Modi had to speak openly against it on the ground of violating the territorial integrity of India and being contrary to the vital interests of the countries in the region. Modi noted the principles of respect for sovereignty, regional integrity, good governance and transparency to be essential for connectivity, obliquely referring to New Delhi’s reservations on CPEC in particular and BRI in general.
The members were, however, united in their opposition to the US policy on trade, protectionism and related issues. On the whole, the summit raised the question as to whether India’s participation in SCO did more harm than good.
On the positive side, Prime Minister Modi in his address to the SCO leaders presented his vision for the organisation in the form of HEALTH (healthcare cooperation, economic cooperation, alternate energy, literature and culture, terrorism-free society and humanitarian cooperation).
Elaborating on these pointers, Modi called upon member states to ensure that nations which support, promote or finance terror must be held accountable – referring to Pakistan without explicitly naming it.
With regard to economic cooperation, Modi criticised protectionist tendencies in trade amidst the US ending GSP status for Indian products with New Delhi getting ready to respond and the ongoing US-China trade war. A document regarding cooperation among members on Digitalization and Information and Communications Technology was signed at the end of the meeting.
Even while opposing China’s BRI, Modi noted the examples of International North South Transport Corridor, Chabahar Port, Ashgabat Agreement and the air freight corridor between Kabul, Kandahar and New Delhi as proof of India’s focus on connectivity.
On other issues of regional and international concern, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan found mention in the final document. The declaration called for ‘consistent implementation’ of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and asked all participants ‘for comprehensive and effective implementation of the document,’ a year after the US pulled out of it.
On Syria, the declaration noted the Astana format and the process of political settlement through the dialogue process. It also extended support to ‘post-conflict restoration’ by different states in Syria.
India has already noted the importance of a Syria-led political process and supported the current regime during the ongoing conflict, while agreeing to get further involved in the reconstruction process.
The Indian position was at variance with the US and its regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. India’s effort to balance its relations with major players in the region, who have divergent positions on varied issues facing West Asia may become more difficult in the future.
The ‘Roadmap for Further Action of the SCO Afghanistan Contact Group’ was signed by the leaders and the declaration argued for an ‘inclusive peace process conducted and led by Afghans themselves’ with UN playing the main role even as multilateral forums continue to interact on the issue.
The Indian position of an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled inclusive peace process’ was highlighted by Modi.
The opportunity SCO offered to Modi to interact with world leaders early in his second term was most valuable, in spite of the balancing act he had to perform in the group. He held discussions with Chinese president Xi Jinping, Russian president Vladimir Putin, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and also combined a bilateral visit to Kyrgyzstan.
The meeting with the Chinese President, coming after successful listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, led to the decision to expedite border talks and plans to mark the 70th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations. The two leaders are scheduled to meet several times in the year, including a visit to India by Xi to follow up the Wuhan informal summit.
The President of Iran, as an observer, was present at Bishkek, but Modi could not meet him because of “scheduling issues”. Rouhani met the Russian and Chinese presidents.
Iran has been in focus, with the US accusing it of attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. These charges have been denied by Teheran. The SCO did not directly address the recent upheavals in West Asia because of the cautious attitude the member states are taking in addressing the delicate situation.
During his bilateral visit to Kyrgystan after the summit, Modi reached several agreements with that country, strengthening and diversifying the areas of cooperation.
The hazards of the SCO summit were all too visible in Bishkek, but all the participants, including India, made the best use of an uncomfortable meeting of a diverse group, which is still on the quest for a soul.
(The writer is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is also the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General of the Kerala International Centre)
(Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)