If Covid-19 was still swirling or there was some other emergency or natural disaster, such change could be explained
The 22nd summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was scheduled to be held in New Delhi on July 4, as India is the current chair of the eight-member body. After the expectation of an in-person summit, the Indian government has now surprisingly announced that it will be a virtual summit. If Covid-19 was still swirling or there was some other emergency or natural disaster, such change could be explained. The elusive answer to the riddle needs some study.
Pakistan’s premier newspaper Dawn speculated that India “may have had second thoughts” about hosting the leaders of China, Russia and Pakistan. Official sources in New Delhi told the media that the decision was based on various unspecified factors.
Some hinted at scheduling problems. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently received an invitation for a state visit to the United States on June 19-24. He is also the chief guest at France’s Bastille Day celebrations in Paris on July 14. But Prime Ministers do not organise such summits personally. The ministry of external affairs has enough wherewithal to handle multiple events. In 1983, India managed to host the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit at extremely short notice.
That involved managing a much larger group of nations than the seven guests involved in the SCO summit.
The difficulty obviously lies elsewhere. The first problem is structural. The SCO is a gathering of nations mostly tied closely to China and Russia, with the latter’s ability to balance the former diminished by the ongoing Ukraine war. To attend the 2022 SCO summit in Kazakhstan, Chinese President Xi Jinping left home, after avoiding foreign travel for nearly a thousand days during the Covid-19 pandemic. As the Kazakhs decided to not endorse Russia’s attack on Ukraine, China has gained an upper hand in their nation. With the Ukraine war now entering a fresh active phase, Russian President Vladimir Putin may have overruled travel abroad, though a trip to India for the SCO summit would have projected him as not isolated.
The problem may lie elsewhere. The visit of Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari for the SCO foreign ministers’ meeting in Goa had left a bad taste. The attention got diverted from the substance of the conference to the India-Pakistan public bickering. A visit by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif could be expected to be a repeat of the same theatre, at an even higher political level.
Even more problematic would be the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is possible that China may have conveyed that as President Xi may be attending the G-20 summit to be hosted by India in September, they would only send their Prime Minister. Even if that was acceptable to India, the government would be concerned about the Opposition shifting the focus to Sino-Indian relations and the status of the Chinese military occupying Indian territory in Depsang Plains and elsewhere in Ladakh. President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have avoided more than cursory contact at multilateral summits in the recent past.
The council of heads of government (Prime Ministers) of the SCO met on November 1, 2022. The only foreign ministers at the meeting were those of India and Pakistan. The other nations having executive presidencies had Prime Ministers representing them. Besides broad phrases like exchanging views on key global and regional development matters, the joint communique expresses a desire to strengthen trade as well as economic, cultural and humanitarian cooperation. The group seeks a new type of “international relations” based on mutual respect, justice and equality. These are the maxims that India has been voicing since the heyday of NAM. But China and Russia have by their actions against their neighbours shown scant regard for these principles when they feel their national interests are threatened.
In the November communique all members, other than India and Russia, reaffirmed support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India is on board when the SCO seeks an open, transparent, fair, inclusive and non-discriminatory trading system based on WTO rules. India has also always condemned unilateral sanctions as it has in the past been a victim, especially during the Cold War. But the problem arises when proposals on connectivity and closer economic engagement among SCO nations get stymied by Pakistan blocking India’s physical land access to Central Asia. Similarly, with China protecting and backing Pakistan, any proposal to break terror networks to enhance security in the region gets blocked.
China’s financial muscle puts it in the driver’s seat regarding proposals for an SCO Development Fund and an SCO Development Bank. Russia may not be thrilled over ceding space to China in a region it once controlled, but distracted by the Ukraine war its space to act independently has shrunk a lot. This increases the need for India to play that balancing role in the SCO. The four Central Asian members — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — would like that. But the entry of Pakistan, literally alongside India, and the expected joining by Iran would colour the perception of the SCO as a China-led anti-US group.
It is probably this last argument that convinced India to host a virtual rather than an in-person summit. On the eve of Prime Minister Modi undertaking his first “state visit” to the United States, in contrast to his past working visits, India would want to avoid images of hosting leaders seen as inimical to American policies and interests. It is also possible, as argued earlier, that some leaders may have sent their regrets either due to domestic political compulsions or having to choose between two summits in close proximity.
It is inevitable that the question will be asked why these structural, protocol or diplomatic hurdles were not anticipated. In a pre-election year, perhaps the penchant for event management as a path to electoral success overtook all other considerations. All told, it reflects poorly on India to turn an in-person summit into an online delivery of prepared speeches at the last minute. The real benefit from summitry lies, as much if not more, in bilateral meetings between participants to hammer out differences or float new ideas as compared to the summit plenaries. The outcomes of the summits are negotiated and mostly frozen well in advance by the sherpas and representatives of governments. The drama of notable Asian leaders interacting with each other on the sidelines or with the Indian media is now ruled out.