At the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in June 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari a tough message: “I am happy to meet you, but my mandate is to tell you that the territory of Pakistan must not be used for terrorism.”
Both countries were “observers” at that summit, but India had for the first time expressed interest in joining the SCO, and had been represented at the level of the Prime Minister. One of the diplomats who had then seen value in joining the Eurasian political, economic, and security organisation was Ajay Bisaria, Joint Secretary (Eurasia) in the Ministry of External Affairs — now India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan.
Ten years on, India will attend the SCO summit in Qingdao, China, on June 9-10 as a full member. Both India and Pakistan were admitted to the grouping at its summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, last June. From then to now, world politics has undergone several tectonic shifts, old assumptions have been challenged, and new variables have entered the mix.
* The United States has pulled out of the nuclear deal (or JCPOA) between the P-5+1 and Iran, while the Europeans, Chinese and Russians have stayed on.
* US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are scheduled to meet in Singapore on June 12, the first ever meeting between the leaders of the two countries.
* After the two-and-a-half-month standoff at Doklam, India and China have attempted to reset relations with an informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in Wuhan.
* The US has imposed sanctions on Russia under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which affects Indian defence purchases from its strongest defence partner.
* The US has delivered a public rebuke to Pakistan for not cracking down on terrorists, and suspended military assistance it.
* Prime Minister Modi has made historic separate visits to Israel and Palestine, completing their de-hyphenation.
* The chemical attack in Salisbury has sharply escalated Russian-western tensions, and led to London and Moscow expelling each other’s diplomats.
* The India-US-Japan-Australia quadrilateral has been revived against the backdrop of Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
During his meetings in Qingdao over the weekend, Modi will have challenges to address and opportunities to harvest. The summit provides an opportunity for the Indian and Pakistani leaders to meet informally on the sidelines of a multilateral event. The two sides are obliged to cooperate on issues of mutual interest without bringing in their bilateral disputes. Signing off on joint counter-terrorism exercises will be a new form of engagement between the two militaries.
After the frank and fruitful exchanges in Wuhan, the summit will provide the Indian and Chinese leaders another opportunity to meet and talk. Doklam was resolved just before the Xiamen BRICS summit last year; the summit in Qingdao could be another marquee event for China to use to build ties with its neighbours.
Russia has been India’s staunchest supporter in the SCO, having lobbied hard with Beijing for years to ensure its entry into the grouping. The conversation with President Vladimir Putin will continue, picking up the threads from the informal summit in Sochi last month. New Delhi has been clear that its relationship with Moscow would not be impacted by the West’s approach towards the Kremlin.
Similar red lines will be in play in India’s dealings with Iran, an observer state that has applied for full SCO membership. India has a powerful strategic interest in Iran’s Chabahar port, and Modi will have the opportunity to interact with the Iranian leader at the SCO. The Trump administration is hostile to Tehran, but New Delhi has been seeking to signal to Washington the alignment of interests in Chabahar, which allows access to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan.
While the West has been sceptical of India’s sitting down with the less-than-free regimes of Central Asia, Russia and China, New Delhi has always been careful to not signal alignment with these countries on issues of governance. The “Shanghai Spirit” — the SCO’s driving philosophy — emphasises harmony, working by consensus, respect for other cultures, non-interference in the internal affairs of others, and non-alignment. The SCO’s main objective of working cooperatively against the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism sits well with New Delhi’s interests. Indeed, the SCO summit gives India an opportunity to showcase the kind of power it wants to be.
As Modi heads to Qingdao, his foreign policy advisers will do well to recall these lines from the former National Security Adviser, Foreign Secretary, and envoy to both Pakistan and China, Shivshankar Menon’s Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy: “India cannot rely on others for its security because its economic, political, and security interests are unique, a function of its unique history, geography, and culture. If we wish to abolish mass poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and disease and modernise our country… we can do so only by becoming a great power, with the ability to shape the international system and environment to our purposes.”
“Strategic autonomy”, Menon wrote, “is not just a slogan or a desire but a necessity if we are to transform India”.