India’s SCO Presidency: Diplomatic Leadership Amid Global Challenges

Anil Trigunayat

India took over the presidency of the over two decades old Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in September and that of the G-20 in December 2022 for a year at a time when the global tensions due to the Eurasian war and devastating impact of the Covid pandemic were defining the not so flattering contours of the global transitional order or disorder depending from which pivot one looks at it.

It was expected to be a very difficult period since super power competition is really at its peak and global goods, commons and welfare have been given a short shrift. India, with an avowed principled policy of strategic autonomy, dialogue, diplomacy and peace emerged not only as a “Voice of the Global South” but also a voice of sanity in international discourse.

Hence when at the Samarkand Summit of SCO, PM Narendra Modi told the Russian President Putin that the ‘Era of war is over,’ it resonated well with all sides. India waded through all the challenges including ‘abnormal’ relations with China due to ‘Galwan’ and ‘Tawang’ border incidents and successfully completed her presidency of the SCO and is on the way to do the same for the G-20 Summit in September.

Although the 23rd Summit chaired by India was held virtually in July, it was preceded by a large number of meetings of various verticals including that of foreign ministers at Goa at which the Pakistani foreign minister once again abused the Indian hospitality. Earlier, the Defense ministers’ meet and scores of other verticals provided relevant feedback for the ‘New Delhi Declaration’ while strengthening the intra-regional cooperation and security and counter terrorism objectives.

Fighting terrorism has been one of the key reasons for the SCO’s existence and continued relevance.

While the collaboration under the aegis of Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) continues, the double standards and hypocrisy in dealing with it by some member states like China backed Pakistan has undermined its credibility and sincerity of purpose.

PM Modi in his opening remarks reiterated that “Terrorism has become a major threat to regional and global peace. Dealing with this challenge requires decisive action. Regardless of its form or manifestation, we must unite in our fight against terrorism. Some countries use cross-border terrorism as an instrument of their policies, provide shelter to terrorists. SCO should not hesitate to criticize such nations.” 

During India’s Presidency ‘SECURE SCO’ became the major theme which implied – Security, Economic development, Connectivity, Unity, Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and Environmental protection. And, that is what India stood for. Likewise, India also established five new pillars of cooperation which included Startups and Innovation; Traditional Medicine; Youth Empowerment: Digital Inclusion, and; Shared Buddhist Heritage.

To achieve these objectives new working groups on Startups and Innovation as well as Traditional medicine were established. Areas for the fourteen Ministerial meetings were expanded to include cooperation on emerging fuels in the energy sector; collaboration on decarbonization in the transportation sector and digital transformation; cooperation in the field of digital public infrastructure.

Therefore, at the summit, two other focused joint statements on countering radicalization and digital transformation were adopted in keeping with stated objectives of the SCO. The fact that India was able to secure consensus on several important areas including the new ones is a testament to its diplomatic heft, leadership and sincerity of purpose.

Under India’s Presidency Iran has been admitted as a full member and Belarus will become the next in 2024. However, attraction of SCO continues which is clearly evident from its association compass. It has 14 dialogue partners and three observers. Their hope to become full members speaks of its heft perhaps as an alternate pole in the emerging multipolar order but perceived more  as an anti-Western security alternative given the current strategic adversity between China and Russia on the one hand and US and the West on the other.

The SCO represents 40% of the global demographic dividend, 60% of Eurasian landmass and nearly one third of the global economy with three major global actors and stakeholders with India, China and Russia in the lead. 

No wonder during its Presidency, India embarked on the need to harness the youth dividend and talent through the Young Scientists Conclave, Young Authors Conclave, Young Resident Scholar Program, Startup Forum, and Youth Council. Another important initiative was to promote tourism through designating an iconic city under each Presidency. For its part India chose the timeless ancient city of Varanasi as the first tourism and cultural capital for the SCO.

India on the other hand is keenly working with SCO member states especially Central Asian countries through its benign connectivity and developmental initiatives under the aegis of ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy and could even act as a bridge between SCO and the West should the strategic tempering follows.

Speaking about the importance of connectivity PM Modi underscored that strong and better connectivity not only enhances mutual trade but also fosters mutual trust. However, in these efforts, it is essential to uphold the basic principles of the SCO charter, particularly respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Member States. “Following Iran’s membership in the SCO, we can work towards maximizing the utilization of the Chabahar Port. The International North-South Transport Corridor can serve as a secure and efficient route for landlocked countries in Central Asia to access the Indian Ocean. We should strive to realize its full potential.”

SCO also is not devoid of its own divergent intra-regional differences and contestations which have run counter to the overall integration process. China through its BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) has continued to violate the principle of territorial integrity and hence India could not subscribe to the Chinese proposal of SCO Economic and Development Strategy 2030. It is not as innocent as it looks.

Likewise, India-China border dispute, Pakistan’s continuing resort to terrorism as an instrument of its foreign policy and Russia- China competition for strategic influence as well as the dispute between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan do not augur well for the SCO. Eurasian region itself is under flux let alone the big power rivalries hence it is imperative that China and Pakistan adhere to the fundamental principles enshrined in the very charter of the SCO and give up the zero-sum matrix as far as India is concerned lest the fault lines become even deeper.

No wonder while advocating key reforms to the SCO, PM Modi genuinely asked, “is SCO evolving into an organization that is fully prepared for the future?”

This article was first published in The South Asian Times as The SCO and India’s Presidency on , August 16, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organization.

Read more by the author- India’s Sustainability Dilemma: Growing Economy vs. Climate Goals

Authors

  • PriyankaNegi
  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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  • Anil Trigunayat

    Former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya, and Malta; Distinguished Fellow and Head of the West Asia Experts Group at the Vivekananda International Foundation.

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