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India Shines At Samarkand SCO Summit

The 22nd summit of the eight-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation  (SCO) took place in Uzbekistan’s capital Samarkand, last week. The summit was held amid the growing geo-political turmoil set-off by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s aggressive military posturing in the Taiwan Straits.

China which initiated this regional grouping as Shanghai Five in 1996, has transformed the forum into an influential grouping of 8 nations, with many more like Iran to join as a permanent member and diverse countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkiye, Belarus and Mongolia being given Observer status, which shows its transformation into an influential regional forum, besides challenging to other western regional alliances.

In his address at the summit, PM Modi obdurately touched every relevant aspect of the current geo-political situation. He urged SCO to strive to develop reliable, resilient and diversified supply chains in the region. For this, better connectivity will be required, besides giving full rights of transit to each other, he asserted, in a veiled reference to Pakistan. He also batted for making India a regional manufacturing hub. On tackling the challenges of food security, he spoke of India’s efforts to popularise millets as an alternative and cheap option.

In a speech that was otherwise free from references to India’s regional issues on terrorism with Pakistan and on territorial sovereignty with China, Mr. Modi called for greater cooperation in the Eurasian region. He also focused on initiatives on manufacturing that India is willing to pilot in the next year, when India assumes the chair of the SCO and hosts the Summit in mid-2023.

Modi-Xi Jinping meeting

The most important meeting from India’s standpoint was a possible meeting between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Jinping. Everyone wondered whether roadblocks have been cleared and temperaments cooled after the recent success of commander level talks between two countries on the issues of Chinese aggression in Indian Ladakh region in May 2020.

But, officially the MEA mentioned no such meetings. In fact, Samarkand offered the perfect opportunity for two leaders to reset the ties. But there seemed little willingness from the two sides, to compromise. In fact, if the reports are to be believed, the exchange between the two leaders, reminded one of the cold treatment meted out by Mr Modi to former Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif at the 2014 SAARC summit, though it eventually ended with a handshake at the last moment, but nothing such happened in Samarkand. But the moot question here is whether China is in a mood to mend ties with India?

Well, it seems no, not at the moment perhaps. Modi and Xi have met twice earlier but that is not enough to read each other’s thoughts and also make a convincing and principled case, though both the countries stand to gain much economically, if ties are improved.

Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra, when asked about a meeting that never happened said that he did not “think there is anything more to read into that”.

Modi-Putin meeting

PM Modi’s bilateral meeting with Russian President Putin at the summit also received a lot of attention. The two leaders shared the customary diplomatic greetings, with Modi specifically emphasising that the modern era was not a time of war. According to reports, Putin acknowledged India’s position on the Ukrainian conflict and reaffirmed his commitment to a speedy resolution.

India and Chinese leaders expressing their concerns directly with the Russian leader about the war in Ukraine is reflective of global concerns about the effects of its aggression, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last Friday.

The mainstream American media on Friday praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for telling Russian President Vladimir Putin that this is “not the time for war” in Ukraine. It was the lead story on the webpages of both The Washington Post and The New York Times, and was widely carried by the mainstream American media.

Modi-Erdogan bonhomie

Among other impromptu meetings was the one important one between PM Modi and Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which was held unannounced on Friday.  After the meeting, Modi underlined that the focus was on economic ties between the two countries.

The MEA, in a statement, described the meeting as a review of current India-Turkiye relations. While noting the increase in recent years in economic relations, particularly bilateral trade, it acknowledged the potential for further enhancement of economic and commercial partnerships. Erdogan last visited India in 2017.

While India-Turkiye’s economic and commercial cooperation constitutes an important dimension of the bilateral relationship, diplomatic ties have been adversely impacted over Turkiye’s public criticism of the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the February 2020 riots in north-east Delhi.

Modi-Raisi meeting, looking ahead

Another important meeting at Samarkand was between PM Modi and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Both the leaders took the opportunity to discuss boosting ties in areas like energy, commerce and connectivity. They also reviewed progress of the Shahid Behesti terminal at Chabahar Port and there are indications that the Iranian president also discussed a new mechanism to supply crude oil to India on rupee payment basis, instead of American dollars. This may bring the two countries closer on the trade and economic fronts.

The manner in which Mr Modi and his diplomatic team carried the business at Samarkand shows the maturity and coming of age of the Indian diplomacy under PM Modi. India will be hosting the next SCO Summit in 2023, and this will offer Mr Modi an opportunity to develop the organisation into a more meaningful and cohesive organisation. A fact evident by the number of countries, which are desirous of joining it, due to its regional potential.

Ukraine Crisis: A Diplomatic Opportunity for India

India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, has had to deal with a very difficult foreign policy challenge for India that arose from the Russian invasion into Ukraine. However, his deft handling of the situation has proved his mettle. The diplomatic challenge needed juggling several interests and conflicts at the same time. So far, Indian Foreign Ministry has handled the issue with skill without coming under any pressure from the parties pulling in different directions, including USA, Russia and China as well as other smaller groups.

The 2+2 dialogue between India and the United States of America combined with the video call between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden is significant for various reasons. It provided an opportunity for India and the US to better locate concerns of the other party vis-à-vis the Russian invasion.

For India it is important to pacify the world community about its reluctance to vote on numerous occasions on the Russian aggression, at the United Nations. Though India professes a neutral stand, it is part of a group with North Korea, Iran and China. This causes apprehensions among the US and its NATO allies as India has acquired respectability and status due to its economic strength and recently due to its efforts to mitigate the effects of COVID 19 pandemic. However, during the current situation, India has also maintained that any form of armed aggression upon another sovereign nation is unacceptable.

The 2+2 dialogue may have been an apt platform to clarify to the US, the reasons behind India’s neutral stand on Russia’s aggression. On the other hand, it is common knowledge that India’s defence sector and its numerous weapons systems are structurally dependent upon Russia’s arms and weapons industry. It is estimated that Russian arms equipment and weapons systems account for close to 70% of India’s defence supplies.

Against this background, it is perhaps easy to comprehend India’s neutrality and its absenteeism on crucial votes against Russia in the UN, which has wrongly been perceived as pro-Russia. The pressure, nevertheless, on India from the US and in general the West, has been unrelenting since the invasion began. India, though, has stuck to its position, bearing in mind the consequences thereof and the options it may possess. During this difficult period, however, the Indian establishment’s deft diplomacy and strategic autonomy has prominently been on display.

At the centre of this tumultuous and testing period for Indian diplomatic establishment, Dr Jaishankar has shown exemplary geopolitical acumen. Under his leadership the MEA anticipated Western response to India’s position and has crafted befitting and optimum rejoinders. Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, statements from the MEA have been measured and calibrated to pacify the international community.

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India has maintained that any act of violent aggression against a sovereign state is deplorable and have urged the warring parties to resolve the crisis diplomatically. Such astute stance and demeanour have in turn led the international community to recognize that it is national interest that has driven India’s voting behaviour at the UN, the precise message that India wanted to convey.

In the contemporary world, any event of such magnitude like the Russian invasion of Ukraine has a ripple effect on the entire world. India’s recent proclivity toward the United States and the new alliances in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region has also felt the tremors.

The formulation of the term Indo-Pacific and the subsequent implementation of a counter China strategy through the Quadrilateral Dialogue (QUAD) have been gradually gaining strength in the recent years. Ukraine Crisis and Indian response brought the QUAD and its members to reassess the situation, which is visible in the visits of Heads of states to New Delhi. The Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited New Delhi for an Annual Summit meeting under the ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’, but a large part of meeting was devoted to the Ukraine crisis. India accommodated Japanese concerns on the crisis in the statement issued after the deliberations.

Immediately after the Indo-Japan Summit, the Australian PM Scott Morrison also held a virtual summit with Prime Minister Modi. The Aussie PM, while condemning the Russian actions in Ukraine, elicited an understanding of the Indian stance. Further, he elaborated that “he and Modi were of the opinion that the conflict could not be a reason for diverting attention from issues of the Indo-Pacific region”. This indicated that the relationship is not affected. A subtext hidden in the outcome and statements of both summit meetings is a clear indication that geographical distance from an international event still matters. The location of the crisis at the western end of the Eurasian landmass and away from the Indo-Pacific space remains instrumental in geopolitical thinking of Japan and Australia.

The aforementioned summits and their timing point to India’s rising significance in the international system and particularly in the Indo-Pacific. It was only befitting that the Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr. Wang Yi visited New Delhi soon after. This holds tremendous weight in the wake of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ladakh since the summer of 2020.

It was understood that the Chinese FM was here to invite and persuade the Indian PM to join the BRICS summit in China to be held later in the year. Under the circumstances, Indian diplomacy under the leadership of Dr. Jaishankar has been steadfast and clear in conveying to the Chinese that normalization of relations between the two Asian giants is possible only after complete disengagement at the LAC in Ladakh. Hopefully, before the BRICS Summit, negotiations on the issue will bear results.

Therefore it can be said that the Ukraine Crisis has been turned into a diplomatic opportunity by the Indian diplomatic establishment. The 2+2 summit, Modi-Biden virtual Summit, Indo-Japan Summit, Modi-Morrison virtual summit and finally the visit by the Chinese FM are a testimony to clarity in India’s diplomacy since the crisis began. Moreover, the British Prime Minister Mr. Boris Johnson and the President of the European Union, Ms. Ursula von der Leyen have also visited India in the last week.

Whether it is India’s stand on the crisis or its India’s economic strength or the West’s need, India has become the go-to-destination in the face of deep Russia-China partnership. India has been able to drive home the point that India’s national interests take precedence over international linkages and alliances under the able leadership of Dr. S. Jaishankar, the Minister of External Affairs. This perhaps is the proverbial feather in the cap for Modi government as the top diplomat was elevated to the post of External Affairs Minister in May 2019.