A bilateral meeting is likely between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi in the Uzbek capital.
NEW DELHI: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in the historic city of Samarkand is expected to be a high-profile diplomatic spectacle as Prime Minister Narendra Modi will join leaders from eight member countries and other observer and partner states of dialogue to chart new paths to regional peace and prosperity in a polarized international landscape. Uzbekistan, host of the summit, is sparing no effort to make the summit a success as it will be the first in-person summit after a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The world will be watching the Samarkand summit closely as it will not only be about the SCO, but many important bilateral meetings are expected to take place on the sidelines, including the talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. It will be President Xi’s first overseas trip after the pandemic. There is a strong possibility of a bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Putin. Prospects for a bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi, which seemed far-fetched just a few days ago, brightened as the Chinese and Indian sides agreed to withdraw their troops from Gogra-Hot Springs in the Ladakh by September 12.
The geopolitical context of the SCO summit gave this multilateral meeting additional gravity and weight. The summit is taking place at a divisive time when new competitive mini-coalitions are emerging within the SCO, turning the region into a geopolitical chessboard. Three seminal developments further complicated the fault lines and challenged the international community to reflect and come up with innovative solutions. First, the brutal coronavirus pandemic which has killed millions of people in all regions and drastically changed the world as we know it. The pandemic has also underscored the imperative to strengthen transnational cooperation in forums such as the BRICS and the SCO. Second, the Russian military operation in Ukraine has rekindled the spotlight on issues relating to national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Third, the summit takes place a little over a year after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021. These three events affected the countries of Central Asia to varying degrees and the Eurasian region in the sense wide and form the backdrop for the SCO summit in Samarkand.
For India, there will be three main priorities at the summit. Above all, India will leverage the SCO to deepen counter-terrorism cooperation and mobilize regional pressure on Pakistan to desist from using terrorism against India for political purposes. Second, given its vital national security interests, India will partner with like-minded countries to promote an inclusive Taliban government in Afghanistan that includes minorities and women. Third, India will push for regional economic integration which has a direct bearing on its economic interests in the region.
Counter-terrorism cooperation is the raison d’etre of the SCO and is also the driving force behind India’s awareness of the SCO. India is the current chairperson of the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) and is therefore in a position to take the lead in deepening regional cooperation on security issues. In this context, Prime Minister Modi is expected to highlight the role of cross-border terrorist networks operating from Pakistani territory. He won’t mention Pakistan by name, but a reference to cross-border terrorism will make it clear to whom his remarks are directed. At least Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who will share the stage at the summit, should get the message. Sharif has reached out to India, and New Delhi has also struck a positive note by bringing relief to flood-hit Pakistan, but Prime Minister Modi’s intervention at the SCO will once again underline the results of India – terror and talks cannot go hand in hand – for any dialogue or rapprochement with Islamabad. India will also voice its concerns over the continued support for anti-India terrorist networks such as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) by the current regime in Pakistan and ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan. Going forward, India will host the SCO counter-terrorism drills in Manesar, Haryana in October. Despite strained relations, Pakistan is expected to join as an observer at the closing ceremony of the meeting.
TALIBAN AND AFGHANISTAN
The difficult situation in Afghanistan is linked to the issue of terrorism, where the new Taliban leadership has yet to deliver on its promise to sever ties with terrorist groups. The Taliban’s well-known patronage of terrorist networks is a cause of great concern for the entire region. In this context, strengthening regional cooperation to form a broad-based representative government in Afghanistan will be at the top of the agenda of the SCO summit in Samarkand. In this context, India must take into account the differences in approach among SCO countries regarding the engagement of the Taliban regime. While Russia, China, Pakistan and some Central Asian countries engage with the Taliban regime, India remains firmly opposed to any international recognition of the Taliban government unless the conditions laid down for an inclusive government are met. fulfilled. India has, however, reopened its embassy in Kabul, signaling that it is ready to rethink if the Taliban decides to make amends. In this context, Prime Minister Modi is likely to stress that any decision on the recognition of the Taliban regime must be taken collectively by the global community and support the central role of the United Nations on this issue. Prime Minister Modi will also highlight the organic link between the instability and fundamentalism that persists in Afghanistan with terrorist and extremist ideologies in the region and around the world.
TRADE & CONNECTIVITY
On the positive side, India, which has become the fifth largest economy in the world, will take the lead in accelerating regional economic integration to strengthen the arc of prosperity in the Eurasian geography. India sees Central Asia as an untapped geography of opportunity and will exploit the Samarkand summit to expand the network of trade and investment ties. The region, which has experienced an economic slowdown since the pandemic and the Russian military operation in Ukraine, badly needs economic recovery, and in this area the SCO can play a central role. Here too, Pakistan’s stubbornness remains a major obstacle as it has refused to grant India land access to Central Asia due to entrenched hostility. But India will not allow this to prevent it from getting closer to the region. Prime Minister Modi is expected to pressure the region to adopt the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and Chabahar. Iran’s enthronement as a full member of the SCO and the presence of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the Samarkand summit will help push the connectivity agenda forward.
Looking ahead, the SCO summit in Samarkand could also broaden the agenda of the grouping by taking concrete initiatives to mobilize youth, civil society, media and think tanks. Issues related to improving P2P contacts will also feature in discussions at the SCO summit, officials familiar with the shifting agenda said.
Manish Chand is CEO of India Writes Network, India and The World and Director of the Center for Global India Insights, a think tank focused on global affairs.