KC Singh | Balancing Russia, China & US gets more challenging

The 22nd summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) that will be held later this week — on September 15 and 16 — in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, will be the first in-person leaders’ meeting since 2019, and will see the presence of three major leaders — Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. For Mr Xi, it will be the first foray abroad since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020. For Mr Putin, it provides an international platform while he and his country are facing stringent Western sanctions over his invasion of Ukraine over six months ago.

Nick Bisley, in an article published by the Lowy Institute, calls it “an illiberal club of growing global significance”. Only India is a democracy out of the current eight members. Iran, which is expected to join the group at the summit, is also an Islamic autocracy, with elections closely supervised by clerical leadership. But the group covers one-third of global GDP and, with India and China in it, 40 per cent of the global population.

The link is undeniable between China agreeing to disengage its troops in the Gogra-Hot Springs sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), after months of obduracy, and the Indian Prime Minister attending the summit. This is especially so after the satellite monitoring Chinese vessel berthed at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, despite the Indian protests.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson contextualised the troop withdrawal by sharp remarks that the status quo ante does not need to be restored as it was India that breached the LAC. The strategically crucial Depsang Plains and Demchok areas are still adversely affected by the Chinese intrusions. Five traditional patrolling points of India remain blocked. The lesson is that China will continue to use crucial LAC sectors to exert pressure on India to condition India's conduct of its independent foreign policy.

But for the Indian government, the balancing bet-ween its Western friends, especially the United Sta-tes, and the Russia-China axis is becoming more and more challenging. The two groups are progressively at loggerheads. The Ukraine war, which seemed stalemated days ago, has suddenly seen a successful breakthrough by the Ukrainian military in the Kharkiv sector of northeast Ukraine. Thus, Mr Putin will arrive at the SCO summit aware that even his hawkish public supporters are turning critics over the disorderly collapse of Russian forces holding crucial occupied cities like Izium.

China-US relations have been testy over the visit of US Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. Among the SCO members, Kazakhstan had supported Ukraine. Even the host nation, Uzbek-istan, leaned towards Uk-raine. This reflects the concerns of the five Central Asian nations that Mr Putin’s revisionist view of history and imperial vision can also be a threat to their sovereignty.

The other nations in the queue as SCO dialogue partners are Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Ne-pal, Sri Lanka and Turkey. Even Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar are showing interest to get involved. Clearly, the SCO is moving well beyond its original Central Asian focus. The originally envisioned objective of the group was to counter “terrorism, separatism and extremism”. It was not a coincidence that the Shanghai Five was created in 1996 as the Taliban captured Kabul and presented a terrorism threat to the entire region. This group was turned into SCO on June 15, 2001, just months before the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States.

In 2004, the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) was created, again focused on security issues. Gradually, a military cooperation dimension has been added. In more recent years, food and energy security emerged as themes of concern to members. But as the tensions between Russia-China and the West has exacerbated, leaders like former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan voiced the need to trade in local currencies. Thus the SCO is in danger of being seen as an anti-Western organisation, used by China and Russia to protect themselves from Western sanctions and counter attempts to isolate them. What then are the advantages India sees in being actively associated with an increasingly polarising organisation. Firstly, negative developments in Afghanistan and Central Asia impinge on Indian security. India would also like to balance the preponderance of China and Russia in the SCO. The Central Asian nations too would welcome this.

India also would be able to moderate the deliberations to ensure that the differences among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, with China and Russia ranged against the other three, do not turn India’s north-western neighbourhood into a battlefield. India would also be closely watched for how it deals with the presence of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. China has been pushing for closer regional economic cooperation, keeping in mind its investment in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which runs through Central Asia and Pakistan. But India also has a foot firmly planted in the US-led initiatives like the four-nation Quad (Australia, India, Japan, US) and “I2U2” (India, Israel, UAE, US). India also is welcomed as a natural participant at gatherings like the Democracy Summit hosted by US President Joe Biden. But the question is up to what point is playing all sides workable. The US announcement on upgrading Pakistan’s F-16 fleet may well be motivated by the need to keep the Pakistan Army on board at a time when Afghanistan is again becoming the sanctuary of Islamic militants of all shades. The killing of Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, it appears, had Pakistan’s cooperation both to locate him and allow the overflight of the killer-drone. India has protested against the upgrade of the F-16s. Is the United States killing two birds with one stone? Besides wooing Pakistan’s Army, it signals to India that it too will keep its strategic options open. Rubbing cheeks with Mr Putin and Mr Xi will be seen as India’s unwillingness to be fully in the American corner.

India’s SCO strategy is also guided by India becoming the next chair of the group. The summits of the G-20 and SCO in 2023 in India will be calculated to boost Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. After all, the Balakot airstrike days before the 2019 general election gave the BJP a huge boost. But history may repeat itself, as Karl Marx warned, as a farce as now India has China to contend with, not Pakistan and an indulgent US President Donald Trump. Ironically the SCO summit will be in Samarkand, which is famous for the grave of Tamerlane — the marauding pillager of South Asia.

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