The cold of Ladakh apparently froze the erstwhile bonhomie between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping as they ignored one another even as they stood next to each other and posed for a group photograph during the meeting of the Heads of States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Samarkand. The mutual and intentional display of ignoring one another on a forum that is specifically meant to promote cooperative spirit in diverse fields is naturally not reflected in the Samarkand Declaration, which embodies common perceptions of international affairs and identifies vast areas of cooperation to strengthen security and development. By December, India will take over the presidency of the SCO and host the next meeting of the Heads of States in 2023. Xi has promised full support for India’s presidency.
The Samarkand Declaration flags the increasing dangers in the international situation and reaffirms its commitment to a more representative, democratic, just and multipolar world order with a central coordinating role for the United Nations. It rules out bloc, ideologised and confrontational approaches to development and security challenges. However, several recent actions of China and Russia betray the gulf between the spoken/written word and the done deed.
The China-Russia tug of war in Central Asia
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine coupled with its endeavours in bloc politics and China’s attempts at confrontational approaches in dealing with the international system reflect preferences at variance with those espoused at the SCO. At the meeting of the SCO security council secretaries held in Tashkent on 19 August 2022, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev revealed the country’s aspiration to make the SCO the centre of resistance to the US and its allies. The notion was met with resistance from others, especially by Central Asian countries.
With the rise of China and the weakening of US influence, all Central Asian countries have been experiencing the pulls and pressures of China’s inroads into the region that are reshaping its political landscape. The Belt and Road initiative (BRI) was the prime vehicle for gaining and then asserting its geopolitical influence. Russia thus finds its traditional hold over resource-rich Central Asia weakening and it is unable to counter the economic goodies China can deliver. But wariness of increased dependency on China endures even though it lurks in the background. With Russia’s Ukraine invasion, the economic logic of BRI’s success would be impacted. This is so due to the US and EU’s reactions to the invasion and the growing geopolitical friction with the Russia-China nexus that has been hailed as a friendship that has ‘no limits.’
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Opportunities for India
At Samarkand, Xi made no public reference to Moscow’s position on Ukraine. With recent military reverses suffered by Russia, China would be increasingly concerned about its fallout on the larger US-China power play. China can, however, be expected to continue its economic support to Russia without outrightly circumventing sanctions while avoiding the provision of military assistance. For Russia, the prospects seem to be enhanced dependency on China and the growing prospect of being reduced to a junior partner. The possibility of growing wariness of China may also be inevitable. A prospect that raises Russia’s need to keep India as close as possible and one that could open up some opportunities for India in the Eurasian landmass.
Modi’s remarks to Putin during their bilateral interaction at Samarkand, “these are not the days for war,” have received global attention. A point, Modi clarified, was also conveyed during earlier interactions between the two. This sentiment echoed the Indian position that differences must be resolved through dialogue and discussion and violence must be eschewed. It also highlights the point that India has retained its position of having the potential to mediate between the warring parties as it has so far refrained from taking sides.
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Importance of strengthening bilateral relations
Viewed from a geopolitical perspective, India has managed to weave a complex web of relationships that are also varied in terms of the continental and maritime spaces of Asia. The continental tie-ups are mostly with nations that are coalescing under China’s initiatives. The maritime tie-ups on the other hand, are led by the US. For India, such preference of alignments serves its long terms interests of security, growth and development. It provides better prospects for strengthening India’s strategic autonomy. It also provides flexibility to cope with a world order that has been described as being ‘between orders.’
Considering the cross-cutting web of relations India seeks to maintain amid the growing trend of coalition building, there is perhaps a case to recognise that India’s relations with the US, Russia, China and other powers must be buttressed through strengthening of bilateral ties. Going forward, multilateral and plurilateral forums are bound to weaken as issue-based convergence of interests faces challenges. Take the case of SCO and its collective effort to counter terrorism where India finds itself in the company of China and Pakistan. It would be unrealistic to expect convergence of interest on counter-terrorism. A point that was borne out by the fact that in the UN, China continues to block action against terrorists like Sajid Mir involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.
Similarly, Modi’s call for transit trade access at the SCO is unlikely to find fruition as can be judged from Pakistan’s reaction to it. Notably, even, the last consignment of food to Afghanistan remains unduly delayed due to Pakistan delaying requisite permission.
China-India trade relations have so far weathered the geopolitical storms. But it is also an Indian vulnerability that China can exploit as it does its military vulnerabilities on the northern border. Addressing the economic vulnerability is where India should seek membership in multilateral economic groupings like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). A revisit of India’s economic strategy is warranted. It must attempt to leverage India’s geopolitical image that is not allied to any camp and therefore does not inhibit its trade relations. For India, the perennial thrust should be that the logic of geoeconomics must constantly seek to weaken the tyranny of geopolitics. Simultaneously, the opening up of trade relations must not fall a victim to the quest for self-sufficiency.
The personal coldness between Modi and Xi displayed at the SCO is unlikely to thaw in the near future. This is likely to be so since the forces generated from the frictions of the global geopolitical landscape make China-India relations loaded with mistrust and growing wariness regarding inimical intentions.
India assumes presidency of the SCO at a time when the relationships between its members are likely to be stressed. It would therefore be prudent to lower India’s expectations from the SCO. However, being at the head of the table could bring opportunities that are not visible now. Hope must endure.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)