India's flippant approach towards the SCO is very telling
India, the incumbent president of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), announced it would hold the organization's summit virtually in July. Holding a virtual summit is not a novel initiative, but owning a physical multilateral summit is a prestigious occasion for the host, while face-to-face interactions between leaders during the meeting and on the sidelines, have a far more significant impact.
India's decision to convene the summit virtually, especially after a physical SCO Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Goa on May 4-5, seems a telling and flippant approach towards the organization. It manifests that India could be distancing itself from the Eurasian-leading organization due to transforming global geopolitics and its strengthening threshold alliance with the US.
The timing of announcing the virtual summit is very critical due to spiralling tensions between China and the US. Beijing rejected Washington’s offer regarding a meeting between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue. This major annual security summit kicked off on June 2 in Singapore. On May 30, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning stated why China rejected US efforts to set up a meeting. She said, "The US should earnestly respect China's sovereignty, security, and interest concerns, immediately correct wrong practices, show sincerity, and create necessary atmosphere and conditions for dialogue and communication between Chinese and US militaries.”
India has been aspiring to be a member of NATO-plus, i.e., a security bloc of NATO and five countries named Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, and South Korea. The bloc is aimed at boosting defense cooperation among members. Being a member of the bloc, India will gain access to seamless intelligence sharing, access to the latest military technology, and further threshold alliance between India and the US.
The Indian leadership probably believes that hosting the Russian and Chinese leaders in person could spoil India's endeavor for NATO-plus.
Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
American security observers have recommended that the US start letting other countries take the lead in checking China’s rise. It’s no secret that Washington has been pressurizing New Delhi to demonstrate China's containment policy to justify and progress their defense cooperation. Notably, the Americans are ignoring India-Russia military and economic ventures. For instance, they did not oppose India's purchase of the S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile defense system and oil from Russia because they are convinced that militarily and economically strong India would be better positioned to counter China's increasing influence in Asia-Pacific.
Last month, the US Congress Committee recommended India for NATO-plus status. The Indian leadership probably believes that hosting the Russian and Chinese leaders in person could spoil India's endeavor for NATO-plus. Notably, NATO 2022 Strategic Concept adopted at the Madrid Summit on 29-30 June 2022 pointed out that China's stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security, and values. It also claimed that Russia poses the most significant and direct threat to NATO's security.
The disturbing factor is that the Indian leadership has failed to realize the increasing strategic instability in Southern Asia, especially on its North, Western, and Eastern borders. In such a volatile situation, SCO is an ideal forum for Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani leaderships for communication. Without a dialogue between the nuclear-armed rivals, there is a high risk of assumptions spilling over into irretrievable actions and reactions. The ramifications of India's attempt to weaken a vital Eurasian multilateral forum on the behest of its Western alignments could be destabilising for the entire region. Simultaneously, it would fasten the process of India's membership in the NATO-plus security alliance, further curtailing the South Asian desire to remain out of bloc politics.
Unlike India, Pakistan has been struggling to distance itself from bloc politics. On May 26, Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch reiterated Pakistan's desire to maintain cordial relations with China and the US despite their increasing rivalry. She categorically stated that Pakistan does not believe in bloc politics. However, Islamabad had an “All Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership” with Beijing. Theoretically, it sounds pleasing, but practically distancing from bloc politics is problematic, especially when India has quashed its decades of non-alignment policy.
India-Pakistan hatred was on full exhibit during the last SCO-CFMs meeting, which makes the interactions between the two even more critical. The SCO summit seems in many ways the only hope to melt the ice between the two nuclear-armed rivals.
In summary, the SCO virtual summit could slow down the increasing relevance of the organization in contemporary global geopolitics. Undeniably, the weakening of SCO is advantageous for the American-led world, but disadvantageous for Eurasian nations, including Pakistan.
- Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @zafar_jaspal