A note on India’s performance at the recent SCO Summit

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit, from June 9-10, went largely as expected. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, met the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the summit. New Delhi’s proposal to have an informal summit, in India in 2019, on the lines of the Wuhan Summit (held in April 2018) was accepted by the Chinese. Agreements were also signed between both countries with regard to sharing hydrological data on the Brahmaputra River, and export of non-Basmati varieties of rice from India. Another issue, which was discussed during the Modi-Xi meeting, was the joint capacity development project in Afghanistan, which was first proposed during the Wuhan Summit.

Commenting on his meeting with the Chinese President, Modi tweeted:

Met this year’s SCO host, President Xi Jinping this evening. We had detailed discussions on bilateral and global issues. Our talks will add further vigour to the India-China friendship.

Modi’s meetings with leaders of other member countries

The Indian PM met other leaders of member countries, including the presidents of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. While there was no formal meeting with the Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain, Modi did shake hands with Hussain and exchange pleasantries. Interestingly, Chinese President Xi Jinping, during his address, had spoken about the presence of both leaders, as well as entry of both countries into the SCO. Said the Chinese President:

Presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain is of great historic significance […] The entry of India and Pakistan into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation would bolster its strength.

Modi’s address at the Plenary

During his address at the SCO Plenary, the Indian PM made a reference to two important issues: connectivity and terrorism.

Commenting on the relevance of connectivity, Modi stated:

We have again reached a stage where physical and digital connectivity is changing the definition of geography. Therefore, connectivity with our neighbourhood and in the SCO region is our priority.

The Indian PM also referred to India’s participation in the Chabahar Project, as well as the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), as clear instances of India’s firm commitment to connectivity.

While referring to terrorism in the region, PM Modi cited the instance of Afghanistan: ‘I hope the brave steps towards peace taken by President Ghani will be respected by all in the region.’

India once again refused to endorsed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Project, sending a clear message to China that it was not comfortable with Beijing’s approach. A declaration issued at the end of the Summit stated that Russia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have “reaffirmed their support for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)” of China.

Messaging to Iran

In recent months, New Delhi’s approach towards both China and Russia has been driven by pragmatism and self-interest. As a result, during the Wuhan Summit (as well as Modi’s recent Russia visit), both the changing economic order (especially the isolationist approach of Trump) and geopolitical developments in South Asia and outside were discussed. New Delhi’s decision to work on a capacity development project with Beijing was especially interesting. Through both these visits, and New Delhi’s overall attempt to mend ties with Beijing and reboot ties with Russia, a clear message should have gone to Washington DC.

New Delhi’s stand on US withdrawal from JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), and Washington’s continuous threat to impose sanctions against even allies doing business with Iran, has been criticized as being excessively muted. Only External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, in a press conference, has made some firm remarks on India’s ties with Iran:

We only recognise UN sanctions. We do not recognise any country-specific sanctions,.. We don’t make our foreign policy under pressure from other countries […] We don’t make our foreign policy under pressure from other countries.

It would be pertinent to point out that during Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s recent visit to New Delhi (June 2018), the possibility of reviving the rupee-rial payment method through the UCO bank was discussed.

During the SCO Summit too, Modi, while speaking about connectivity projects linked to Iran, did not really speak about the relevance of the Iran Nuclear Agreement.

Should India have taken a stand on Iran?

Given India’s economic and strategic interests in Iran (Iran happens to be the third largest supplier of oil to India), some mention of the Iran Agreement and support for Tehran on the issue would have been appropriate. India could have used this opportunity to send a tougher message to the US on Iran.

The timing was apt, given two recent developments. First US allies like France and Germany had written a letter to the US seeking exemption from Sanctions:

As allies, we expect that the United States will refrain from taking action to harm Europe’s security interests.

It would be pertinent to point out that both National Security Advisor John Bolton and the US Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, had advised European countries to reconsider business ties with Iran.

While Bolton has stated that Europe would ultimately fall in line, the US Ambassador to Germany has stated “that that European companies could face US fines if their Iranian business partners wound up on US sanctions lists.”

Second, at the G7 Summit, Trump had not really minced any words in the context of tariffs. For instance, Trump had accused countries of robbing the US. Commenting on India, he said: ‘This isn’t just G7. I mean, we have India, where some of the tariffs are 100 per cent. A hundred per cent. And we charge nothing. We can’t do that.’

Russia and China support for Iran

While Russia and China’s ties with the US are of a very different nature, both countries seized the opportunity and extended their support to Iran. President Xi Jinping, while praising the nuclear agreement, said the deal is: ‘Conducive to safeguarding peace and stability in West Asia and the international non-proliferation regime, and should continue to be implemented earnestly.’

The Iranian President, during his meeting with Putin, in fact spoke about the need for greater cooperation between both countries post the US withdrawal from JCPOA. Said Rouhani: ‘Given the US illegal withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, more serious and more important dialogue between our two countries is required.’

Conclusion

New Delhi needs to use the SCO to it’s advantage, and the organization does provide an opportunity to reach out to China, Russia, Central Asian countries, and even Pakistan.

On the Iran issue, New Delhi needs to make its voice heard, and can not insulate itself. It is alright not to comment on every geopolitical issue, but playing it safe on Iran will not benefit New Delhi. India should have been more categorical in his support for Iran at the SCO Summit, given India’s interests.

As discussed earlier, taking a similar stand like China and Russia may have not been possible, due to the Indo-US strategic relationship, but subtle messaging that India will follow an independent course was certainly possible.

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