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EFSAS Commentary

India hosts two important SCO meetings, with the slim possibility of an India-Pakistan bilateral generating additional interest


India, in the past week, hosted two important meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). New Delhi currently holds the presidency of the SCO, and the series of meetings of the grouping that it is hosting are meant to prepare for, and lead up to, the summit of the heads of government of SCO countries on 3-4 July. While the meeting of SCO Defense Ministers was held in New Delhi on 28 April, the much anticipated gathering of the Foreign Ministers of the grouping, which has gained in stature and importance as strong winds of change sweep over the post World War II international order, is being held today. The meeting of the Defense Ministers largely highlighted the policy priorities of major member States, with Russia reiterating its criticism of the West’s Indo-Pacific initiative and the creation of groupings like the Quad, China asserting that Beijing was ready to work with other member States to “build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture”, and India focusing on terrorism, especially of the cross-border kind. The gathering of the Foreign Ministers, to attend which Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari arrived in Goa last evening, has generated much interest. This is the first visit by a Pakistani Foreign Minister to India since 2011, when Hina Rabbani Khar, the then incumbent and current deputy to Bhutto-Zardari, had visited New Delhi. Although neither side has indicated that a bilateral meeting is in the offing in Goa, given the severely strained relations between the two countries several experts on both sides have opined that the opportunity to attempt a thaw should neither be discounted nor spurned.

The Defense Ministers meeting, which India was hosting for the first time since it became a full member of the SCO in 2017, was also attended in person by the Defense Ministers of China, Russia, Iran, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Participating through video conference was Malik Ahmed Khan, the Special Advisor on Defense to the Pakistani Prime Minister. The Ministers reportedly discussed issues of common concern, including matters of regional and international security, under the charter of the SCO. An Indian Defense Ministry statement said that at the conclusion of the deliberations, the SCO member countries signed a protocol expressing their “collective will to make the region secure, peaceful, and prosperous”.

Chairing the meeting, India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said that New Delhi believed in maintaining peace and security based on the provisions of the United Nations (UN) Charter. He reiterated India’s commitment towards defense capacity building of SCO member States, adding that “A secure, stable, and prosperous region will improve the quality of life of people of each nation”. Singh urged SCO member States to root out terrorism collectively and fix accountability on its supporters. Coming down strongly on all kinds of terrorism, he averred that “Peace and prosperity cannot coexist with this menace”. In a thinly veiled allusion to Pakistan, he continued, “If a nation shelters terrorists, it not only poses a threat to others, but for itself too. Radicalization of youth is a cause of concern not only from the point of view of security, but it is also a major obstacle in the path of socio-economic progress of society. If we want to make the SCO a stronger and more credible international organization, our topmost priority should be to effectively deal with terrorism”.

Chinese State Councillor and Defense Minister Li Shangfu told the gathering that Beijing was willing to work with other SCO members to implement the ‘Global Security Initiative’, a concept floated by President Xi Jinping in April 2022, regarding which a paper was also issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in February this year. Li Shangfu also said that China wanted to “deepen strategic mutual trust, enhance anti-terrorism cooperation, expand fields for cooperation and improve cooperation mechanisms, so as to contribute to global and regional peace and stability”. The Chinese statement issued after the meeting highlighted that Li had asserted that Beijing was ready to work with other member States to “build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture”.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was quite expectedly critical of the West, and accused it of attempting to integrate the emerging security architecture in the Indian Ocean region with NATO. Russian State-owned news agency RIA reported that Shoigu had told the SCO meeting that the real aim of the West in Ukraine was to strategically defeat Russia, to pose a threat to China, and to maintain its own monopoly position. Shoigu alleged that, “The West’s countermeasures for developing multilateralism could be evidently observed in the Asia-Pacific region. There the USA paved the way to disintegration of existing regional security system… The NATO is willing to establish dominance in Asia-Pacific region, that is why QUAD and AUKUS is integrating into the NATO”. On the SCO, he expressed the belief that the organization’s “independent policies” towards global and regional security challenges could serve as a blueprint for the international community. Shoigu foresaw a role for the SCO as a key pillar of an emerging multi-polar international system.

The Indian Defense Minister held contrasting bilateral meetings with his Russian and Chinese counterparts on the sidelines of the SCO meeting. On the meeting with Sergei Shoigu, India’s Defense Ministry said that the two Ministers discussed matters of regional peace and security as well as wide-ranging issues of bilateral defense cooperation, including military-to-military ties and industrial partnership. It added, “They also discussed the Russian defense industry’s participation in the ‘Make in India’ initiative and ways to provide further impetus to it”. It further noted that “The ministers expressed satisfaction over the continued trust and mutual respect between the two countries, particularly in defense, and reiterated their commitment towards strengthening the partnership”.

The “frank discussions about the developments in the India-China border areas” between Rajnath Singh and Li Shangfu saw the two ministers reiterate the existing and differing positions of their respective countries on improving bilateral relations, which have been deeply strained after unprovoked Chinese aggression along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries. The troops of the two countries have been at a stand-off at multiple points in eastern Ladakh since May 2020, and in June 2020 at least twenty Indian soldiers had died in a serious clash in the Galwan Valley.

According to an Indian government communiqué, Rajnath Singh told his Chinese counterpart that the continuing Chinese violations at the LAC had “eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations”, and that relations between India and China were “premised on the prevalence of peace and tranquility at the border”. Singh also asserted that issues at the LAC needed to be resolved as per existing bilateral agreements, and that early completion of the “disengagement at the border will logically be followed with de-escalation”. On his part Li Shangfu, while claiming that the two countries shared far “more common interests than differences”, said that both sides should take a “long-term view, place the border issue in an appropriate position in bilateral relations, and promote the transition of the border situation to normalized management”.

The border issue was also reportedly in focus when India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar held bilateral talks yesterday with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who was in Goa for today’s SCO Foreign Ministers meet. The Times of India reported that the ongoing strife along the LAC in eastern Ladakh was the prime focus of the discussions between the two leaders. Issues related to wider interactions and cooperation on international platforms like the G20, SCO and BRICS were also discussed. In a tweet after the talks, Jaishankar asserted that the focus remained on resolving outstanding issues and ensuring peace and tranquility in the border areas. He wrote, “A detailed discussion with State Councillor and FM Qin Gang of China on our bilateral relationship. Focus remains on resolving outstanding issues and ensuring peace and tranquility in the border areas”. Qin Gang, meanwhile, suggested yesterday that India and China should explore a road to peaceful and friendly coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation. He reiterated Beijing’s position that the situation at the India-China border was generally stable, adding that both sides should consolidate the present achievements and abide by the relevant agreements while pushing for further cooling and easing of the conditions for sustainable peace and tranquility at the frontier.

From a South Asian perspective, the visit by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to attend the SCO event has generated considerable interest, even though India and Pakistan have both tried to dispel the notion of any bilateral engagement being in the offing and have emphasized the multilateral significance of the visit. The spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), when asked about the significance of Bhutto-Zardari’s acceptance of the invitation for the SCO meeting, simply commented that similar invitations had been extended to all SCO member States and added that “It would not be really appropriate to look at participation by any one particular country”. Subsequently, when asked if he would hold a separate meeting with Bhutto-Zardari, EAM Jaishankar had virtually ruled out that possibility by saying that “It is very difficult for us to engage with a neighbour who practices cross-border terrorism against us".

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister had also stressed earlier that “this visit should not be seen as a bilateral”. Prior to his departure from Karachi, Bhutto Zardari had said, “Today, I am going to Goa in India, where I’m leading the Pakistani delegation to attend the SCO’s council of foreign ministers. My going there sends a clear message of the importance attached to SCO by Pakistan and how seriously it takes its membership. I’m looking forward to engaging bilaterally with countries that are part of this organization”. He later reiterated, “On my way to Goa, India. Will be leading the Pakistan delegation at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization CFM. My decision to attend this meeting illustrates Pakistan’s strong commitment to the charter of SCO. During my visit, which is focused exclusively on the SCO, I look forward to constructive discussions with my counterparts from friendly countries”.

Upon arrival in India, in a video shared on Twitter, Bilawal said that he will hold meeting with his counterparts from Russia and Uzbekistan, and attend a dinner hosted by Jaishankar for all the visiting Foreign Ministers in Goa. He said, “Assalamualaikum, we have reached Goa, India on the occasion of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). I will first hold meeting with Russian Foreign Minister. Then, we will hold a meeting with Uzbekistan Foreign Minister. I will attend the dinner hosted for all the foreign ministers and there are one-two interviews lined up in the day”. Pakistan’s Foreign Office too emphasized the multilateral SCO aspect of the visit when it tweeted, “Pakistan continues to constructively contribute in all SCO activities to realize its multi-sectoral aims and objectives in a mutually beneficial manner”.

Despite the deliberate efforts by both governments to downplay the prospects of an India-Pakistan bilateral, considerable attention has, nevertheless, been focused by regional analysts and experts on whether there will be a bilateral meeting between Jaishankar and Bhutto-Zardari on the sidelines of the SCO conclave. There have been calls within Pakistan to hold talks with India, while some in India believe that it may be in India’s best interests to talk to a Pakistan that is as weak as it has ever been in its history. The MEA spokesperson’s response to a media query on the possibility of an India-Pakistan bilateral was also seen by many as not foreclosing the option completely. He had said, “Regarding the request for bilateral meetings, I think, it is premature. Let’s see the full participation. Usually, EAM does try to hold as many bilateral meetings as he can on the margins of such kinds of multilateral meetings. You saw that on the occasion of the G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting”.

While no such meeting has been slotted in the official schedule of events, some experts believe that in order to avoid the unnecessary and unwanted hype and intrusive attention that such a meeting usually generates, which in turn tends to have the effect of detracting from the real purpose, both sides may have looked at novel ways to communicate beyond the media’s gaze. For example, Rezaul H. Laskar wrote in the Hindustan Times that “People familiar with the matter said there was no proposal for a bilateral meeting between Bhutto Zardari and Jaishankar. However, the possibility of the two ministers coming face to face at the dinner at Taj Exotica Resort on Thursday evening couldn’t be ruled out. The dinner, attended by the SCO Foreign Ministers and their delegations, was seen as a networking event”.

India and Pakistan have enough reasons to talk to each other, but none bigger than the reality that it is the people of the two countries who will benefit the most if engagement, even a brief conversation at a networking event at the Taj Exotica Resort, does, indeed, serve to break the frigid ice in balmy Goa.