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EFSAS Commentary

Experts feel the China factor is behind Indian PM Modi’s absence from the ongoing SCO Summit, and his upcoming visit to Russia


The annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which was initially a Central Asian economic and security alliance established by China and Russia in 2001, but which has now expanded to 10 members this year with the addition of Belarus, was held in Astana, Kazakhstan, on 3&4 July. The SCO had six founding nations – Kazakhstan, China, the Kyrgyz Republic, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. This intergovernmental organization, which evolved from the earlier Shanghai Five mechanism, had added India and Pakistan as members in 2017, and Iran in 2023. There are also two observer States – Afghanistan and Mongolia, and 14 dialogue partners, including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Türkiye. Together, these countries cover half of the world’s population, and almost a third of global GDP. China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the two key drivers of the SCO, were prominently in attendance at the Astana summit, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to skip this year’s event and depute India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar instead, drew the interest of observers, many of who felt that Modi’s reluctance to engage with Xi Jinping due to China’s obdurate stance on the border issue between the two countries that flared up in 2020 and has remained unresolved till date was the reason for his non-attendance. The fact that Modi has, instead, reportedly opted to embark on a bilateral visit to Moscow next week to hold discussions with Putin there seems to have added weight to this interpretation. In effect, however, some other factors, including domestic requirements at home in post-election India, as well as the views of the United States (US), with whom India’s strategic partnership has blossomed in recent years, could also likely have contributed to the decision.

Reuters reported on 4 July that on the second and final day of the Astana summit, Xi Jinping and Putin both pressed their case for closer security, political and economic cooperation between countries of the vast Eurasian region as a counterweight to Western alliances. Xinhua news agency said that Xi warned participants at the summit against the West’s “Cold War mentality”, and quoted him as stressing that “SCO members should consolidate unity and jointly oppose external interference in the face of the real challenges of interference and division”. Putin, in his address to the SCO, reiterated Russia’s call for “a new architecture of cooperation, indivisible security and development in Eurasia, designed to replace the outdated Eurocentric and Euro-Atlantic models, which gave unilateral advantages only to certain States”. He had said last month that the proposed new Eurasian security pact should be open to all countries across the region, including current NATO members. The aim, he said, should be to gradually remove all external military presence from Eurasia, a clear reference to the US. At the summit, he once again blamed the West for the war in Ukraine and said Russia was ready to freeze the conflict if Kyiv and its backers accepted Moscow’s terms for talks. Putin asserted that “The multi-polar world has become reality. More and more countries support a fair world order and are ready to vigorously defend their legal rights and traditional values”.

EAM Jaishankar, who headed the Indian delegation to the summit, held bilateral meetings with his Russian and Chinese counterparts Sergei Lavrov and Wang Yi, respectively, on the sidelines of the SCO gathering. While the meeting with Lavrov provided the opportunity to fine-tune the loose ends of Modi’s forthcoming visit to Moscow, the deliberations with the Chinese Foreign Minister were noteworthy as media reports indicated that the two sides had agreed to step up talks to resolve issues on their border which have soured ties since an armed clash in 2020.

Modi’s trip to Moscow for a standalone State visit on 8 and 9 July is expected to focus on strategic, economic and military ties, and it will reverse the perception of a “drift” in relations, according to experts. The visit, which is likely to be Modi’s first bilateral visit abroad in his third term, would place Russia on par with India’s closest neighbours that have normally been the destination of first visits by Indian Prime Ministers.

In an article titled ‘Why Modi will go to Moscow’ Ved Shinde of the Lowy Institute argued on 3 July that while “Many in the West will be annoyed by the sight of India’s PM shaking hands with Vladimir Putin, but they should remember the shadow of China’s leader”. Shinde pointed out that “Delhi has been expanding cooperation with its Western partners for two decades now. However, the significance of Modi’s presence in picturesque Apulia (at the recent G7 summit) stands in stark contrast to him skipping the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Astana, scheduled to be held this week”. He explained that “India’s hesitancy to participate in the SCO at the top-level stems from its China conundrum. In recent years, Moscow’s growing dependence on Beijing and Xi’s foreign policy assertiveness has made China the key fulcrum in SCO manoeuvres. India is circumspect about this. With Modi’s absence, Delhi is telling its Chinese interlocutors that relations are under severe strain. Unless the Chinese roll back their aggressive posture in the Himalayas, the space for engagement between the two Asian neighbours is scarce. The SCO has a distinct security sentiment around it – unlike BRICS, which also includes Russia, China and India, but carries more of an economic ring”.

Henry Meyer and Sudhi Ranjan Sen wrote in Bloomberg on 2 July that “Worried by deepening China-Russia relations, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is heading to Moscow next week for talks with President Vladimir Putin, his first visit to the country since the Kremlin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The meeting, which will help Putin to counter Western efforts to cast him as a pariah, comes two months after Putin went to China for the first foreign visit of his new term. That trip underlined Moscow’s increasing dependence on Beijing, which India has eyed warily”. They quoted Swasti Rao, an associate fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute For Defence Studies and Analyses, an Indian Defense Ministry-backed research group in New Delhi, as saying that “The deepening of the strategic alignment between Russia and China is uncomfortable for New Delhi because it’s like your best friend sleeping with the enemy. Given that we have these concerns it makes sense for the prime minister to go there and talk to Putin at the highest level”.

India has been wary about Russia’s strengthening ties with China, which have been gathering momentum in the wake of Moscow’s isolation from the West. Modi has visited Russia five times in the past decade, but he has not made a bilateral trip to Moscow since 2019. Even considering the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a lengthy gap, particularly since India and Russia agreed to hold annual summits after their relationship was upgraded to a strategic partnership in 2000. Nandan Unnikrishnan, distinguished fellow and Russia specialist at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) think tank in New Delhi, opined that the lack of Modi’s visits to Moscow had given “rise to speculation that there was some kind of drift in the Indo-Russia relationship. So I think Modi’s visit will put an end to that kind of speculation. And we don’t want to spoil our relationship with any party, whether it's Russia, the United States, or anyone because of another relationship”. On the aims of the visit, he felt that it “will go a long way in removing some of the apprehensions about waning political ties between the two countries, and allow the leaders to resolve pending issues”.

Venkatesh Verma, a former Indian Ambassador to Moscow, expressed a similar view. He told the Indian daily The Hindu that “The break in regular summitry — initially due to Covid, and a rapidly changing international situation — make it imperative that both sides reverse the perception in the international community of a drift in bilateral relations. Hence, the visit is timely, but also overdue to recharge the wellsprings of the strategic partnership”.

Aleksei Zakharov, a Moscow-based expert on India, believes that “The visit of a leader of a State such as India demonstrates that Russia isn’t facing international isolation, and for the Kremlin this is very important”. Zakharov continued, “It will be a good opportunity for Moscow to project in the media the image of President Putin receiving a leader of a country like India in the context of the Washington summit. India’s objective is to ensure that Russia is not in China’s corner and that, even if it does not explicitly support India, it maintains a permanent neutrality in the India-China territorial disputes”.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov remarked at a foreign policy conference on 26 June that the visit of the Indian leader aligns with Moscow’s strategic foreign policy approach. He said, while accusing the US of “trying to drag India into the anti-China project”, that “India is one of our oldest strategic partners, starting from independence and subsequently, when we contributed to the formation of the Indian state, economy, military, and tried to do everything to calm the situation between India and Pakistan as much as possible”.

Interestingly, Lavrov reminded that the Russia, India and China had not met in the RIC troika format for several years, but stated that efforts were being made for another meeting. Lavrov revealed that Russia had proposed a RIC meeting about a year ago, but India has been hesitant due to the continuing stand-off at the border with China. He was quoted as saying, “It does not meet very often now, but that is not our fault. However, there are plans to revive this format”. Lavrov elaborated that “Approximately a year ago, we proposed assembling the RIC trio. Recently, we returned to this idea again. However, Indian friends believe that first, the situation on the border must be fully resolved. We understand this. But the desire to maintain trilateral cooperation is evident both in Beijing and in New Delhi. I am convinced that we will all benefit if this trio develops common approaches and strives to unify our positions on key issues of the Eurasian continent and the global agenda”.

Amit Ranjan, research fellow with National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian studies, told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that Modi’s absence from the SCO summit was likely due to busy domestic and travelling schedules. He noted that Modi had returned to power with a “much narrower majority in parliament”, and the dates of the first session of India’s new parliament coincided with those of the summit. Ranjan, however, also suggested that Modi may have wanted to avoid “coming across” Xi at the SCO, as “relations between their nations remain fraught since they last met on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in South Africa last year. Meanwhile, India has been seen to increasingly align with the US strategy in the Indo-Pacific, while competing with Beijing for leadership of the Global South. The two Asian powers have also clashed over a long-standing border dispute”. He added, “India’s foreign policy, it’s more based on its national interest … it may be like India feels that they are going to gain more by engaging with Japan or the US or Russia than by directly engaging with China”.

Amit Ranjan, however, also pointed to some recent positives that had been observed in India-China relations.  He said Beijing’s recent appointment of Xu Feihong as its new Ambassador to India, a position which had been left vacant for 18 months, signaled that both sides wanted to improve relations. He felt that more diplomacy was required, and would be best served by meetings between Jaishankar and Wang Yi to build a “conducive” environment for a leaders’ meeting later on. He concluded, “So the communication channels are there. They have to engage at the lower levels … unless that starts, it’s very tough for two leaders to meet”.

Navigating the complex and constantly shifting geo-political and geo-strategic landscapes is proving to be challenging for most countries, and for India, the choices that it makes going forward will definitely be influenced by how its tumultuous relationship with China evolves.