In both the SCO and the G20, Prime Minister Modi has made certain that India would play with a straight bat, and be fair and respectful of the rights of all, writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat
When opinions were informally sought about whether the 2023 SCO Summit chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi should be held in physical or virtual format, the loudest voice in favour of the latter came from Beijing. Soundings in that capital indicate that the Chinese side had been working behind the scenes to persuade members to opt for the virtual format, as this was seen as being less attention-grabbing by world media than physical attendance by the leaders at the summit meeting.
New Delhi has shown itself capable of hosting summit-level meetings with ease and precision, and the switch to a virtual format did nothing to reduce the significance of the 2023 SCO Summit. Attention was centred on Russian President Vladimir Putin as to whether the leader who was now under siege from NATO would please the Chinese side by offering only a perfunctory “Thank You” to the Summit host, PM Modi.
Instead, in the presence of Xi Jinping, who seemed less than comfortable at the warmth of Putin’s remarks, the Russian President was straightforward and indeed effusive in expressing his appreciation for the way in which 2023 SCO Chairperson Modi had ensured that the organisation was bequeathed a novel and comprehensive agenda focused not just on members of the SCO but very substantially the Global South as well, a zone whose interests have been championed from the start of his tenure by SCO Chairperson Modi.
More than the visible, especially formal, diplomacy, what needs to be watched in the context of deciphering the intentions of the CCP leadership helmed by General Secretary Xi are the off-the-record, informal views expressed by Chinese diplomats to “friendly” foreign counterparts in non-western capitals.
Soundings indicate that the primary (albeit private) message disseminated by Beijing within the membership of key players within the Global South was that India had joined Japan, Germany and the UK in lockstep “following the US line on policy”, diplomatese about commitment to multilateralism notwithstanding. There was particular angst in an important SCO capital at the red carpet welcome given to PM Modi during his recent State Visit to the US.
A particular object of concern was the agreements on technology and defence cooperation signed during the visit. The worry in Beijing and Moscow was that such an event marked the start of substantial collaboration between the US and India in the joint development and production of technology platforms, including those pertaining to the military. After the visit, the informal messaging from Beijing was that India had surrendered the freedom of action it had during the Good Old Days (although not usually for India) of Non-Alignment, and that Delhi was now following cues from Washington in the way that London, Tokyo and Berlin were doing.
INDIA RETAINS FREEDOM OF ACTION
India, while certainly a partner of the US, especially in matters relating to the Indo-Pacific, nevertheless retains freedom of action. This was made clear at Prime Minister Modi’s speech at the SCO Summit. It was clear in the warmth of the support shown by Modi to the entry of Iran into the SCO, alongside his consistent support for that country’s membership in the SCO from the start of discussions about including Tehran within the SCO. The welcome by PM Modi to President Ibrahim Raisi showed that the diplomats of a particular member of the SCO who were privately deriding India as a “camp follower” of the US were either being economical with the truth, or they had misread India in this matter just as the CCP had in so many other ways in the past. Such misreading of signals from India in Beijing multiplied after 2014, when a transformation got initiated in both foreign and domestic policy with the swearing-in Narendra Modi as Prime Minister.
While both Xi and Putin used the SCO Summit to launch open or veiled broadsides against the US, such as Xi’s reference to “colour revolutions”, Prime Minister Modi remained focused on the collective SCO mandate of improving relations within the group so as to better promote the objective of economic growth and a clean environment. He refused to join in efforts at converting the SCO into an anti-Western grouping. The Chairperson’s moderate approach privately found favour with the Central Asian members of the group, who are unhappy at pressure exerted on them to distance themselves from the Atlantic Alliance.
The presence of India in the SCO has ensured that efforts at tethering the group to Beijing’s side in the era of Cold War 2.0 has not succeeded. In much the same way, the presence of India as 2023 Chair of the G20 has ensured the prevention of the efforts being made by some NATO member-countries to return the globe to the era of Cold War 1.0. In both the SCO as well as the G20, Prime Minister Modi made certain that India would play with a straight bat, and be fair and respectful of the rights of all. Such courtesy was extended even to those countries that were hostile to the success of the world’s most populous democracy.
The continuing influence of Cold War 1.0 warriors within the US and its transcontinental allies has resulted in NATO ignoring the reality of the US-USSR Cold War having been superseded by Cold War 2.0 (in which China has replaced Russia as the principal protagonist). The obsession by Cold War 1.0 warriors with Russia has resulted in a reversion of Atlanticist attention back towards issues relating solely to Europe, thereby losing sight of the need for reconfiguring resources and strategy to counter a country that poses a challenge entirely different from that which was faced by the western democracies during the 1945-91 Cold War 1.0 era. The war in Ukraine has been a boon to China, which to its benefit is witnessing both NATO and Russia slugging it out in a quagmire that is causing economic and other human distress worldwide.
A weakened Moscow will be much more susceptible to guidance from Beijing than a strong Russia. An example of the way in which Russia’s freedom of action has been curtailed by its “no limits” partner in Asia is the manner in which the Kremlin asked India to use (of all currencies) the Chinese RMB in the payments made for Russian oil. In contrast, more than 80% of the (much larger) petroproduct trade between Russia and China is either in RMB or in Russian roubles. Had the same yardstick been allowed to have been used in the case of India and a rupee-rouble trade established, Russia could have used the Indian rupees it would thereby accumulate to set up refineries and other manufacturing plants in India that would have enabled Russia to significantly expand its overseas trade.
Such an outcome would have come about even if only 50% (rather than the 80% RMB-rouble trade between China and Russia) of Indo-Russian trade was in rupees and roubles. Of course, such an economic windfall to Russia and India would not be to the liking of Beijing, which has emerged as the Tertius Gaudens (Golden Third Party) in the NATO-Russia slugfest. From the start of the conflict, Prime Minister Modi has called for an immediate end to the Russia-Ukraine war, an eventuality towards which India with its nuanced diplomacy has the capability to play a catalytic role. The circumstances for such diplomacy will arise once the Cold War 1.0 warriors in Washington, Berlin and London are shown to be as unmindful of current threats as their counterparts were throughout the 1930s in Europe.
An immediate ceasefire between both sides and the setting up of a Line of Control separating the two can resolve the conflict, but that is possible only after Cold War 1.0 believers are stopped from the impossible task of seeking the return to control by Kiev of all the territory lost to it since 2014. Prime Minister Modi drew pointed attention at the 4 July Summit at the grievous damage being caused to the global economy as a consequence of the prolongation of the Russia-Ukraine war. The rift between the pair within the SCO who back extremism and the rest who oppose it, was diplomatically conveyed by Chairperson Modi at the Summit, as for instance when he said that India stands with “most” members on Afghanistan. It was clear which pair he was referring to when he pointedly used the word “most SCO countries”, while mentioning what India’s stand on that tortured country was.
END TO UKRAINE CONFLICT NEEDED
In September, should the key G20 members come to Delhi for the summit chaired by Prime Minister Modi, a start could be made in private meetings in Delhi towards a realistic resolution of the present conflict that leaves both Ukraine and Russia without securing their maximalist demands, but ends a war that carries the constant risk of careening out of control. Given his close and separate relationship with both Biden and Putin, it could be Modi who may finally succeed in ending the Russia-Ukraine war and thereby returning Europe to its peacetime past. Clean growth, peacebuilding and establishing a Zero Tolerance stance towards terrorism were among the key points stressed by 2023 SCO Chairperson Modi.
The Central Asian republics in particular are each battling extremist elements, the removal of which is sought both by Russia and India. In contrast, China has long been following a policy of giving substantial support to the Pakistan military and its terror auxiliaries. The contradiction between such a policy and the overall interests of the SCO were gently stressed by PM Modi in his opening remarks at the Summit. The link of Pakistan to terror came out in full view when Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif made disapproving comments about the references to terror by Conference Chairperson Modi, a Freudian slip given that no country had been named by the Prime Minister.
2023 has been a challenging year for India, but as a consequence, the country has shown that it can play the role of a fair and capable intermediary in several matters where joint action by geopolitical adversaries is needed. At the SCO Summit, this quality was on display, and as a consequence, not just the 4 July Summit but the entire year has proceeded at a steady, balanced pace. This is the best rationale for India remaining within the SCO, while the country strengthens ties with the G7 and with not just the G20 but the G200, representing the Global South. India’s performance in its joint leadership during 2023 of the G20 and the SCO has shown just why the UNSC as currently constituted is in need of serious reform if it is to be rescued from its present state of paralysis and name-calling.