Leaders of Russia, China and India, along with those of Central Asian States, who met in the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek on 13-14 June, may have found that an otherwise low-profile organisation has been catapulted into the front lines all of a sudden. This, at a time when a full fledged trade war seems imminent and other power centres like Europe are in disarray.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), formed in April 1996, was dismissed as a non-starter for years, given its rather expansive mandate and the wariness between its major members Russia and China. There was also no major interest when the SCO expanded to include India and Pakistan in June 2017, after a period of protracted wrangling. At the time, there were many in India who felt New Delhi was wasting political capital by trying to join a China-dominated grouping. But matters have shifted a great deal since then, particularly in the run-up to the summit in Bishkek.
First was the rising bonhomie between Russia and China, seen most recently at the meeting between presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping on 5 June, where there was talk of "unprecedented" cooperation. They also signed deals worth $20 billion, including in the field of energy, further elevating Russia's position as China's largest oil supplier. Other deals included one with Huawei to develop Russia's 5G network, at a time when the Chinese telecom giant is in the cross hairs of US ire.
Just days later, on 7 June, American and Russian warships nearly collided close to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are at the centre of US-China tensions in the region. The apparently growing amity between Russia and China could provide the SCO the heft it earlier lacked, but most observers see this as a development that puts India in a rather awkward spot.
New Delhi's entry into the SCO with Russian backing carried with it a certain calculus of strengthening the hand of a weakened Moscow even while hedging against rising Chinese presence in Central and South Asia. This calculation is relevant even today. Moscow still balks against allowing Beijing a free rein in Central Asia by letting demands for an SCO bank or a free trade area slide for the moment.
At Bishkek, Moscow opted to bestow a prestigious honour on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and invited him to be the main guest at the Eastern Economic Forum. The forum is a Putin initiative to get investors into its remote east, where Chinese population has been estimated at variably between 35,000 and 300,000, fuelling resentment that is getting political overtones. Much will depend on India's ability to keep Russia engaged, mainly in terms of investment in these remote areas and more 'Make in India' programmes that should not be limited to just defence.
China and India are also mending fences. India has chosen to keep silent on Beijing's actions in Xinjiang province amid widespread reports of mass 're-education camps' of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the region. Critics say this is a poor response to Beijing shrillness on areas such as the dispute over Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its own.
However, Beijing seems keen on keeping the new Modi government in good humour. At Bishkek, China agreed to hold Wuhan 2 in India in late 2019, while Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale announced a trilateral meet among India, China and Russia at Osaka next month. At his meeting with Xi at Bishkek, Modi also called for making much of the 70th anniversary of India-China relations, with both agreeing that boundary disputes should be dealt with by keeping their ties in mind in the "larger context".
It is this larger context that is rather problematic. At SCO, India signed on to the call for a "rule-based, transparent, non-discriminatory, open and inclusive multilateral trading system, centered around the World Trade Organization's unilateralism and protectionism" " a statement that can rile up Washington. But Delhi, under new External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, is following an 'issue-based' policy, and the SCO meet seems to provide the perfect platform to demonstrate that.
The final Bishkek Declaration 2019 also flags India's main concerns regarding terrorism and Afghan stability, both of which are also of concern to China. Although the communiquÃ© adopted a Christmas tree approach, calling for strict compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, for instance, even while supporting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran " which has an observer status at the SCO " it did have a substantial focus on terrorism, the reference to 'unsettled conflicts' notwithstanding.
The SCO also has its own Contact Group on Afghanistan, not to mention the Moscow consultations, both forums at which India has a role.
While these positions reflect a definite commonality, it's far from being a Russia-China-India triangle that can challenge US interests. The Chinese backing of Pakistan's diverse capabilities, including in the nuclear field, the fact that India, unlike other SCO members, chose to opt out of the section applauding China's Belt and Road Initiative and the fact that the Chinese Ambassador in Delhi has no compunctions of showing all of this in his tweets seem to point to the fact that there is not much amity between Delhi and Beijing even id border disputes are set aside.
In the final analysis we must note that the SCO hasn't really delivered much on any of the initiatives India proposed at earlier summits " in terms of connectivity, for instance " the grouping offers a 'third pole' in some messy areas like trade, Afghanistan and terrorism. It's not a forum where India has a huge weight, dwarfed by China and, in some instances, Russia. It's also rather useful in terms of those useful meetings on the sidelines with leaders of Central Asia, which is beginning to draw New Delhi's attention more and more now after languishing for so long on the sidelines.
Overall, the SCO is still in the position of being a little something on the side; it's not the main dish yet. That can change only if the US continues to push allies and friends into alternative arms through its lackluster trade policies. And that's not likely to change either.
These leave the situation at a stalemate for the moment. India has time to consider the soup.