By Swaran Singh/China Daily
New Delhi, July 3: At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Goa, India, in May, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that we can together make the SCO Summit in New Delhi a great success. This indicated India may host an in-person SCO Summit in New Delhi in July, and amid continuing China-India tensions, it raised hopes that the two sides would find an early breakthrough to ensure the Chinese leader attends the summit.
But earlier this month India announced that it would host the SCO Summit in a virtual format, igniting speculations on what factors influenced India’s decision and what can be expected from the online summit. As of now, there has been no official word on what made New Delhi decide to host the summit online. The only thing India has said is that it had never announced that it would host an in-person summit.
Among the many speculations on what could have prompted India to take such a decision, the Russia-Ukraine military conflict — which has repeatedly created difficulties for reaching a consensus at the SCO and G20 meetings at various levels — remains the most agreeable explanation.
Notwithstanding these for-and-against arguments, an online summit will add to India’s challenges as a host nation trying to build consensus on several complex issues with the participating countries having different predispositions.
The foremost causality of online interaction will be the absence of any bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the summit. It is commonplace today that bilateral meetings at multilateral forums often result in important breakthroughs. This is because leaders meet each other without the pressure of media glare or high expectations.
But not all is lost as the pandemic years saw national leaders shifting to online interactions. Besides, the annual SCO Summit is always preceded by dozens of meetings among academics, experts, media outlets, business leaders, officials, advisers and ministers from the member countries that have continued to build momentum, strengthening the domestic constituencies of the participating countries.
These meetings have been held in person and gave India multiple opportunities to share and showcase its vision, culture and development projects, and reconnect at various levels with more than a dozen countries, including observer states, dialogue partners, special invitees and soon-to-become members, which constitute the SCO.
Today, the SCO member states are the major drivers of global growth and social transformation, and it is a matter of pride for India to chair this year’s proceedings. Way beyond India’s connection with the SCO’s focal areas of energy security and counter-terrorism — which brought India closer to the SCO — New Delhi is exploring expanded economic integration with the larger Eurasian region.
The SCO stands at the cusp of another expansion with a large number of countries willing to join as members, observers or dialogue partners. From 2001, for its first 15 years, the SCO was not open for new members. It included India and Pakistan as members only in 2017 and will add Iran in its members’ list soon and Belarus next.
Culture remains the bedrock of the SCO countries’ most enduring socio-emotional connection. While Buddhism and Islam connected their peoples in the past, UNESCO World Heritage Sites contribute to it in a big way today because among them the SCO member states, observers and partners have 207 heritage sites. Also, in March, the SCO tourism ministers decided to designate one city, rotation-wise, from among the SCO member states, as a tourism and cultural capital for each year. With India as chair this year, India’s Varanasi was chosen as the SCO’s first cultural capital for one year. Varanasi is the Indian prime minister’s parliamentary constituency.
India’s engagement with the SCO which was once premised on Moscow’s primacy in Eurasia and Russia’s unstinted support for India’s regional interests have also helped the country to showcase itself not just as a new SCO member but also as a partner along with China and Russia. The SCO has been a bedrock for India’s sustained proactive neutrality in the Ukraine crisis.
As New Delhi gets ready to host the online SCO Summit, it remains aware of the uncertainties and challenges that need to be addressed in time. The SCO’s track record so far reassures India of building consensus on several initiatives.
(The author is a professor of international relations at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi).