The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) resumed in-person summits last week in the wake of the COVID pandemic and at a moment of unprecedent change and challenge. Member states Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are at war over their border. So are dialogue partner states Armenia and Azerbaijan. All SCO members are dealing with the economic impact of the Russian war in Ukraine as well as climate disruptions like the floods overwhelming Pakistan. Mistrust between India and Pakistan, full members since 2017, make cooperation difficult on the SCO’s original core mission of counterterrorism. And India and China, which were building toward the “Wuhan spirit” of cooperation when India joined in 2017, are hardly on speaking terms despite recent progress toward deescalating a friction point along their disputed Line of Actual Control.

From left to right, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the 2016 BRICS Summit-2016, in Goam India, October 16, 2016.
The leaders of China, India and Russia walk to a meeting in 2016. As they met again last week amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, each one pursued specific domestic or foreign policy goals. (Government of India Press Information Bureau)

The leaders of the SCO’s three giants — China, India and Russia — joined the SCO with a host of challenges to confront and interests to advance. USIP’s Cordelia Buchanan Ponczek, Mary Glantz, Carla Freeman and Vikram Singh look at what they hoped to achieve at this year’s SCO summit.

Russia: Putin Pushes Back on Pariah Status

Buchanan Ponczek and Glantz: Russian President Vladimir Putin went to the SCO summit last week with two objectives: to show Russia is not isolated and to emphasize Russia’s continued international sway. The first simply required Putin show up and attend and a Russian delegation, including Putin, was there. Putin’s point was to establish that Russia is not isolated, despite the West’s best efforts.

The second objective, entangled with the first, was far more complex. Russia must do more than prove it is not a pariah — Putin must show Russia still holds regional and international clout. This arguably did not go so well. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov each kept Putin waiting on two separate occasions. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi commented specifically to Putin that “today’s era is not an era of war.” Chinese President Xi Jinping attended, and while he did not venture into such obviously critical territory as Modi, it was Putin who was forced to acknowledge China’s “questions and concerns” over Ukraine — implying that somehow, somewhere, China has raised such concerns to Russia. Neither China nor India appeared to give any support to Russia over Ukraine. (So far there are no indicators that China has provided Russia with military equipment, showing the limits of the supposedly “limitless” partnership.)

Where does this place Putin? Where supposed allies like the SCO are concerned, Russia is in the maintenance phase; it is neither an offensive position nor a defensive one. The maintenance phase is a position where Russia needs to tolerate such humiliation as being made to wait by less powerful leaders, or rebuke, or silence from equally powerful countries. Because Russia needs these countries now, Putin cannot afford to avoid even the most lukewarm of allies.

The next international summit that Putin is confirmed to attend is the G-20 summit, to be held in Bali, Indonesia, in November. There, the crowd will be very different, but Putin’s objectives will potentially be much the same.

China: Xi Calls for Solidarity Amid Uncertainty

Freeman: Xi’s participation in the SCO meeting ends a 1,000-day period in which he did not leave China in line with Beijing’s national “dynamic zero COVID” policy that has put the world’s most populous country on virtual lockdown. Xi’s first venture across international borders began with a stop in Kazakhstan for a state visit en route to the SCO Council of Heads of State meeting in Uzbekistan. Xi thus started a new post-COVID chapter of foreign policy in Central Asia, a part of China’s regional neighborhood that has, since the fall of the Soviet Union, been among the friendliest to China.

Xi appears to have pursued three principal objectives at the SCO meeting. First, Xi’s foreign travel just a month before of the 20th Party Conference was a demonstration of his confidence ahead of a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party that is expected to confirm him as China’s leader for another five-year period. The SCO provided an ideal stage for Xi to present himself as the most powerful leader in a grouping that bills itself as the world’s largest regional organization. Second, Xi used his attendance at the SCO to urge greater SCO solidarity in the face of rising global uncertainty, raising the specter of threats to members’ national sovereignty from external interference. Third and finally, Xi used the SCO platform to promote a number of his latest signature global initiatives. What was not on Xi’s SCO agenda was thawing the chill between China and India. Amid Xi’s numerous bilateral meetings with other SCO members, he pointedly did not meet with Modi, despite the recent disengagement by Indian and Chinese soldiers along the two countries’ disputed border.

Xi largely succeeded in achieving his first goal. At a forum long seen as dually headed by Beijing and Moscow, Putin found himself on the defensive as he faced criticism for the war in Ukraine. Speaking with Xi on the sidelines of the SCO meeting, Putin publicly acknowledged Chinese concerns, while also praising Beijing’s “balanced” approach to the conflict. A Chinese government statement following the Xi-Putin bilateral expressed “strong support” for Russia’s “core interests.” However, Putin’s assurance at this first face-to- face meeting with Xi since the Ukraine conflict began that he would provide a “detailed explanation” of Russia’s stand on the “Ukrainian crisis” made clear the Russian leader felt he had to respond publicly to Beijing’s dissatisfaction.

At the same time, Xi used the SCO gathering as an opportunity to criticize the West, though indirectly, as the source of international turbulence through a “Cold War mentality and group politics,” a view notably in line with that articulated by Putin. Xi advocated for greater international leadership by the SCO in countering international challenges, urging SCO-member cooperation in countering efforts “by external forces to instigate ‘color revolution.’” 

Xi also used the SCO platform to tout his two new global frameworks, the Global Security Initiative (GSI) and Global Development Initiative (GDI), presenting proposals that suggest how the two vaguely defined concepts may be used in Chinese foreign and security policy. As part of China’s GDI, Xi indicated China was prepared to offer grain and other humanitarian assistance to developing countries. Concrete proposals associated with the GSI suggest it will serve to channel Chinese assistance to strengthen states’ domestic security capabilities. Xi offered Chinese support for law enforcement personnel for SCO member states and floated a China-SCO base for training counterterrorism personnel from SCO member states. 

India: Modi Moves on Multipolarity

Singh: For Modi, the state of affairs within Asia mirrors India’s view of the state of the world and is a good reason for Indian engagement: multipolarity. Asia leads global economic growth, but it is also one of the most fragmented regions of the world. Speaking in Mumbai recently, Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishanker said, “We can reasonably expect Asia to continue rising because the economic and demographic trends point in that direction. How divided it would be depends on how well or badly its fissures are managed.”

As a rising power, India sees opportunities to lead this emerging multipolar order in its immediate region and globally. Modi’s mission in Samarakand, Uzbekistan (where the summit was held) was to present India as the torchbearer for a benign and constructive form of regional cooperation. With some subtlety, India is telling Central Asian partners and the world that New Delhi is the power that actually lives the values of sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference and peaceful resolution of disputes (in contrast to both Russia and China).

Press coverage of Modi’s visit was dominated by his rebuke of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the war in Ukraine. In saying to Putin, “Today’s era is not an era of war,” Modi presented India again as a standard-bearer and norm-setter for a modus vivendi in an era of multipolarity. In his formal remarks, Modi highlighted the challenges of inflation and food insecurity, blaming them on the pandemic and the “crisis in Ukraine,” again, gently singling out Putin for disrupting the stability and return to economic cooperation India hopes to see.

Within a multipolar order, India advocates and practices a new and flexible multilateralism to supplement standing structures — from the U.N. to Association of Southeast Asian Nations to the SCO — with ad-hoc cooperative arrangements. The “Quad” of India, the United States, Japan and Australia and the “I2U2” of India, Israel, the United States and the United Arab Emirates, are the most prominent examples of such mechanisms. New Delhi believes these informal groupings will rack up concrete achievements more quickly than formal organizations.

A second objective was to set a regional agenda on affirmative issues that matter to India — like food security, connectivity and innovation — as it seeks to resume its place as the world’s fastest growing economy. Modi offered the SCO expertise on millets, for example, as a path to greater food security and proposed that India could help SCO members with a working group on startups and innovation.

Finally, Modi used the forum as an opportunity for bilateral engagements, but pointedly skipped any engagement with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

The most important of these engagements was a bilateral reset with Turkey. Indo-Turkish relations have been difficult since Erdoğan criticized India’s abrogation of Article 370 and regional autonomy in Kashmir in 2019, and the meeting was designed to reopen the door to cooperation on all issues. The second important bilateral was with Iran, as it was Modi’s first meeting with President Ebrahim Raisi since his inauguration. Modi encouraged a return to the nuclear deal with the United States, Europe and Russia. The more important discussions were on Afghanistan, however, and continued development of Iran’s Chabahar Port, which gives India its only surface access to Central Asia.

Cordelia Buchanan Ponczek is a visiting research assistant for USIP’s Russia and Europe Center.

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