The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held its 22nd summit meeting last week, under the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its effects. The meeting was held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Sino-Indian border tensions, in addition to the outbreak of conflict on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, too.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came face to face for the first time since the beginning of the Galwan conflict in Ladakh more than two years ago, though they did not have a separate bilateral meeting. Despite the fact both Modi and Xi stood next to each other, there was no smile or handshake exchanged between the two leaders.
The SCO includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan; India and Pakistan joined the SCO in 2017. The 2022 summit featured two sessions – a restricted meeting among the heads of SCO member states, and an extended session involving the countries that enjoy observer status within SCO, such as Iran and Afghanistan, and those that were special invitees of Uzbekistan, which was hosting the summit. With the conclusion of the summit, Uzbekistan handed over the rotating presidency of the SCO to India.
Following the summit meetings, Modi had bilateral meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. As for the Modi-Putin meeting, it clearly was not the most pleasant interaction. In fact, for the first time, India expressed its annoyance publicly at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with Modi saying that “today’s era is not of war and we have spoken to you many times on the phone that democracy, diplomacy and dialogue are such things that touch the world.” He added his concerns about food and fertilizers shortages and fuel security. Putin’s response was even more snappy, when he said that “I know your position on the conflict in Ukraine, the concerns that you constantly express. We will do everything to stop this as soon as possible.” Further, Putin blamed Ukraine for the continuing violence, saying that Ukraine had rejected negotiations.
In his remarks at the SCO summit, Modi raised the issues of COVID-19 and the Ukraine conflict, which have brought to the fore challenges that arise from supply chain disruptions, which has led to “an unprecedented energy and food crisis.” He also called upon the SCO to become adaptable and “develop reliable, resilient and diversified supply chains,” which “will require better connectivity, as well as it will be important that we all give each other full right to transit.”
The SCO’s purpose is increasingly in question, considering the fact that there are serious internal disagreements and suspicions within the group. Even as China is Russia’s closest strategic partner, Moscow had its own wariness about Beijing and how that relationship will pan out in the future is unclear. Xi appeared unhappy with how Putin has handled its invasion of Ukraine because of the complications that have risen as a consequence of the war.
India-Russia relations have also not been at their best for a few years now. Given the growing strategic proximity between Russia and China, it is unlikely that the problems that are confronting India-Russia relations are going to disappear anytime soon. In fact, the challenges could become insurmountable because Russia may continue to seek a closer partnership with China in the face of increasing hostilities between Russia and the West. But for India, China is the number one national security threat, and with Russia developing closer relationship with China at India’s expense, wider rifts are being created in the India-Russia relationship.
Beyond the diplomatic niceties, Russia has also been selling more advanced weapon platforms to China, which have material consequences affecting India’s national security and the military balance between India and China. Nevertheless, a Russia that is weakened and cannot even successfully prosecute a war against a much weaker neighbor like Ukraine is likely to be much less of an asset to China. Although Russia can provide natural resources, including energy supplies, and some legacy high technology, the relationship between the two could become lopsided because Russia is now much more beholden to China.
India’s efforts to maintain strong relations with Russia have also grown to become a bigger irritant to India’s new security partners including the United States, Japan, Australia, and France. These new security partnerships are critical for India in managing the growing muscular China. Thus, it is not a surprise that India is putting some distance with Russia.
All in all, this has been a rather humiliating and unsuccessful summit for Putin. The SCO may survive, but its recovery will take some time.