Modi at SCO: India-China ties under spotlight at key security summit

By Zoya Mateen
BBC News, Delhi

  • Published
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) pose for a group photo prior to their trilateral meeting at the G20 Osaka Summit 2019 on June 28, 2019 in Osaka, Japan.Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Narendra Modi and his Russian and Chinese counterparts will be meeting in Uzbekistan for a summit

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to join Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a security summit that is being described as an "alternative" to the West.

Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) - which includes Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Central Asian nations - are meeting in Uzbekistan on 15 and 16 September.

The war in Ukraine and growing tensions between China and the West are expected to loom large over the talks.

But the spotlight will also be on Mr Modi who is expected to hold talks with his Russian and Chinese counterparts.

What is India's role in the summit?

India occupies a somewhat unique position in the SCO. While Delhi is a full-time member of the group led by Beijing and Russia, it's also a part of the Quad, an alliance with the US, Japan and Australia.

Both Beijing and Moscow have criticised the Quad. Chinese officials have even termed it the "Asian Nato". Delhi has been balancing this diplomatic tightrope as it wants to keep its relations cordial with the West and also Russia.

Despite pressures from the West, Delhi didn't condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine directly. However, it did talk about the importance of respecting territorial boundaries and backed talks to resolve the crisis.

Delhi has also increased its oil imports from Moscow - something which is likely to come up when Mr Modi holds bilateral talks with Mr Putin on Thursday.

The two leaders will discuss Russian-Indian cooperation within the UN and the G20, Russian Presidential aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters.

"This is particularly important because India will preside in the UN Security Council in December, and in 2023, India will lead the SCO and also chair the G20," he was quoted as saying.

This will also be the first time that Mr Modi and Mr Xi will come face to face since clashes between the two countries' armies in 2020. The clash over a long-running Himalayan border dispute left 20 Indian soldiers dead; China said later it lost four troops.

The two sides have just completed a fourth round of disengagement at one of the main friction points after a year-long stalemate, according to reports.

There is also speculation over whether Mr Modi will have any substantial discussions with his Pakistani counterpart Shahbaz Sharif, who became PM in April.

Relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours have long been strained, and tensions have routinely spilled over at the SCO.

In September 2020, India walked out of an SCO meeting of national security advisers, saying Pakistan had used a "fictitious" map of it territory which included Indian states.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
This would be Shehbaz Sharif's first SCO summit as the prime minister of Pakistan

Relations had already hit a new low in 2019 when India stripped the portion of disputed Kashmir that it administers - which is also claimed by Pakistan - of special autonomy, and split it into two federally-administered territories.

Pakistan's then prime minister Imran Khan indefinitely suspended trade with India.

But reports suggest relations could thaw at the summit in Uzbekistan, especially since Pakistan has a new prime minister.

In April, Pakistan's foreign minister had expressed interest in resuming trade with India and criticised the previous government for keeping Pakistan "internationally isolated and internationally disengaged".

Some analysts say India sharing space with Pakistan at a summit that is, among others things, focused on fighting terror is also odd - Delhi blames Islamabad for funding terror groups that target India.

Why does the summit matter?

China, Russia and four Central Asian states - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - formed the SCO in 2001 to curb extremism in the region and enhance border security.

India and Pakistan joined the group in 2017 in its first round of expansion, while Iran is set to become a full member this time.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Russia and China are the dominant members of the SCO

The SCO was widely viewed as a countermeasure to limit the influence of Western alliances such as Nato.

While its impact has been limited, analysts say its influence as one of the largest trans-regional international blocs cannot be overstated.

The group accounts for almost 44% of the world's population - stretching from the Arctic Ocean and Indian Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean and Baltic Sea at the other end - and more than 30% of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Over the years, its activities have expanded from regional security to include economics, trade and even law enforcement. Observers say the bloc also has great economic potential with more countries joining as members or partners.

But analysts say the bloc remains dominated by China and Russia.

Moscow regards Central Asia as its sphere of influence but Beijing's economic footprint has also been steadily rising, earning it considerable political clout in the region.

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