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How Modi’s “middle path” at the SCO summit advanced India’s core interests – by Kanwal Sibal

New Delhi, Sep 210, 2022- Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Samarkand has to be seen in the context of the several geopolitical dimensions of this organisation which also have a bearing on India’s strategic interests. These include stability in Central Asia, combating terrorism and religious extremism, China’s role in the region, promoting multipolarity.

This summit took place when Russia is involved in the Ukraine conflict and China has committed aggression against India in Ladakh. In fact, its forces are still massed there, and it continues to expand its military infrastructure across the length of our border.

Relations between the US and both Russia and China have deteriorated sharply, while our relations with the US have greatly improved. The US and Europe are also unhappy with us on our unwillingness to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine.

At the summit, therefore, PM Modi had to engage in carefully balanced diplomacy that would preserve our equities with all sides. His remarks at the summit were therefore carefully crafted. He confined them to India’s achievements in specific sectors, with an eye on the prospects this creates for beneficial cooperation primarily with the Central Asian states.

He noted that India will grow 7.5 per cent this year – the highest amongst the world’s largest economies (more than China with President Xi listening). He mentioned the strides made by India in innovation with more than 70,000 Start-ups and more than 100 unicorns.

He offered to set up a new Special Working Group on Start-ups and Innovation in the SCO. In the area of food security, he emphasised the promotion and cultivation of millets and proposed a Millet Food Festival under the SCO. Capitalising on the setting up of a WHO Global Centre for Traditional Medicine in Gujarat (China lost out) he announced an Indian initiative to establish a new SCO Working Group on Traditional Medicine.

Prime Minister Modi eschewed any reference to terrorism or security issues in general, which would have been normal, if made, given our concerns that we share with Central Asia. He steered clear of all that could be construed as having an anti-West connotation. He mentioned the Ukraine crisis (to avoid any criticism that he was ignoring the issue), but in the context of disruption of global supply chains resulting in the whole world facing an unprecedented energy and food crisis.

He bracketed it with the pandemic and stressed the need to develop reliable, resilient and diversified supply chains in our region (a dig at China), which would need better connectivity, and in stating that “we all give each other full right to transit), he implicitly drew attention to Pakistan’s failure in this regard, with the Pakistan PM listening in.

There was some speculation, fueled by the agreement on disengagement on PP15 in Ladakh just before the SCO summit, that PM Modi and President Xi may meet on the margins of the SCO summit. This was however unlikely without adequate preparations in advance to ensure positive results from the meeting.

A meeting at this point with President Xi would not have been a normal meeting between heads of friendly countries to exchange views on bilateral and multilateral issues, review progress in ties and discuss possibilities of expanding them further.

With China, the issue of disengagement and de-escalation on the border would have been central to the agenda of the meeting, and unless there were signals that the Chinese side was willing to make a major move to de-escalate, a meeting at the top political level would have frozen the stalemate in ties for the foreseeable future.

The Modi-Putin meeting was, of course, expected. Its tenor would have been of interest to the West, keeping in mind its unhappiness about our unwillingness to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine and instead of subscribing to energy sanctions actually stepping up oil purchases from Russia. Interestingly, PM Modi, in his opening remarks at his meeting with President Vladimir Putin expressed concern about the problems of food security, fuel security and fertilisers for developing countries in particular as a result of the Ukraine crisis, which he intended to discuss in his meeting with the President.

He appealed to the Russian President to also contribute to finding some way out, putting thus some of the onus also on President Putin to resolve the crisis, consistent with India’s call for diplomacy and dialogue to end it, but more pointedly than what we have said in public so far. (It is interesting that the Chinese side have some questions and concerns about Ukraine that Putin himself referred to in his opening remarks during his meeting with President Xi).

Modi was also even handed in thanking both Putin and Ukraine for their help in evacuating our students from Ukraine. By saying that he believed that “today’s era is not of war” and that democracy, diplomacy and dialogue are “such things that touch the world”, Modi was batting for peace, as befits a responsible leader. He added that he awaited the chance to discuss further with President Putin how “we can move forward on the path of peace in the coming days”.

The West will construe Modi’s remarks as a publicly expressed implicit disapproval of Putin’s decision to launch a military operation, which is manifestly wrong. But this gives our side a talking point against western charges that India is not criticising Russia. Modi, however, balanced these opening remarks on his concerns about Ukraine by lauding the strength of India-Russia ties, even calling them unbreakable.

Putin was cordial in his remarks, referring to Modi’s birthday, the special and privileged partnership between the two countries (which Modi did not), the active cooperation of both sides on all international platforms. He candidly said that he knew Modi’s “position on the conflict in Ukraine, your concerns that you constantly express”, and that he wanted to end the conflict too, but put the blame on Ukraine’s leadership to refuse negotiations and settle the issue on the battlefield, while promising to keep India informed of developments.

This public admission by President Putin about PM Modi having conveyed his concerns over Ukraine to him “constantly”, puts the latter’s opening remarks in perspective and that it was by no means a “rebuke”.

The Russian leader appreciated Modi’s video message to the participants of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, fondly remembered his visit to New Delhi in December last year and the fruitful negotiations with PM Modi and invited him to visit Russia.

He noted that Russian supplies of fertilisers to India had grown eight times, large-scale joint projects in the oil and gas sector and nuclear power industry were consistently being implemented, noting also that for Russians, India’s rich history and ancient culture are traditionally of great interest. In this regard, he proposed to intensify the negotiation process on an agreement on visa-free tourist trips. The positive tenor of his remarks is notable.

After their closed-door meeting PM Modi in his tweet has described his meeting with Putin as “wonderful”, with a discussion on furthering bilateral cooperation in trade, energy, defence and other areas. Altogether it was a successful summit from India’s point of view. (Agency)

(Kanwal Sibal is India’s former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Russia. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)

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