NEW DELHI: India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) announced on May 30 that the forthcoming summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will be held in a virtual format on July 4, 2023. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will chair the summit. Prior to this announcement, it was expected that the summit would take place in a physical format with the presence of all or most of the leaders of member countries of the SCO. It is obvious that invitations to participate physically would have been issued to all the leaders.
In fact, the Iranian authorities had announced in mid-March that President Ebrahim Raisi would travel to India for the summit. This would have been a red-letter day for Iran as it would be formally admitted to the SCO. Particularly significant for Iran is that the SCO is the first multilateral organisation it would be joining after the Iranian Revolution in February 1979!
Addressing the media on June 2, MEA Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said that India had never stated that the SCO summit would be held in physical format. He added that the decision to hold the summit “in the virtual format was taken considering a number of factors”. These factors were not spelt out.
It would appear appropriate that under the circumstances of the ongoing conflict in Europe as well as on account of the stressed ties between India and China, the most suitable decision would be to host the summit virtually.
Since no explanations have been forthcoming from the government, the best one can do is to speculate on the reasons for the decision and discuss the impact of organising the summit in a virtual format as against an in-person format.
One plausible reason could be that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin might have felt that it would be inconvenient and difficult for him to leave Moscow at a time when a major counter-offensive from Ukraine could take place or could be in progress. Also, with the frequency and destructiveness of the drone attacks on Russian cities including Moscow in recent days, it would be difficult for him to travel outside Russia for an international meeting. A conversation between the two sides could have taken place at an appropriate level. This could have been a significant factor in taking the final decision to host a virtual summit.
The other contributory factor could be that no response would have been received till date about the participation of China’s President Xi Jinping in the summit. If China had thought that it would be able to use its participation in the summit to extract some concessions from India on the border issue or on normalization of bilateral ties, it would be mistaken. Rather than remain on tenterhooks waiting for a response from China about Xi’s physical participation or plead with China for its participation at the level of President Xi, India could have decided that the most befitting approach would be to go the virtual way.
There has been no exchange of communication or interaction between PM Modi and President Xi since the incursion by the Chinese army across the LAC in April 2020. With the situation on the LAC still being abnormal and no possibility of it getting resolved in a hurry, it would have been uncomfortable for PM Modi to be the host and not have a bilateral interaction with Xi. And under the circumstances, it was not possible to have a bilateral meeting when bilateral relations are not normal. A virtual summit obviates the necessity of holding any bilateral interactions.
One of the significant advantages of such inter-governmental meetings is the bilaterals that the leaders are able to engage in on the sidelines of the plenary meetings. For instance, during PM Modi’s recent visit to Hiroshima for the G7 summit, he was able to interact with a large number of world leaders on issues of mutual, bilateral and global interest. This opportunity will be lost to the Indian leadership in the virtual format. That would be the case in the context of meetings that PM Modi would have had with the Central Asian leaders and the Iranian President. The loss of not being able to interact bilaterally with these leaders is minimal as compared to the discomfort that India would have encountered in handling the presence of the Chinese leader in Delhi in the case of an in-person summit.
It also needs to be kept in the mind that the SCO is seen as a Chinese, and to a lesser extent Russian, dominated institution. It would hence be as much in the interest of China, as India, if not more, to have a successful SCO summit. A virtual summit is not as glamorous or impressive as an in-person summit. A virtual summit would hence reflect somewhat negatively on the sheen and prestige of the organization, and on China, its major cheer-leader, than on India. China has been trying to project the SCO as an institution which works harmoniously and congenially unlike the western-dominated bodies and organisations. That the SCO was not able to meet in person would be seen more as a slight to China and to the SCO than to India.
It can be presumed with considerable certainty that Pakistan, notwithstanding the obnoxious conduct of its Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari at the SCO foreign ministers’ meeting in Goa last month, would not have played any role in India taking this decision.
India’s Presidency Of SCO
On substantive issues, it is expected that India will be able to get the results and outcomes that it has been working towards during its presidency. As the chair of SCO this year, India successfully concluded more than a hundred meetings and events, including 15 ministerial level meetings. It received enthusiastic support and participation from member states, observers and dialogue partners of the SCO. Many of the events hosted by India were first time events in the framework of the SCO. Events like the SCO Millet Food Festival, Film Festival, cultural showcase at Surajkund Mela, the SCO Tourism Mart, Conference on Shared Buddhist Heritage were all successfully hosted by India.
Varanasi as the first SCO cultural and tourist capital for 2022-23 hosted several colourful events with active participation from member states. As SCO chair, India initiated an unprecedented engagement with SCO observers and dialogue partners by inviting them to participate in more than 14 socio-cultural events.
In its capacity as SCO chair, India has proposed a New Delhi declaration as an SCO summit declaration and four other thematic joint statements on cooperation in de-radicalization strategies, promotion of millets, sustainable lifestyles to address climate change and digital transformation. It can be expected that all these documents will be finalised well in time for the virtual summit in July. Thus in substantive terms, India would be able to meticulously fulfil the onerous responsibility it assumed last year as the chair of this significant regional body.
From the above it is clear that India has taken the right decision to go virtual for the SCO summit on July 4, 2023 and not hold it in person. While India will be able to deliver more than what was expected of it as the chair of SCO and give the organisation a significant impetus, it will not have to confront the uncertainties and complications that could have otherwise presented themselves in an in-person summit.
Going virtual was an option for the SCO summit and it is good that India has adopted it. This possibility will however not be available for the G20 summit which is scheduled to be held in Delhi on September 9-10, 2023. The Indian leadership including the PMO and MEA must be seriously considering all alternatives regarding the participation of Russian and Chinese leaders in that summit to make India’s G20 presidency a success.
(The author is a former Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden & Latvia. Views expressed in this article are personal.)