Compared to its relatively low-key past, the Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) Council of Heads of State in Samarkand took place in the cross-hairs of international attention. Apart from the SCO’s new agreements on regional engagement, discussions among the eight members including four Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) focused on inducting Iran as a member, broadening the SCO dialogue partners to West and South Asia, and on trade, tourism and counter-terrorism in the region. However, more focus was on the bilateral meetings on the sidelines, as this was the first such major conference that Russian President Vladimir Putin attended since the Ukraine war, as well as part of the first visit abroad by Chinese President Xi Jinping since the COVID-19 pandemic and Taiwan tensions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attendance was equally meaningful, given that it was the first time he met Mr. Putin since the war, and Mr. Xi since the standoff at the LAC, in 2020. This was also the first time he came face to face with Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, and speculation was rife that he would hold meetings with India’s adversaries. While the meetings with Mr. Sharif or Mr. Xi did not materialise, western capitals focused on his Putin meeting. Mr. Modi’s opening comment to Mr. Putin, that the “era of war” has ended, has been read as an “admonition” of Russia’s war in Ukraine. However, it would be wrong to read Mr. Modi’s engagement with Mr. Putin as any kind of “public shaming”, but rather an expression of the concern over the war, something that Mr. Putin said he understands. A day before, Mr. Putin had also said to Mr. Xi that he understood China’s concerns, indicating Russia’s realisation of the need to effect a ceasefire and dialogue.
India now comes into prominence as Chair of the SCO, and is making preparations for next year’s SCO summit ahead of the G-20 summit in New Delhi. India needs to ensure the participation of all SCO members including China and Pakistan, despite the tensions, which will entail some diplomatic elbow grease by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in the next few months, beginning this week at the UN General Assembly. India’s pitch to the SCO for connectivity with the Eurasian region hinges on its development of Chabahar port through Iran and traversing U.S. sanctions, while still competing with the China-Pakistan backed transit routes through Gwadar. On terrorism, India will have to ensure the SCO walks the talk on building a new consolidated list of terrorist groups, an area where it is frequently thwarted by China. Meanwhile, New Delhi will also have to balance its ties, keeping western partners in the Quad and other groupings reassured, especially as the polarisation between the U.S.-EU coalition and a Russia-China-led combine continues to grow.