Illustration: Craig Stephens
C. Uday Bhaskar
C. Uday Bhaskar

Tensions between China, India and Russia at Samarkhand summit cloud SCO’s effectiveness

  • The summit drew interest over a rare trip outside China for Xi Jinping, bringing him, Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi together
  • The expressions of concern over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the lack of a Xi-Modi handshake show a petulance that augurs poorly for the SCO
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, concluded on Friday with the leaders signing off on a comprehensive joint declaration in Russian that was more than 7,800 words long, subdivided into 121 paragraphs in its English translation.

In the opening section of the declaration, the leaders of the SCO member states – China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – noted the global changes the world is experiencing. They said: “The current system of international challenges and threats is becoming more complex, the situation in the world is dangerously degrading, existing local conflicts and crises are intensifying and new ones are emerging.”

This was an accurate and bleak summary of a conflict-ridden world. Even as the SCO summit unfolded, the war in Ukraine crossed the 200-day mark with no end in sight. Clashes broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. A stable peace in Eurasia seems increasingly elusive.
Samarkand marks the 22nd meeting of the SCO, which began as the Shanghai Five in 1996 and included China, Russia and three Central Asian republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Following the inclusion of Uzbekistan in 2001, the six-nation group was renamed the SCO. India and Pakistan were admitted in 2017, and Iran is expected to become a member in 2023.

The composition of the SCO is both significant and complex as its footprint covers almost 60 per cent of the Eurasian land mass, 40 per cent of the world’s population and more than 20 per cent global gross domestic product. While China and India are the demographic heavyweights – each with more than a billion citizens – the SCO has four nuclear weapon states in Russia, China, India and Pakistan.

The Samarkand summit aroused considerable interest as it marked a rare in-person summit for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had not travelled outside his country since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020. Samarkand was also an opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to have a major international platform after Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February.
Furthermore, the summit brought Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi onto the same platform as Xi. It was the first time those two were in the same place since their countries engaged in a military clash in the Galwan Valley in the high Himalayas in 2020.


Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Kazakhstan on first trip abroad since pandemic began

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Kazakhstan on first trip abroad since pandemic began

Thus, the relevance of the summit in Samarkand ranged from bilateral relationships to regional geopolitics and connectivity issues that have the potential to affect the troubled global strategic framework. However, there were many contradictions embedded in the proceedings.

The China-Russia-India triangle is a complex one, and the war in Ukraine has only compounded matters for both Beijing and New Delhi. While the Samarkand declaration piously advocated a “commitment to peaceful settlement of differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation”, it made no explicit reference to the war in Ukraine.

Presumably in deference to Russian sensitivities, it also dropped the reference to “non-use of military force or threat of force, rejection of unilateral military superiority in adjoining areas”. This line was noticeable in the SCO statement after the summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in September 2021.

However, the military assertiveness of both Russia and China was the subtext in Samarkand and played out differently. Modi voiced his concern about the war in Ukraine to Putin, who also alluded to “questions and concerns” that China has.

This appears to have put the Russian leader on the defensive. His body language conveyed weariness and perhaps disappointment that Beijing and Delhi were not more forthcoming in their support of Moscow for its feckless Ukraine misadventure.


Ukraine says mass graves found in Izium after city recaptured from Russia

Ukraine says mass graves found in Izium after city recaptured from Russia
China-India bilateral ties also came into focus since the relationship between the two nations has become visibly discordant since the Galwan clash of 2020. Delhi has accused Beijing of violating a 1993 agreement relating to peace along the Line of Actual Control and altering the status quo in the Ladakh region. This has resulted in a major military build-up with tens of thousands of troops on either side, some within a 100 metres of each other.
However, a few days before the SCO summit, India and China announced a disengagement of troops from one of the more contested areas – Patrolling Point 15 in the Gogra-Hot Springs region. This allowed for a bare minimum diplomatic context to enable the two leaders to be at the same summit in person.

Given the need to assuage domestic concerns that neither leader was wavering in their resolve, there was not even a Xi-Modi handshake at Samarkand, let alone a bilateral meeting.

This kind of petulance augurs poorly for the organisation’s hopes to be effective in its aspirations and live up to the eloquent claim that it “has firmly established itself as an authoritative and influential multilateral association whose activities are aimed at ensuring peace, security and stability, jointly confronting new challenges and threats in the SCO region”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on September 16. Photo: DPA
India has a unique status in regional organisations, being the only nation that is part of both the SCO and the Quad. Without India, the SCO would take on a sharp, prickly anti-US orientation much to the chagrin of the smaller SCO states. To that extent, Delhi serves as both a link and a potential counterweight to a Beijing-dominated organisation.

However, summit rhetoric is a poor substitute for tangible action by the regional political leadership in mitigating conflicts and improving the security of their citizens. India will host the next SCO summit in 2023, when Delhi will have also assumed the presidency of the Group of 20. One hopes that by then there will be a thaw in the bilateral relations between the two Asian giants.

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think tank based in New Delhi