In a sudden change of plans just a month before the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, the Ministry of External Affairs announced that India will now Chair the summit in virtual format, not in-person, as planned before.
“Under India’s first-ever Chairmanship, the 22nd summit of the SCO Council of Heads of State will be held in the virtual format on 4 July 2023, chaired by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi,” said an MEA press release, adding that leaders of “all SCO member states” : China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, have been invited to attend the Summit via video conference. Turkmenistan is a permanent invitee, while Presidents of Iran, Belarus and Mongolia have been invited as Observer States.
No reason was given for the change, although the original invitations to SCO leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif and leaders of Central Asian states, had invited them to Delhi. In addition, during the SCO Foreign Minister’s meeting in Goa, an official release issued after a meeting between Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar and SCO Secretary General Zhang Ming had referred to cooperation on “successfully holding the main event, specifically, the SCO summit in New Delhi.”
Diplomatic sources said the government’s decision to hold the summit via videoconferencing was only intimated to them just before the MEA announcement. An “urgent” letter sent by India’s SCO National Coordinator Yojna Patel dated Monday, addressed to all member states and Mr. Ming simply said that the “Indian side hereby conveys that the SCO summit on 4 July will be held in virtual format.”
While the SCO summit chaired by Russia in 2020 was held virtually due to the COVID pandemic, the Summit in 2021 chaired by Tajikistan was held in hybrid mode, with some countries attending virtually. Last year’s SCO summit in Uzbekistan, was however, held in person, and all leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi had attended the summit in Samarkand.
Sources told The Hindu that one of the reasons may have been “scheduling difficulties”, and that the government had not received final confirmations from some of the SCO leaders, including China and Pakistan. In addition, the continuing war in Ukraine, and recent escalation of drone attacks in Kiev and Moscow may have cast a shadow over the participation of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own travel schedule is also quite busy, said officials, including a state visit to the United States (June 19-24) and a visit to Paris for the National Day parade on July 14.
Another pending issue is the non-completion of the conference venue at Pragati Maidan, that was originally supposed to be ready in time for the G20 Ministerial meetings earlier this year, as well as the SCO summit and the G20 summit in September. However, while officials are confident of completing the venue buildings by September, they are unlikely to be ready in a month. In April, photographs were released of Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra inspecting Rashtrapati Bhawan’s Cultural Centre as “a possible location for the forthcoming SCO summit in New Delhi”.
The MEA statement said that the theme of this year’s SCO summit is ‘Towards a SECURE SCO’ which stands for Security; Economy (and Trade); Connectivity; Unity; Respect (for Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity); and Environment. India has also set up new working groups during the year on several issues including Startups and Innovation; Traditional Medicine and Digital Inclusion, and hosted a total of 134 SCO meetings and events, including 14 Ministerial-level meetings.
“India remains committed to play a positive and constructive role in the organisation, and looks forward to a successful SCO summit as the culmination of its Chairmanship,” the statement said.