PM to host Xi, Putin, Sharif virtually as India chairs SCO summit for the first time

Disappointment over the cancellation of the meeting in-person, especially for Central Asian leaders, say diplomats

Updated - July 04, 2023 11:04 am IST

Published - July 03, 2023 06:22 pm IST - New Delhi

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Indian PM will ‘virtually host’ Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif and Central Asian Presidents as India chairs the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s Council of Heads of State (SCO-CHS) on Tuesday for the first time. 

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Indian PM will ‘virtually host’ Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif and Central Asian Presidents as India chairs the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s Council of Heads of State (SCO-CHS) on Tuesday for the first time.  | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will “virtually host” Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif and Central Asian Presidents as India chairs the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s Council of Heads of State (SCO-CHS) on July 4 for the first time.

Sources say four outcomes will be adopted at the summit, including the “New Delhi Declaration”, and two joint statements on countering radicalism and on digital transformation. In addition, an agreement on economic cooperation initiatives is being negotiated, although it is unclear whether all countries, especially India will sign on to it, given past differences with China over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The virtual summit, originally planned as in-person summit for the leaders in Delhi, has now been truncated to a single session via videoconferencing that will last just over two hours on Tuesday afternoon, from 12.30 p.m. to 2.45 p.m. Much of the time will be taken up by pre-drafted opening remarks and final statements.

Also read | What a weakened Putin means for India-Russia relations

Iran is expected to be inducted as a member of the SCO, while the process for Belarus — a key ally of Russia — is under way and expected to be completed next year. While officials said the declaration itself would be “substantive”, and had come after India hosted at least 140 SCO events and 14 Ministerial meetings since September 2022, when it took over the chair, diplomats from some SCO countries, who asked not to be named, said that there was considerable disappointment about the summit not being held in person.

“We respect India’s decision to make the summit virtual, although Russia was preparing to participate in person,” said Russian Ambassador to India Denis Alipov, in reply to a query. “Russia does not regard it as a downgrading of the engagement, and a set of important decisions to be announced at the outcome will testify to it,” he added. 

Also read | Central Asian foreign policy multi-vectorism pays off

New Delhi has not conveyed reasons for its decision to cancel its earlier plans to hold an in-person summit on July 3-5. The dates for the summit had already been moved once, from June 23-24, as it would have clashed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the U.S. One of the reasons officials had proffered was the non-confirmation of all the leaders, as the Chinese President and the Pakistan PM had not sent in their written confirmations for the new date by early June, a fraught situation especially given bilateral tensions with both countries. The availability of Russian President Putin was also in some doubt with the continuing war in Ukraine.

Diplomats say Central Asian countries were disappointed as this is the second time an in-person summit between Mr. Modi and Central Asian leaders has been cancelled, the last one being the Republic Day invitation in 2022, that had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. 

Ukraine conflict

“There must be sound reasons to host a virtual SCO Summit. An in-person summit would have been a good opportunity especially to interact with leaders from Central Asia and Iran. In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, these countries have become key to discussions on supply chains and connectivity,” former Indian Ambassador to Uzbekistan Vinod Kumar told The Hindu.

When asked at a press conference in June, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had rejected suggestions that holding a virtual summit would diminish the importance of the SCO. 

“I don’t think [it matters] in this day and age, whether you do a virtual meeting or a physical meeting,” Mr. Jaishankar had told journalists, adding that no one should think that this decision “detracts from [India’s] seriousness and commitment to the SCO.” He said there were many “factors” that went into the government’s decision to hold a virtual meeting instead, and that India’s chairmanship of the grouping this year would showcase many SCO “achievements”.

India had joined the SCO as an observer country in 2005 and became a full member state in 2017 along with Pakistan. The MEA said this year’s chairpersonship of the SCO had built on the “SECURE SCO” theme suggested by PM Modi (Security, Economic Development, Connectivity, Unity, Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and Environmental protection).

(With inputs from Ananth Krishnan)

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