In his book The India Way, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar offers a critique of India’s traditional policy of “non-alignment” where he distinguishes between the “optimistic non-alignment” of the past, which he feels has failed, that must give way to more realistic “multiple engagements of the future”. He writes, “This is a game best played on the front foot, appreciating that progress on any one front strengthens that on all others.”
By announcing his visit to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan this week (September 15 and 16), Prime Minister Narendra Modi has certainly spoken with his feet, as have the other leaders attending the event, at a time when lingering strains of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian war in Ukraine, the upcoming Chinese Party Congress (in October), and floods in Pakistan could well have given them reason to hold the summit virtually — as they have for the past two years. Instead, the Uzbekistan SCO summit will host a full house: 15 leaders including eight member states from four Central Asian States, China, India, Pakistan and Russia, the observer states: Belarus, Mongolia and Iran (which will become member this year) — Afghanistan is not invited — and leaders of guest countries Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Turkmenistan.
Balancing the blocs
Even before the summit begins, Mr. Modi, by his plans to attend, is sending the world a number of messages. To begin with, the visit reinforces his commitment to an Indian foreign policy that balances various blocs — pitting India’s membership of the SCO and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) against its membership of the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, the U.S.), groups such as the I2U2 ( India-Israel-U.S.-UAE), and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). This was highlighted more recently with India joining the Russian-led ‘Vostok’ Army Exercises along with China, and plans to host SCO-RATS (or the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) counterterror exercises while the Indian Air Force took part in the Australian ‘Pitch Black’ exercises, and the Indian Army is planning exercises with the U.S. (Yudh Abhyas) next month close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In a Venn diagram, India is the only country that would form the intersection, a part of all of those groupings.
Another juxtaposition is that of values over interests, or that of the western brand of a “coalition of democracies”, against a more Eurasian brand of a “coalition of common goals”. It is worth noting that the SCO membership is not premised on India’s traditional non-aligned posture. While Mr. Modi has skipped all the Non-Aligned Movement summits in his tenure (the only Indian Prime Minister to do so, apart from caretaker Prime Minister Charan Singh in 1979), he chose to lead India into the SCO in 2017. Next year, India will host the SCO summit, and is expected to invite all members — this includes Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif — showing how far New Delhi will be willing to go in its commitment to the SCO.
On Russia’s Putin
The next basket of signals Mr. Modi sends out is to individual members of the SCO, regardless of whether he will hold a one-on-one with each of their leaders on the sidelines or not. The first is to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is under a western siege over his invasion of Ukraine. Since February, India has refused to heed pleas from the U.S. and Europe to endorse resolutions critical of Russia at the United Nations, and has most often abstained on voting. The Government has not only rejected calls to cut its Russian oil imports but it has also done the reverse: imports of Russian oil jumped from 0.66 million tonnes in the first quarter to 8.42 million tonnes in the second this year. In particular, Rosneft-part owned Gujarat-based refinery Nayara Energy has imported a substantial part of the oil, much of it for export of crude products. During a virtual address at the Putin-led Eastern Economic Forum last week, Mr. Modi also said India wants to further strengthen energy ties, building on the $16 billion investment Indian public sector units already have in Russian oil and gas fields. A Modi-Putin summit at this point would send out a much more powerful message to western leaders, who are planning to boycott Mr. Putin at the upcoming G-20 summit in Bali in November.
Meetings with these leaders
The other most closely watched engagement will be between Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi. The two leaders, who met 18 times between 2014-2019, have not spoken directly once since the standoff that began in April 2020 between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). India-China bilateral ties have come to a virtual standstill on most fronts, with the exception of trade, and many have been sceptical that the latest round of disengagement at the LAC’s Patrolling Point (PP)-15 can pave the way for summit-level discussions at this point in the relationship. It seems likely that the leaders will come face to face during the summit, and any discussion will be significant.
It should be remembered that during the Doklam conflict, it was a “brush by” meeting between Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi at the G-20 summit venue in Hamburg, in July 2017, that led to the “breakthrough” in talks and resulted in Mr. Modi’s visit to Xiamen for the BRICS summit two months later (in September 2017); a similar trajectory may be pursued, leading up to the G-20 summit in Bali. To those aghast at the idea that India can hold such a meeting despite the PLA’s transgressions into Indian territory, it must be recalled that the Government has never formally stated that Chinese troops are on Indian soil, or updated Mr. Modi’s June 2020 assertion that “no one came inside, nor is anyone inside Indian territory”.
Other important signals would come from a proposed summit with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, given that Mr. Modi, at the SCO summit, is expected to pitch the Chabahar port terminal India is developing (Shahid Beheshti) as an important route for trade to Central Asia and Russia. Although India is no longer a part of the railway connectivity project from Chabahar, Iran has asked for support with “above ground” equipment and parts for its plans to extend the rail line from the Afghan border outpost to Turkmenistan, the shortest possible route for India. This would also tie in with the Modi government’s plans to build a connectivity framework that counters the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor from Gwadar, which China plans to connect through Afghanistan to Central Asia. Last week, Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan signed a railway agreement for a new “Regional Economic Corridor” to take their plan forward.
The oil issue
In addition to connectivity, Iran will focus, in meetings with India, on restoring Indian imports of Iranian crude at the earliest. While India cancelled its Iran oil purchases, a sizeable 12% chunk of its imports, in 2019 after the Donald Trump administration in the U.S. threatened New Delhi with sanctions, it is clear the geopolitical map has changed since then. The Biden administration is back in negotiations with Iran for its re-entry to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement (the P5+1, the European Union, and Iran), and is much more focused on curtailing Russia’s oil revenues than on Iran’s.
It is puzzling that the Modi government — it asserts its right to buy discounted Russian oil in order to stave off inflation for the Indian consumer — has not yet considered reviving its old, cheaper and sweeter crude contracts that Indian refineries are better suited for. New Delhi may also review its decision to kowtow to the U.S.’s unilateral, non-UN sanctions on Iran (and Venezuela). More recently, the Modi government’s decision to push back against the American threats of sanctions on the S-400 Triumf missile defence system deal and on oil trade with Russia, has forced the U.S. to blink.
Finally, there are the optics of the Indian and Pakistan Prime Ministers attending the same conference, which will undoubtedly lead to speculation about a possible thaw in a frozen relationship. After the Modi government’s claim in 2016 that it would ensure Pakistan is “isolated” on the terror issue, and the decision by the government of Imran Khan in 2019 that no trade with India is possible without a reversal of New Delhi’s Article 370 moves in Jammu and Kashmir, formal communication has all but ended. However, a powerful backchannel with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Pakistani military interlocutors is evidenced by the ceasefire being largely maintained at the Line of Control, regular border commander talks and the relative calm after the misfiring of an Indian ballistic missile into Pakistan this year (March). With Pakistan reeling from massive floods, an economic crisis, and growing worries of an unstable Afghanistan at its border, it remains to be seen whether Pakistan leader Sharif can find a way to hold a conversation with Mr. Modi at the SCO, and if Mr. Modi, with an eye to hosting the SCO and the G-20 next year, is willing to reciprocate.
Above all, India’s participation in the SCO summit, and Mr. Modi’s decision to stand shoulder to shoulder with Putin-Xi-Raisi-Erdoğan-Lukashenko just months after he met with Biden-Kishida-Albanese at the Quad summit affirms Mr. Jaisankar’s prognosis: that “hedging” is the name of the game today, as India fights for its unique brand of multi-alignment or “all-alignment” with partners worldwide, without having to choose between them. As in Tokyo and Samarkand, just “showing up” is half the battle won.