The 22nd Heads of State Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is scheduled to take place in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on 15-16 September, 2022. Uzbekistan is leaving no stone unturned to make this Summit a success. This will be the first in-person SCO Summit after the one in Bishkek in June, 2019. The previous summits were held in Russia and Tajikistan, in virtual and hybrid formats respectively. The Samarkand Summit hence assumes additional significance. It is not clear at this moment which leaders, in addition to the leaders of the three Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – which along with Uzbekistan are members of this organization, will participate physically in the summit. Most likely, Iran will send its leaders as this is the first summit to be held after its membership was approved – a participation it has worked hard over the last many years, to secure.
Although no formal official announcement has been made thus far, it is nearly certain that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will participate in person in the summit. Several reasons can be advanced for this assumption. First, PM Modi has attended all the SCO Summits since 2015 when it became clear that India was at the doorstep of becoming a member of the organization. Second, under the leadership of its president Shavkat Mirziyoyev , Uzbekistan has emerged as the most significant economic, security and strategic partner of India in Central Asia. Both Modi and Mirziyoyev enjoy a close rapport and understanding with each other. Mirziyoyev has made two visits to India in recent years viz. in October, 2018 (bilateral) and January, 2019 (Vibrant Gujarat) while Modi visited Uzbekistan in July, 2015 (bilateral) and 2016 (SCO Summit).
In recent years, the relevance of Uzbekistan has increased, for three reasons. One, it is one of the three Central Asian countries that shares a border with Afghanistan. Afghanistan has emerged as a huge security threat to India and the region because of the large number of terrorist groups that have been provided a safe haven there by the Taliban. Uzbekistan, which has economic credit with Afghanistan as its largest electricity supplier, and has proactively continued its engagement with that country, can play a significant role in impressing upon the Taliban that if it wants global diplomatic recognition, it should ensure that the radical groups in Afghanistan do not engage in terrorist acts in the region and beyond. Afghanistan’s current rulers must also move towards a representative government and ensure the safety and rights of minorities, women, girl-child etc. Two, Uzbekistan is also playing a central role in promoting connectivity with Central Asia and in the operationalization of the Chabahar port and the International North-South Transport Corridor. Lastly, India will assume the Chairmanship of the SCO from Uzbekistan at the forthcoming Summit for the next one year.
It is highly likely that this SCO will be a full house, in person. Both Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping, as also Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, will participate in-person in the Summit. For both Putin and Xi, it is important to send out a message that they are not isolated. Putin would like to shore up his influence in Central Asia which has been on the decline since the Ukraine conflict began. It will also be an opportunity for both Putin and Xi to appear physically together to reassert their ‘’no limits’’ partnership as announced on 4th February at the Winter Olympics in Beijing. This is important as their conflict with the US and the West is out in the open now, much more than it has ever been.
For Xi, the significance of Central Asia for China and its flagship Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) has grown appreciably in recent months. It can no longer ship its goods to Europe through Russia after the stringent sanctions imposed in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. the importance of Uzbekistan for the BRI has increased greatly because of the projected launch of the much-delayed China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway link next year, as also the Termez-Kabul-Peshawar rail line to connect with the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC). Moreover, the SCO is perceived to be a China-driven process. It will hence be in the fitness of things for Xi to attend in person.
Pakistan PM Shahbaz Sharif too will probably attend in person. He needs to relieve himself of the domestic pressures under which he currently finds himself, and because Pakistan wants to project itself at the SCO as an influential player on the regional stage.
If Russia’s President Putin were to attend, it is very likely that a bilateral meet with Modi would take place. This will be a good opportunity for Modi to try and understand Putin’s thinking about his future objectives in Ukraine. It will also be an opportunity for the two leaders to chart out the future course of their bilateral cooperation, particularly in the defence and energy sectors.
And President Xi Jinping? A meeting between him and Modi could take place only if the request emanated from the Chinese side, as it is highly unlikely that India will initiate a request for a bilateral dialogue. Since there are no indications that China is in a mood to relent on its expansionist policies on the Line of Actual Control, it is doubtful that a bilateral meeting at the highest level would yield any significant positive results. It could however be an opportunity for Modi to convey to his Chinese counterpart, the strong and implacable views that India has on the border issue.
Due to a range of domestic as well as bilateral considerations, it is unlikely that a meeting between Modi and Pakistan’s Sharif will take place. Sharif is on a shaky wicket, and it is unclear how long he will last. Under such circumstances the longevity of any agreements or understandings reached, will be uncertain and doubtful.
Certainly, PM Modi will use the opportunity in Samarkand to take forward India’s partnership with Iran on the INSTC and Chabahar, as well as on bilateral strategic and economic relations. He will also advance India’s multifaceted relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan by conferring with their leaders and identifying new opportunities to strengthen bilateral and regional ties. In this lies the chance for India to deepen its partnership with several SCO member states and advance its strategic, security, political, economic and commercial interests with the region.
Ashok Sajjanhar is a former ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.
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