Holding the summit of the world’s largest regional organization, which covers 60 percent of the Eurasian continent, half of the world’s population, and more than 30 percent of global GDP, has a particular connotation.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) 23rd Head of State Summit occurred amid the Ukraine war, Western sanctions against Russia, and growing tensions between the West and China, making international political cooperation difficult.

The summit was held barely two weeks after Modi was hosted by President Biden, during which the two countries called themselves “among the closest partners in the world.” India will also host the G20 summit in September, bringing together the world’s leading economies. SCO Summit was, therefore, crucial for India to balance its ties between the West and the East. Modi’s state visit to the U.S.A. just before the SCO summit demonstrated a further cementing and strengthening of the Ind0-US relationship neither made for good optics nor eased the suspicions of some SCO members.

India had to walk a diplomatic tightrope as relations between Western nations and a Russia-China partnership have been fraught, and Beijing’s growing presence in global geopolitics is increasing.

Sino-Indian links are also at their lowest since the military clash at Golvan in 2020. As both the Chinese and Russian leadership indicated that they would not attend the Goa Summit in person, India was constrained to convert it to a virtual format, a first in the history of SCO. This was a subtle message to India that its strategic partnership and growth, including massive defense-related agreements with the U.S.A., should have been favored by the SCO founding members, who are both at loggerheads with the U.S.A.

Leaders of the SCO at the 23rd Head of State Summit stressed the need for forging closer relations and enhancing cooperation, stressing the group’s policies and actions were not directed against other countries. A joint declaration at the end of the summit reiterated that SCO members opposed bloc politics, ideological and confrontational approaches to address problems and security challenges. The conference welcomed Iran as the ninth member of SCO, and Belarus was assured of an imminent inclusion.

The SCO, since its genesis as a cooperative mechanism focused on combating the “three forces” of terrorism, fundamentalism, and extremism, has evolved into a multidimensional regional organization encompassing politics, security, economy, and social development.

The SCO offers fresh ideas, models, and norms for countries to co-exist on an equal footing, engage in multilateral cooperation and shape the global order. Despite relentless criticism from the United States and the West, the SCO has not only survived but extended and evolved over its 21-year existence, with more and more countries in the extended neighborhood, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, keen to join the SCO.

The 23rd SCO summit featured varying agendas from Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and most other participants. Russia attempted to use the summit to signal to its neighbors and close allies, such as China, that the SCO was an instrument through which to change the Western-run international order. Without directly referring to NATO’s expansion and Western military assistance to Ukraine, the leaders were critical of what they said was the negative impact of “unilateral and unlimited expansion of global missile defense systems by certain countries or groups of countries.”

Being the host, India’s agenda focused on attempts to justify its illegal occupation and brutal repression of the people of Indian-Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. India trumpeted the theme of terrorism, separatism, and extremism and tried to apportion the blame for the three evils squarely on Pakistan. An attempt in which India miserably failed.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister gave a befitting and robust response and highlighted the importance of condemning terrorism unequivocally, encompassing all its various forms and manifestations. “The hydra-headed monster of terrorism and extremism, whether committed by individuals, societies, or states, must be fought with full vigor and conviction……Any temptation to use [terrorism] for diplomatic point-scoring must be avoided under all circumstances. Terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, including state terrorism, must be condemned in unambiguous terms”.

PM Shehbaz stressed that there could be no justification for killing innocent people, regardless of the cause or pretext. Similarly, religious minorities should never be demonized for pursuing domestic political agendas. PM Shehbaz also highlighted the numerous sacrifices made by Pakistan to combat terrorism, adding that the menace of militancy plagues the region and is a significant obstacle to achieving peace that Pakistan has produced. He called on the SCO countries to take concerted and immediate actions against terrorism, extremism, and separatism and said that it was the responsibility of all member states.

India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed neighbors with a long history of fractious relations, are both members of the SCO and were simultaneously admitted to SCO in 2007. Pakistan’s All Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership is a matter of concern for India as India’s relations with these countries are nose-diving. Particularly Pakistan’s increasing strategic and economic cooperation and coming into operation of Gwadar deep sea port. In May this year, Bilawal Bhutto became the most senior-level official of Pakistan to visit India in seven years when he joined a SCO foreign ministers meeting.

This year’s event was a toned-down affair compared to previous SCO summits. Nevertheless, the Sino-Russian duo had to warn the West that external forces inciting a ‘new cold war’ in the region and creating a confrontation between camps would be resolutely countered, and any country’s interference in internal affairs and instigation of ‘color revolutions would be vehemently opposed. This is significant given India’s friction with China and neighboring Pakistan and other South Asian nations, as Beijing remains deeply suspicious of a US Indo-Pacific security groupings like the Quad, of which India is a part.

From its references to noninterference & territorial integrity, China attempted to balance its support for the ‘new’ international order with co-existence and cooperation for peace and development.

Xi called on SCO members to rise to the call of times, keeping in mind SCO’s founding mission of maintaining regional stability and safeguarding common security as it announced that it was ready to implement the Global Security Initiative. China stressed promoting the settlement of international disputes through dialogue and consultation to forge a solid security shield in the region and improve global governance. China’s focus on regional economic cooperation and strengthening trade, finance, energy, science and technology, and environmental protection to jointly address global challenges such as the food and energy crises and climate change was evident.

China also utilized the occasion to promote its Global Development Initiative, urging economic globalization and opposing protectionism, unilateral sanctions, and the overstretching of national security. Rejected setting up barriers, decoupling, and severing supply chains and proposed that the SCO scale up local currency settlement between member states and promote establishing an SCO development bank. Both Xi and Putin pushed for switching to a system under which foreign trade could be settled in local currencies, a move that helped get around the use of the U.S. dollar, especially in the aftermath of sanctions following the war in Ukraine.

The summit enabled Putin to reassure SCO leaders of Russia’s stability and unity. Putin warned that the potential for conflicts and the risk of a global economic crisis was rising, indicating Moscow’s readiness to boost ties with the SCO. Putin reiterated Russian resolve to stand up against Western pressure, sanctions, and “provocations” imposed over Moscow on its “special military operation” in Ukraine. Russia views countries such as China, India, and Iran as critical partners in confronting the United States and resisting what it portrays as U.S. attempts to dictate the world order.

The SCO’s global significance lies in its support for improving global governance through concrete actions. Under the backdrop of a significant global transformation, the SCO also faces various challenges, including some existing mechanisms that may require reform and adjustments, and its execution power and efficiency need continuous improvement.

However, most SCO member states feel that the SCO will withstand these tests. With more like-minded countries joining the organization, it is hoped that the SCO will demonstrate even greater vitality.

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