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India shouldn’t give China a free pass at SCO or BRICS

opinionIndia shouldn’t give China a free pass at SCO or BRICS

Last week saw India, the incumbent president of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), hold the summit of heads of states and governments virtually. At a time when world leaders are jetting around freely, putting behind them the disruption caused by Covid-19, it was surprising that India decided to hold the summit on virtual mode. Notwithstanding the Ministry of External Affairs’ stony silence on the matter or the few “inspired” news reports on how going virtual was always on the table and had nothing to do with the scheduling issues of the leaders, something was definitely amiss. Without speculating if Xi Jinping refused to come to India twice in the same year—he is supposed to come for G20 in September—and made Vladimir Putin toe his line, or if India was not comfortable having Shahbaz Sharif on Indian soil—unlikely—it can be said with certainty that the SCO is a classic example of what happens in a China-dominated organisation. It turns into an ultimate exercise in hypocrisy where the avowed aim is multilateralism, but the push is towards unilateralism—rather Chinese hegemony. Even a cursory look at the New Delhi Declaration issued at the conclusion of the SCO summit, would prove this.

The declaration spoke of the member states’ commitment to the “formation of a more representative, democratic, just and multipolar world order”. This “statement of intent” could not be further removed from reality, given that for the PRC the term “multipolarity” is a tool to rail against what it calls the United States’ “unipolar” world order. While it accuses the US of forming blocs—a term used in the joint statement too—in reality, Beijing continues with its own bloc-building exercise, be it through the BRI or Xi’s proposed Global Development Initiative (GDI) and Global Security Initiative (GSI). The current Asian hegemon eventually wants to be the world hegemon in a unipolar world. Hence, be it the SCO or the BRICS, in Beijing’s worldview, everything is China’s playground.

No wonder SCO’s New Delhi Declaration had an indelible Chinese imprint, even though the Indian side must be commended for preventing the SCO from crossing over completely into Chinese turf. India refused to endorse Xi’s BRI, a project loyally rubber-stamped in the Declaration by the other participating countries. Moreover, the use of the phrase “interested Member States” in the Declaration for countries that will pursue the “SCO Economic Development Strategy 2030” is being presumed to be an Indian insertion, signifying that India is not interested in Xi’s 2030 development strategy. What is baffling, however, is why there was no consensus on India’s proposal to have a separate declaration on sustainable lifestyle, including millets. As has been known for some time, India as SCO president had three priority areas—countering terrorism, digital governance and sustainable lifestyle, including millets. While there was consensus on two outcome documents on countering terrorism and digital transformation, there was no such consensus on millets and sustainable lifestyle. It’s a mystery why any country would have any objection to millets and sustainable lifestyle, unless of course it’s a PRC attempt to muzzle India’s soft power. While the refusal to endorse a sustainability document could also be stemming from the larger issue of China, which is one of the world’s worst polluters, unwilling to opt for a more sustainable (read, green) lifestyle.

But is China-making-mischief reason enough for India to walk out of the SCO, which some experts are advocating? There is a view that the whole purpose of the SCO serving as a platform for India to enhance its relationship with the Central Asian Republics—all former constituents of Soviet Russia and thus under India’s “friend” Russia’s influence—is lost because Russia and as a result the CARs too have shifted to China’s side. That India is an outlier in a group full of PRC’s vassal states. What this view does not take into account is, an emerging/emerged power like India, which aspires to be the leader of the Global South, cannot let this regional platform slip completely into China’s sphere of influence. It has to be there, serving as a counterweight to China, while leveraging its own presence to ensure that this platform at least tries to retain its multilateral character. While India has a mechanism such as the India-Central Asia Dialogue to engage with the CARs—a mineral and energy rich region strategically located at the crossroads of West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, Russia and China—that mechanism cannot stand independent of the SCO, given the depth of the CARs’ involvement with the SCO. From serving as a market, to energy cooperation, providing a land route to Europe, and being an ideal listening post for the Af-Pak region, the importance of the CARs cannot be ignored. Moreover, it is not every day that India gets a platform to tell Pakistan to its face about cross-border terrorism or to China about respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity. Simply put, China should not be given a free pass in any international platform where India too is present.

In fact India should utilise its SCO experience to pull BRICS back from the brink of landing in China’s lap. The first step is to ensure that there is no common currency. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has already said that there is no plan for a common BRICS currency and that currency will stay a national issue for a long time to come. Accordingly, India needs to watch out for China arm-twisting Russia into pushing a gold-backed yuan as a common currency for BRICS countries, for that will be a case of replacing one “hegemon” with another. India has already had to give in to Russia’s demand for payment in Chinese yuan for oil purchases made. While unacceptable, that move was determined by certain domestic exigencies. But that should be an exception and not the rule. Multilateral platforms should stay just that, multilateral, and not serve as a stage for unilateral assertion of supremacy.

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