Virtual SCO Summit Ends With Little Drama As Shehbaz And Modi Trade Jibes

Virtual SCO Summit Ends With Little Drama As Shehbaz And Modi Trade Jibes
The heads of state at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit on July 4, 2023, were never expected to drop gentle bombshells. It was meant to be an exercise in multilateral diplomacy – and that’s exactly what it turned out to be. As usual, India and Pakistan expressed grievances related to terrorism rather than discussing concrete steps to build closer ties and cooperation between the SCO nations.

The potential impacts of the meeting were diminished by its virtual format, “there was no scope for sit down bilateral meetings or unexpected sideline exchanges that could have reduced tensions or sent relationships into new phases. It was just a group of individual speeches in front of a screen, like a long Zoom call,” says Micheal Kugelman, a foreign policy expert and writer.

The leaders were supposed to meet in-person for the SCO summit. But, on May 30, India decided to hold a virtual meeting – amid speculations that it would have been awkward for Modi to greet Xi Jinping and Shehbaz Sharif together in an election year. The meeting was also truncated to a single, two hour-long session which was held under India’s leadership. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping, and leaders of four central Asian countries attended the summit.

PM Shehbaz Sharif said during the virtual meeting that the SCO members have a shared interest in ensuring peace and stability in the region and advised India against using terrorism for diplomatic point-scoring. He said, terror activities remain a serious obstacle to peace in the region – “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 clear and unambiguous terms."

Sharif noted that there could be no justification for killing innocent people, regardless of the cause or pretext. "Similarly, religious minorities should never be demonized in the pursuit of domestic, political agendas."

His remarks came after Narendra Modi stated at the start of the meeting that, "Some countries use cross-border terrorism as an instrument in their policies, (they) give shelter to terrorists... the SCO should not hesitate to criticize such countries," said Modi.

Giving primacy to its geopolitical considerations, Modi had maintained a similar stance on terrorism during his visit to the US less than a fortnight ago. In a Biden-Modi joint statement issued during Modi’s visit to the US, the two leaders called on Pakistan to take immediate action to ensure that, “no territory under its control is used for launching terrorist attacks."

Even at the SCO foreign ministers meeting in Goa in June, which was attended by Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, a similar sentiment prevailed, and the India-Pakistan spat dominated the meeting. Zardari had hit back after Indian Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar had repeated the cross-border attacks allegation.

Kugelman thinks the SCO leaders’ meeting had “less drama, and the virtual format allowed it to be more focused.” He adds that in both meetings, India had the opportunity to showcase its global clout as the current chair of SCO, Russia had an opportunity to defy the West’s claims of Russia’s growing isolation, and China could steer a forum that it has long projected as a counter to the West. “But the final outcome in each case was rather limited: a collective commitment to cooperate on key global challenges, from climate change to terrorism. That’s great, but there was little to come out of substance, just a lot of anodyne comments.”

It was expected that Pakistan and India would complain at the SCO summit. “In reality, both countries may agree on more than they may suggest: both for example worry about terror threats emanating from Afghanistan, especially IS-K. And Afghanistan has long been a focus of SCO. But this tends to get overlooked by the major tension point that terrorism is in India-Pakistan relations,” he says.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was also a part of the meeting, as Tehran joined as the ninth member of the organization. Russia’s allay Belarus filed an application to become a permanent member of the SCO next year. It was also Putin’s first international outing after the unsuccessful mutiny in Russia.