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India has participated in all meetings and events since joining up. PM Modi will hold bilateral meetings with leaders of almost all member states. He will have a separate meeting with Xi Jinping on the sidelines, as well as with Vladimir Putin. The warmth of the virtually back-to-back informal summits in Wuhan and Sochi will continue into these meetings. Modi will also meet all the leaders of the Central Asian states, though it’s unclear whether he will have a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Khaqan Abbasi.
India’s ambassador to China, Gautam Bambawale, told Chinese media in an interview, “The focus of SCO members is in the areas of security cooperation, countering terrorism, economic development as well as cultural exchange. We will continue to expand our cooperation in these areas. India will work with the other member countries in this direction.”
Nevertheless, SCO is run along China’s interests with Russia playing a supporting role, and the growing closeness of the two powers run on a trajectory where India would not like to go. That brings into question India’s own strategy in the SCO. India has identified counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and disarmament and connectivity as being its focus issues in the SCO. In July, Indian forces with conduct military exercises with other SCO forces in Russia, probably the first time Indian and Pakistani forces will exercise together under a multilateral format. India is hoping to use the SCO to expand its own connectivity and trade with Central Asian countries.
In SCO, as in many other forums, India has to play a balancing game and make sure multilateral statements don’t run counter to its own interests. For instance, during the April meeting of foreign ministers, India had to work overtime to keep out a paragraph on Syria that was almost an endorsement of Bashar al Assad from the outcome document. India maintains a more neutral stance on Syria and has to be mindful of its other relationships in the region.
That is also something that worries Indian negotiators working out the Qingdao declaration. India also recently participated in the Quadrilateral meeting with the US, Japan and Australia, a grouping that is anathema to both China and Russia. India would also have to object to open endorsement of OBOR by SCO countries— India has refused to endorse China’s project, though all Central Asian states, Pakistan and Russia have. In a sense, India will be alone in its opposition.
Beyond SCO and strategic autonomy, there is no getting away from the fact that India considers China to be a strategic and long-term challenge, while its struggling to keep its relationship with Russia from declining further. SCO is not likely to be a cakewalk for India, in fact, it could be fraught with diplomatic challenges.