The summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) Heads of State Council held in Samarkand this month was notable for a few reasons. The 8 member States forged new pacts on regional engagement, and proposed the idea of inducting Iran as a member. PM Modi’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif did not materialise. But India has now taken its place as the Chair of the SCO and must prepare for next year’s meeting ahead of the G20 summit in New Delhi. India must also ensure participation from all member nations, including China and Pakistan. But normalising relations with the two means one step forward and two steps back.
Two weeks back, China used its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to put on hold the UNSC’s listing of Lashkar-e-taiba (LeT) terrorist Sajid Mir, who is on India’s most-wanted list for his involvement in the 26/11 terror attacks. China’s had previously blocked the listing of US-designated terrorists affiliated to the LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), including that of JeM chief Masood Azhar for about 10 years, until it relented in 2019.
The free-run provided to such terrorists based out of Pakistan, depicts the patronage offered to non-State actors by Islamabad and why Pakistan is still on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force. The collusion between China and Pakistan in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems is yet another pain point for India. As much as 47% of China’s defence exports are directed towards Pakistan, and these include everything from fighter jets to submarines, missiles, and warning systems.
The synergy between the two nations extends to Kashmir too. From being a neutral observer in the 50s, Beijing has turned into an advocate for supporting the ‘self-determination’ of the people of the region, a perspective hardened after China’s border skirmishes with India. When India announced the abrogation of Article 370 which bestowed special privileges to Kashmir, Beijing had a say in the matter, despite it being one of India’s internal policy. Pakistan is also weaning away from the US and leaning more towards China, which is one of its biggest lenders, holding in excess of 27% of Islamabad’s debt.
Beijing has not only increased its army coverage along India’s land borders, but upped its game in the maritime domain where it leverages anti-piracy operations to normalise its presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), something it has been doing since 2008. At any given point in time, there are 5-8 Chinese Navy units such as warships and research vessels, or even fishing vessels that are stationed in the IOR. China is also involved in the development of ports in the IOR, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan and other nations.
It’s amidst these developments that India must build its narrative of bilateral cooperation with China and Pakistan. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had his work cut out for him as he set about this unenviable task at the UN General Assembly. India will need the SCO member State’s full support in building a new list of terror groups, a pain point considering Beijing’s numerous interruptions in the past. India will also need to reassure its partners in the Quad that it means business, on tackling Chinese expansionism. This is easier said than done, as the world witnesses a growing chasm between the two major spheres of influence i.e. the EU-US coalition and the Russia-China union.