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India concludes a successful presidency with the SCO Summit

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the 23rd Summit of the SCO Council of Heads of State via video conferencing, in New Delhi, Tuesday on July 4

Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually chaired the 23rd Session of the Council of Heads of State Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on 4th July, 2023. Presidents of member states of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as well as the Prime Minister of Pakistan attended the deliberations. President of Turkmenistan as the Guest of the Chair, Presidents of Belarus, Iran and Mongolia who are Observers in the Organization also participated. Iran became a full member of the SCO at the meeting and Belarus will become a member next year at the Summit in Kazakhstan which assumed the Chair of the Organization from India for 2023-’24.

India’s Presidency

At the outset, PM Modi said that in addition to the ethos of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The Whole World is a Family), India’s vision for its Presidency of the SCO has been guided by SECURE which stands for Security, Economic development, Connectivity, Unity, Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and Environmental protection.

While providing a detailed account of the activities of India as the Chair of the Organization which included hosting more than 140 programs, conferences and meetings within the SCO, PM Modi said that India actively involved all Observer and Dialogue Partners of the SCO in 14 different programs. In 14 Ministerial-level meetings of the SCO, the participants collectively prepared several important documents. India launched new initiatives to enhance engagement among people by holding the SCO Millet Food Festival, Film Festival, SCO Surajkund Craft Mela, International Conference on Shared Buddhist Heritage and others. India established five new pillars of cooperation within the SCO viz. Startups and Innovation, Traditional Medicine, Youth Empowerment, Digital Inclusion, and Shared Buddhist Heritage. Many programs were organized in Varanasi which was designated as the first tourism and cultural capital of the SCO. Two Working Groups on StartUps and Innovation, and Traditional Medicine were also established.

PM Modi’s Statement

PM Modi raised several vital questions regarding SCO’s readiness and preparedness to tackle modern-day challenges and whether it is evolving into an organization that is fully prepared for the future? He expressed India’s full support for SCO’s reform and modernization.

Declaring that terrorism has emerged as a major threat to regional and global peace, he made a veiled reference to Pakistan that ‘’some countries use cross-border terrorism as an instrument of their policies, provide shelter to terrorists.’’ In a pointed reference to China without naming it, he said that there should be no place for double standards on such serious matters. The countries should also take proactive steps to prevent the spread of radicalization among the youth.

On the situation in Afghanistan, while sharing India’s concerns and expectations on the formation of an inclusive government; the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking; and ensuring the rights of women, children, and minorities, he urged SCO members to come together to extend humanitarian assistance to Afghan citizens. He asserted the importance of ensuring that Afghanistan’s territory is not used to spread instability in neighbouring countries or to encourage extremist ideologies.

While supporting the vital relevance of connectivity for the progress of any region, PM Modi declared that it is essential to uphold the basic principles of the SCO charter, particularly respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Member States. This was an indirect reference to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which violates India’s sovereignty by passing through Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir which are integral parts of the Indian UT of J&K illegally occupied by Pakistan.

Other Statements

In his first comments to an international gathering after the Wagner mutiny late last month, Russian President Putin said that the entire society had come out ‘’as a united front against the attempted armed rebellion.’’ He also declared that sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of the Ukraine conflict had made it stronger.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called for efforts to “safeguard regional peace,” ensure “common security” and resolve conflicts through dialogue and consultation. Without naming the US-led Western powers, he called for “opposing hegemonism and power politics.” Also without directly referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said that the SCO should “…promote political settlement of international and regional hotspot issues, and build a solid barrier for regional security.’’

Pakistan’s PM Shehbaz Sharif warned against the use of terrorism as a ‘cudgel for diplomatic point-scoring’, and spoke about terrorism as a ‘hydra-headed monster’ to be fought with ‘full conviction’ irrespective of its source. “Terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, including state terrorism, must be condemned in clear and unambiguous terms. There can be no justification for the killing of innocent people regardless of the cause or pretext.” In an oblique reference to Kashmir, Sharif said that “UN security council resolutions offer us a workable framework for the resolution of some longstanding disputes in the region.’’ He charged that ‘’religious minorities should never be demonized in the pursuit of domestic political agendas,”

The New Delhi Declaration

The members adopted the New Delhi Declaration (NDD) in addition to two thematic joint statements – one on cooperation in countering the radicalization leading to separatism, extremism and terrorism and the second on cooperation in the field of digital transformation. The NDD deals extensively with the challenge of terrorism, extremism and separatism and the need for all countries to come together to deal with this scourge.  It reaffirms its commitment to ‘’eliminate conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, to disrupt the terror financing channels, to suppress recruitment activities and cross-border movement of terrorists, to counter extremism, and radicalization of youth, the dissemination of terrorist ideology, as well as to eliminate “sleeper cells” and places used as terrorist safe havens.’’ This effectively articulates the charges that India has been levelling against Pakistan for a long time.

The Declaration refers to the situation in Afghanistan and implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran but does not make any reference to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.


The 23rd Summit of the SCO Heads of States was held in a virtual format. It was initially expected and all preparations were being made to host the Summit in an in-person mode but it was unexpectedly announced in late May that the Summit would be held in a virtual format. No specific reason was advanced for this change except to say that there were a number of factors based on which this decision was taken.

Possibly the absence of confirmation of physical participation of Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the Summit might have been an important factor to change the meeting to a virtual format. Initially this decision might have caused some disappointment but in hindsight it proved to be a smart move. If all the pronouncedly anti-Western leaders like Xi Jinping, Putin, Iranian President Raisi and Belarusian President Lukashenko had together descended on Indian soil and were seen hobnobbing with PM Modi, it would have sent a rather unfavourable message to India’s strategic partners in the US, Europe and elsewhere. This would have been particularly galling after a highly successful recent visit by PM Modi to USA.

In addition, it would have been uncomfortable for the Indian leadership to appropriately handle the visit of Xi Jinping in view of the ‘’abnormal’’ relations between the two countries since the Galwan clashes in June, 2020. It would also have been awkward to engage with Shehbaz Sharif in view of the fact that no communication between the two sides has taken place since the Pulwama attack in February, 2019 and more specifically after August, 2019 when even High Commissioners of the two countries were withdrawn at Pakistan’s behest because of the abrogation of Article 370 on the status of Kashmir. Under such circumstances, much of the media attention would have been on the bilaterals and on the activities of the above mentioned leaders and not on work done under India’s Presidency of the SCO as was witnessed during the SCO Foreign Ministers’ meeting held in Goa on 4-5th May, 2023.

The only downside of the decision to have a virtual Summit has been that the Indian leadership has not been able to connect with the highest leadership of the five Central Asian Republics and Iran who would have come to India for the Summit. India will have to make an extra effort to reach out to all the leaders of Central Asia, particularly to Presidents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and Iran to advance the bilateral partnership with these countries.

A question has often been raised whether the adversarial relations between India and China, and India and Pakistan could have a negative impact on the functioning of the SCO. This appears unlikely. The most that can happen is that the countries might make veiled critical references to each other in their plenary statements but, according to the mandate of the Organization, they will not be permitted to raise bilateral disputes during the deliberations. Such remarks by PMs Modi and Sharif at the 23rd Summit of the SCO did not create a hurdle in adopting the New Delhi Declaration or the two documents on combatting Radicalization and promoting Digitization.

There has always been a lingering apprehension that with the presence of countries like China and Russia and now Iran and next year Belarus, this Organization might start adopting unmistakable anti-Western positions on specific global issues. That has not happened at this Summit and is unlikely to happen in the future because in addition to India, the four Central Asian countries which are members of the SCO have good relations with the US and Europe and would not like them to come under a cloud because of any controversial statements adopted at any SCO Annual Summit.

Results of India’s Presidency of the SCO for 2022-’23 are commendable. India has been able to adopt new initiatives and provide fresh energy and direction for SCO’s growth and development in the coming years.

(Ashok Sajjanhar is a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. He is an Executive Council Member at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis and President, Institute of Global Studies. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)