India scraps in-person SCO summit

With a little more than a month to go, New Delhi has decided without explanation to hold the head-of-state level meeting virtually

India scraps in-person SCO summit

India scraps in-person SCO summit

With a little more than a month to go, New Delhi has decided without explanation to hold the head-of-state level meeting virtually

By Joydeep Sen Gupta, Asia Editor

India’s Ministry of External Affairs has announced that the meeting of the heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) slated for July 4 will now be held virtually rather than in person.

India holds the rotating presidency for the annual summit. The SCO’s other member states are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.

Iran, Belarus, and Mongolia have been invited as observers for the elite regional event, which holds significance for Eurasia and beyond amid a changing world order.

“As per SCO tradition, Turkmenistan has also been invited as the guest of the chair. Heads of the two SCO bodies – the Secretariat and the SCO Regional Anti-terrorist Structure (RATS) – will also be present. The heads of six international and regional organizations such as the United Nations (UN), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building measures in Asia (CICA),” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said a in press statement.

It was not immediately clear what prompted India to drop its plan to host the SCO summit in New Delhi on July 4, as was earlier announced. The country hosted an in-person meeting of the SCO foreign ministers in the western coastal state of Goa on May 4-5, and there was no indication at that time that a plan for a virtual meeting of the heads of state was in the works.

Though virtual summits became common due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the practice has largely been done away with for diplomatic events since last year. Besides, India, unlike South Africa, which is slated to host the upcoming BRICS summit, is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which could pose a stumbling block for that gathering because of the ICC warrant for the arrest of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to sources at the Ministry of External Affairs, India had initially wanted to hold the SCO summit on June 25, but this date was later revised to the first week of July. The original summit date was close to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit, which is planned for June 22, as Washington bids to deepen ties with the world’s largest democracy and wean New Delhi away from Moscow’s embrace.

The virtual nature of the SCO summit will also deprive Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi of an opportunity to visit India. Iran is tipped to become a full member of the SCO.

Though the announcement that the summit will be held virtually was made on Tuesday evening, the decision was reportedly made a few weeks ago when all preparations to host the high-profile event were put on hold.

The SCO foreign ministers’ meeting in Goa was overshadowed by a verbal joust between archrivals India and Pakistan. India’s career diplomat-turned-foreign minister, Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, hit out at his Pakistani counterpart, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, calling him a “spokesperson of the terror industry.” Bhutto Zardari was the first Pakistani foreign minister to visit India since Hina Rabbani Khar in 2011.  

Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif would have attended the July summit, despite the growing tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, even though there was no possibility of any bilateral talks on the sidelines of the event.

All eyes are now on the G20 summit – to be held in New Delhi on September 9-10 – where Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, along with Biden, have been invited, as well as the other heads of state of the group.

Last year’s SCO summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan made headlines after Modi told Putin that “this is not an era of war”. New Delhi has been citing the prime minister’s viral remark to deflect criticisms by the Western powers that it is soft on Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine, which entered its second year on February 24.