Realpolitik Dynamics of India, Russia and China in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)

Sanchita Chatterjee
September 27th, 2020



Image Courtesy: Deccan Herald

The meeting between the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), under the chairmanship of the Russian Federation, took place in Moscow on 9 and 10 September 2020. India attaches great importance to SCO as it provides India with an excellent forum to communicate with its extended neighbourhood. The SCO Heads of State Council and Heads of Government Council are two separate bodies focused on issues related to politics and defence, and issues related to trade and economy respectively. In 2005 India joined the SCO as an observer and in 2017 became a full member alongside Pakistan. SCO, a regional grouping of eight nations that accounts for about 42 percent of the world’s population and 20 percent of global GDP, gives wings to India’s ability to deepen its Eurasian partnership.

Although Russia denying that it could mediate alone in India in the Indian-China border standoff, it laid the groundwork for a meeting between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers in Moscow as SCO can provide a forum for building confidence between the member states. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar attended the meeting representing India, and it was the third time that India participated in the event as a full SCO member. This came just days after the member states’ conference of defence ministers.

Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar held a bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the summit, in the backdrop of the recent increase in border tensions. After a ‘frank and positive’ dialogue, both countries declared they had reached a consensus on five issues. India and China are both members of the powerful regional bloc which focuses primarily on security-related issues. Since the deadly skirmish between India and China’s military forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh on June 15 that claimed the lives of twenty Indians and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers, numerous dialogues have taken place between senior military officers of the two nations, but to no advantage. Despite promising video conferencing talks between Beijing and New Delhi diplomats to address the outstanding issues for the complete mutual withdrawal of front-line troops from the de facto boundary, Indian officials were disappointed by the People Liberation Army (PLA)’s reluctance to act according to schedule. The SCO Summit provides a common ground for both India and its Chinese counterpart for enhancing mutual understanding, and participate in fruitful and constructive talks.

Russia has served as an unlikely mediator on the India-China disengagement process along the LAC between the two countries. Previously Russia tried to use its Quiet Diplomacy through the RIC meeting to mediate between the two Asian giants on June 23, 2020.  The points reached between India and China included a rapid disengagement agreement, dialogue and cooperation through the Special Representative Mechanism on the Indian-China boundary issue. Besides the adoption of new confidence-building measures to preserve and enhance peace and tranquillity in border areas and the prevention of differences from becoming disputes was also concluded in the meeting. There was nevertheless no strong sign of de-escalation or restoration of status-quo ante as India’s primary demand. Wang Dehua, an expert from South Asia at the Shanghai Municipal Center for International Studies appreciated the purpose of the meeting and said it might pave the way for a potential meeting between President Xi Jinping and PM Modi. Russia pressed for dialogue during a RIC meeting and its reluctance to again mediate through SCO, between the two countries reflected its willingness to promote regional stability. 

Over the past two and a half decades, Russia has fallen on the index of powerful countries in the international order. With China emerging as a strong political, economic, and military bloc, Moscow eventually moved closer to balance with Beijing, in order to ensure its energy security and enhance trade. In changing circumstances, while Russia is looking for a more trustworthy partner in the region, India needs to improve relations with Russia in order to  ensure that Moscow is not drawn too closer to Beijing. Russia is the second-largest exporter of defence product, only next to the US, and bilateral trade between India and Russia is expected to hit the $30 billion mark in about two years. The prospects are promising, especially in the context of the US threat of severe sanctions on any country dealing with Russia’s defence and intelligence industries. Though 58 percent of our defence imports come from Russia, bilateral trade between the two countries will likely increase in the future. Russia is not among the top five countries that India exports to or imports from, More importantly, perhaps India is the only country in the region that Russia can hope to enhance its trade ties with, despite the current circumstances necessitation countries to look inward.

The coronavirus pandemic has badly disrupted many countries’ aspiring plans and destroyed the economies of individual countries as well as those of international trading blocs. In such circumstances, it is reasonable to expect to pursue an alternative trade mechanism from ASEAN and other regional multilateral blocs. The Himalayan stalemate between India and China, Beijing’s belligerence in Hong Kong and the South China Sea, and the general antagonism about the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI)-related debt trap syndrome are likely to give rise to some form of anti-China sentiment. Much of our arsenals for defence are now from Russia. India’s presence in SCO sends mixed signals about our foreign policy. Both India and Russia knows that by cultivating relations with each other they can achieve strategic scope and a platform like SCO will provide new dimensions in the field of diplomatic realpolitik.


** The author is an intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies.**