Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs the Shanghai Cooperation Organization online summit in Sochi, on November 10, 2020. Photo: AFP/Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoyed a rare benefit from the Covid-19 pandemic this week. It spared him the embarrassment of eye contact with his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan or Chinese President Xi Jinping at the summit of the SCO Council of Heads of State, which was a “virtual” meeting.

An even bigger embarrassment would have been if Modi had to host Khan for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Heads of Government Council meeting, which will be India’s turn to host on November 30.

In between, comes that other pain in the neck for Modi – the 12th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit on November 17. But again, Covid-19 precludes face-to-face meetings.  

India has no enthusiasm for regional groupings in which the United States is not a participant. Now, the Quad – that is where the Modi government’s tryst with destiny lies. 

Yet the SCO meeting on November 10 was a rare moment for Indian diplomacy. The SCO was originally a Chinese diplomatic initiative and India is inch-by-inch suffocating it. Can there be a sweeter revenge for the Ladakh standoff?  

The so-called “Shanghai spirit” is the core value of the SCO. It is about mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for cultural diversity and pursuit of common development among the SCO member countries.

But the Modi government gives a wide berth to “Shanghai spirit.” With at least two of the eight SCO members – China and neighbor Pakistan – Modi’s government is barely on speaking terms and certainly lacks “mutual trust.” 

‘Common development’

The Modi government is not interested in looking for a mutually beneficial relationship with either country. India harbors a seething rivalry vis-a-vis China and is determined to surpass it militarily and economically some day. As for Pakistan, India looks at it disdainfully as a failing state. 

India rejects the idea of “common development” with either country unless they meet its preconditions. With Pakistan, the Modi government is not even interested in consultation. All that is to be discussed is the vacation of Indian territories illegally occupied by Pakistan.

But India’s real dilemma is something else. Central Asia is not likely to be a major item on the Joe Biden administration’s agenda. The region has remained important to the US so long as American troops have been deployed to Afghanistan. With the US troop withdrawal, the importance of this region will go down for Washington. That would leave India in the lurch. 

If only US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had continued in his job, he would have peered at the region through the Chinese lens even after the Afghan war ended. In fact, US-Indian policy coordination over Central Asia shifted gear early this year, with an agenda to undermine Chinese influence in the region. 

This followed Pompeo’s Central Asian tour in February during which he held a meeting with the foreign ministers from all five ex-Soviet Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. 

Ahead of the visit, Pompeo acknowledged that the Central Asian countries on his itinerary “want to be sovereign and independent,” and Washington has “an important opportunity to help them achieve that.” He voiced disquiet that in the region there’s “a lot of activity – Chinese activity, Russian activity.” 

Pompeo’s distress

Pompeo felt greatly distressed that the Central Asian states increasingly looked east to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road global trade plan as a panacea to treat their battered economies. 

But Pompeo’s posturing in Central Asia met with very little enthusiasm, and had no open success. The mood in the region was succinctly captured by Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, a veteran diplomat, when he told US media that “we would really not like to feel on ourselves unfavorable political consequences in relation to some competition in our region between large powers.” 

Pompeo finally got the point that given the geography of Central Asia, with landlocked states being reliant on inbound pan-continental infrastructure investment from China as a means to propel their economic growth, the US stands hopelessly outplayed and outclassed.

The Beijing newspaper China Daily was plainly contemptuous: “The former CIA chief has been a fanatic in his attempts to smear China, outshining almost all his predecessors in this regard. Unless the US has the same commitment as China has in building connectivity and expanding win-win cooperation in Central Asia, Pompeo is simply wasting his time trying to undermine China’s interests there.” 

Thus took shape the curious division of labor lately between India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the US State Department, with Pompeo delegating the Central Asia desk to his Indian counterpart. It was smart thinking on Pompeo’s part to rope in India to undercut the SCO in Central Asia. 

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar duly chaired a meeting of the India-Central Asia Dialogue in the digital videoconference format on October 28, which was curiously timed – one day after the US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue and with barely 10 days to go for the SCO Heads of State summit. 

India has lost the plot

Jaishankar made a grand announcement at the meeting about a US$1 billion Indian line of credit for the region for “priority developmental projects in fields such as connectivity, energy, IT, health care, education, agriculture, etc.” 

This episode in the hopeless US-Indian enterprise to try to undermine China’s influence in Inner Asia draws a comparison with Modi’s announcement of a similar grand $1 billion Indian line of credit to Mongolia during his visit to Ulaanbaatar in May 2015. 

India has lost the plot in Central Asia. Central Asia’s economic growth largely depends on China. According to data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in 2018 the volume of direct investment in the five countries of Central Asia reached $14.7 billion. 

More importantly, a large proportion of Chinese exports to Central Asia (more than 28% in 2018) are goods with a high added value – machines and equipment, electronics and spare parts. The backbone of cooperation with China in the region is the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which was, interestingly, built in 2009, much before the appearance of the Belt and Road Initiative. 

The main symbol of Chinese soft power is the Confucius Institute and its China studies classes. The organization has 37 branches in Central Asia. Kazakhstan alone has 14,000 students studying at five Confucius Institutes. It is wrong automatically to view all of Beijing’s activity in Central Asia as part of the BRI. 

In Central Asia, India is not a consequential player. Having a format of cooperation with the region – Connect Central Asia – does not per se constitute a policy. India not only lacks a proactive policy in place, it barely reacts to events taking place there.

Does India belong in the SCO at all? China and some Central Asian states reportedly had misgivings about admitting India into the grouping in the first instance. They feared that India would slow down the dynamics of SCO cooperation. 

But India’s “time-tested friend” Russia apparently thought otherwise. What mixed thoughts crossed the Russian mind we will never know. After all, the Shanghai spirit was distilled out of the Sino-Russian normalization after decades of rifts. 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.