SCO Summit: India’s Endeavour to Balance Relations with Great Powers

India aspires to increase its influence in global and regional affairs to take the leadership role of the Global South and materialise its hegemonic designs. For this purpose, India strives to achieve a balanced foreign policy with the great powers, including the United States, China, and Russia, to maximise its national interests. In the last 15 years, India has joined four multilateral organisations. It includes two Western organisations, i.e. G20 and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) – a grouping of the US, Australia, Japan and India – and two non-western organisations, i.e. Shanghai Cooperation Organizations (SCO) and BRICS – a grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. It reflects that India aims to pursue independent foreign policy by balancing relations with great powers while not involving in bloc politics.

Indian ambition is clear from its presidency of two summits this year, SCO and G20, which can be a delicate balancing act. On 4 & 5 May, the meeting of the foreign ministers of SCO member states was held in Goa for the forthcoming SCO summit attended by representatives from India, Russia, China, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. All the participating states agreed on the agenda to fight against terrorism, extremism, and separatism, deepen cooperation on security matters, and concentrate on peace and stability in Afghanistan and SCO membership expansion to Iran and Belarus. New Delhi also hosted the foreign ministers meeting of G20 Nations in March 2023, where the foreign minister of India, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, met his American, Chinese and Russian counterparts to reach a common ground. So, India is currently implementing a diplomatic strategy by balancing the Western nations with China. Russia founded the SCO grouping of regional nations, including India, which is considered a counterbalance to US alliances across Asia. Moreover, India also hopes to increase its engagements with the Eurasian region, increase its centrality in the Asia Pacific, promote its economic development and secure its energy supplies by using this platform.

After the post-cold War era, India enjoys robust US relations. On the other hand, India is strengthening its ties with Russia and China through SCO to safeguard its strategic autonomy.

India’s historical legacy of non-alignment can be traced back to the cold war era, which was the pivot of India’s foreign policy. However, after the emergence of India as a prominent nation, the transition can be seen from a non-aligned to a multi-aligned approach. India actively seeks and builds partnerships with great powers whenever it is in its interest after a cost-benefit analysis. In the past decade, India-US ties became deeper and more intense as the presidency of the US from George W. Bush onward enhanced India’s capabilities, driven by the belief that it would bolster the position of the US in its geopolitical rivalry with China. This approach was adopted by the Biden administration when India was included in Quad as an “essential partner” to directly confront China to counter its aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region.

However, India desires to navigate its foreign policy to propagate a message to all the great powers that they can work along with it but cannot use India solely to achieve their own targets.  India maintains its relations with the US but not at the cost of deteriorating relations with Russia and China. The US wants to strengthen India in order to gain support for the existing liberal international order. As for India, it values its relations with the US for the material benefits it offers and for access to advanced technologies. By doing so, India wants to boost its own military and economic muscles to facilitate its rise, capable of balancing China independently. India does not feel obliged to intervene in any conflict with the US, even if it involves a mutual threat to China.

India seeks to balance its relations with China and Russia through the SCO forum. India cannot disengage from China because of geographical proximity, economic dependence and steady growth in trade, investment and technology. On the sidelines of the SCO foreign ministers meeting, the Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang engaged in bilateral talks with the Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar and discussed the ongoing border issues in eastern Ladakh.  China also expressed willingness to conduct strategic and long-term bilateral consultation, bolster cooperation and dialogue under multilateral forums, and foster development, global peace and stability. Qin maintained that “the situation on the China-India border was ‘generally stable’, and he urged both sides to abide by the consensus reached between them and maintain their peace efforts.” While Jaishankar shared in a tweet that “Focus remains on resolving outstanding issues and ensuring peace and tranquillity in the border areas.”

India also shares an amicable and longstanding relationship with Russia based on mutual trust, historical ties, and shared interests. During the SCO Foreign Ministers meeting, Russian Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Jaishankar held a bilateral meeting to promote trade, energy and defence ties and strengthen cooperation in space to enhance their strategic partnership. Additionally, the alternatives were discussed for the payment issue arising from Western sanctions and to make agreements in their own currencies, yuan and ruble. India’s neutral position can also be deduced from India’s abstaining vote in UN General Assembly on resolutions condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. India Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “I call it proactive neutrality, which means India would not be comfortable taking any one of the sides in the conflict either to stand completely with Russia or the US.”

Hosting the SCO summit this year allowed India to strengthen its relations with Central Asian countries and should become a bridge for India to expand its footprints in the region. India will get the opportunity to access natural resources and raw materials while also promoting trade, investment and energy ties.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari attended the SCO foreign Minter meeting with a multilateral focus, not bilateral. When India raised the terrorism issue by directly pointing out Pakistan, Bilawal warned the SCO member states against “weaponising terrorism for diplomatic point scoring”. From Jaishankar’s negative statements, such as calling his Pakistani counterpart “a promoter, justifier and spokesperson of a terrorism industry”, it seems India is not interested in Pakistan attending such high-profile meetings. Although, in terms of maintaining a balance, Pakistan should learn from India how despite the border clashes between China and India in the Galwan Valley and Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh, they strive to contain the armed conflict while boosting economic ties. While in the case of Pakistan, the hostilities are so prioritised that the continuation of political and economic relations becomes difficult. So, amid this political instability and financial crisis, Pakistan should avoid putting all the eggs in one basket and instead adopt a balanced approach in great power competition.

India is carrying out its foreign policy very effectively. After the post-cold War era, India enjoys robust US relations. On the other hand, India is strengthening its ties with Russia and China through SCO to safeguard its strategic autonomy. India will undoubtedly face challenges while maintaining a balance between great powers considering the future rivalry between US and China, historical disputes with China and Pakistan and close alliance between China and Pakistan, leaving little room for India to manoeuvre. Moreover, close alignment between China and Russia can hurt Indian interests in the region. However, to achieve the full potential of SCO and fulfil its aspirations, India must overcome its grudges, overcome historical tensions, build mutual trust among members and conduct peaceful coordination on security issues.

Siham Javid 

Siham Javid is a graduate of National Defence University Islamabad and is currently serving as a research intern at CSCR.

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