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[ TRANSCRIPT ] - C3S Conversation on "India at SCO" with Ambassador P.S. Raghavan

Q. 1) Ambassador may I begin by asking you on the significance of the SCO to India. This is the 5th Anniversary of our membership in the SCO. We have a principled, strategic partnership with the Russian Federation. At the same time, we have a strategic partnership based on shared values with the USA. And then, there is the China factor. How does India’s membership of Quad square up with our presence at the SCO and how are the perceived terminological differences of the Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pacific overcome within the SCO? Do these points gain significance with India taking over the SCO Presidency and that of the G20 later this year.

Response: To start with why the SCO is important to us, the short answer is that the SCO covers a region which is in our immediate neighbourhood. Obviously our strategic, economic, security and political considerations dictate that we should be present in this neighbourhood in every way possible. The SCO started sometime in the late 1990s actually as the Shanghai Five, it was intended to be a vehicle through which China strengthened its relations with countries with which it was trying to sort out its border issues. Which was basically Russia and three of the Central Asian countries. Then by 2001 it acquired greater ambition; Uzbekistan joined it and then became the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. From being an organization, which was supposed to promote harmonious relations with countries with whom China had a border, it became kind of a broader organization looking at political, economic and security cooperation. In a way to try to promote an Asian view of the world, a non-west view of the world, to work towards multi-polarity. All of this was in that decision to become a formal organization. As it grew the idea of bringing India into the organization actually started very early, even as early as 2003-2004 when Russia suggested getting India into the SCO. Local politics, the politics of the organization and of course the politics of China-India relations prevented this from happening till quite late. India became an observer of the SCO quite early but it became a full member only in 2017 and then also on the Chinese condition that Pakistan should also become a member of SCO. SCO then became a much larger organization.

Down the line the international geopolitical situation changed considerably and therefore some of the original objectives of the SCO of being a United pole or an organization seeking a multipolar world, seeking a democratization of the political governance of the world and, of the economic governance of the world. Some or all of the objectives got diluted in the sense that countries of the SCO had different challenges in the geopolitical scene and therefore found it difficult to unite under many of these objectives. This is where we actually were when India and Pakistan joined. Now why it is important to India? It is important to India as I said in the beginning, it is in our immediate neighbourhood. If you see there is only a small slice of land between Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Central Asia and that is that slice of land which Afghanistan, where Afghanistan juts into our border, which is what should have been our border if Pakistan had not occupied Kashmir. It is also a region dominated by Russia and China and naturally you want to be in a position to monitor their dynamics. If you look also at the larger picture the Eurasian landmass should not be seen only to be including Central Asia. It is a continuum really. If you go further West, you take Central Asia, take the Caspian region and further on into the Caucuses all of this is a Eurasian region. Developments in all these regions can affect our economic, security and political interests. That is a powerful reason for us to be in the SCO.

In the latest summit Iran joined it as well. In the entire range of dialogue partners and observers you have an entire range of countries which extends from Turkey to Saudi Arabia and goes East and further up to Belarus. Belarus is becoming a candidate country for membership in the SCO. Now you also have the South-East Asian countries. Its geographical reach is increasing and therefore the number of countries interacting there make it even more important for us to be part of the SCO. You look further up at our bilateral relations. You mentioned our bilateral relations with Russia and our bilateral relations with China, you didn’t quite mention it in the context but if you look at our standoff between India-China, the standoff is in the Eurasian region. We have a lot of initiatives in the Indo-Pacific and the QUAD will come to that in a bit. Our defence against China in this particular aspect is in the Eurasian region that’s important. The Russia relationship is important both for historical reasons and history has also made sure that we have defence cooperation with Russia, so we need to make sure that our defence cooperation, even though we are trying to diversify out defence cooperation, a large proportion of our military acquisitions and particularly the technology aspect of military acquisition are from Russia and we need to protect that. As Russia-West relations have gone for a freefall, US-China relations are also now facing considerable tension, the Russia-China axis is strengthening. Again, we have a great interest in ensuring that Russian interest in India is sufficiently strong to prevent a Russia-China axis from acting against India’s interest. All of this feed into our presence in the SCO.

Lastly about the SCO itself, our PM Narendra Modi made and particularly string pitch to say that to talk about the centrality of Central Asia in the SCO. We need to strengthen our relations with Central Asia, in such a way as to not necessarily dilute the Russia-China condominium in it, but to strengthen our own position there and develop independent links with Central Asia. So that they also want to have certain autonomy of action between these two powers and if we also build our connectivity through Iran through the INSTC, you have a ink with Central Asia which is in mutual interest. This is again another area where we would like to strengthen particularly by the time of our next SCO summit which India will host. Now you look at the Indo-Pacific region. All of us in the South know particularly well the maritime history of India. It doesn’t get included in our history books in North India unfortunately. But India’s period of great prosperity was built on our maritime links. The fact that today the northern land borders are so difficult to penetrate for political, geographic reasons. What it means that 90% of trade is by the maritime route. Also, we are sitting on a very valuable piece of maritime real-estate in the crossroads of the East and West, commercial traffic, military movement. All of this the economic, political and security aspects in the Indian ocean make the Indo-Pacific a very important region for us. What we are doing in the Indo-Pacific right now. This is a region of very great importance to us. The QUAD and other Indo-Pacific initiatives that we are doing including those with South-East Asia and other countries in the region are meant to protect our interest in the Indo-Pacific, to ensure that one country does not have a hegemony over that particular region. That is where the partnership we have with the QUAD countries as a whole a bilaterally come into the picture. There our interest with the United States are totally convergent. United states interest in the Pacific has a projection of its power coincides entirely with our objective trying to make sure that China does not exercise its hegemony in the region.

Our interest with Russia and SCO in the continental space and our partnership with the US in the QUAD in the Indo-Pacific space is not contradictory to one another. They are basically complementary to each other. If you look back at the history of India-US relations it is said to have taken off in the early 2000s just after the nuclear tests in fact. US recognized the potential of India in the Asian region and some kind of a bulwark against China which the US even then recognized as the upcoming superpower rival.

Therefore, the strategic underpinning of the India-US relationship is really convergence of interest vis-à-vis China. Which is why the US did all the heavy lifting and pushed through the nuclear deal with India breaking down some of the non-proliferation rules that the US itself has created. US recognizes the need for a strong India in Asia. A string India in Asia requires India to protect its Eurasian flank. What we are doing in the Indo-Pacific and the QUAD and in Eurasia with Russia and China, the seeming contradictions in larger strategic terms makes greater sense.

Q. 2) Ambassador, the just concluded Summit of the SCO was taking place against the background of some major developments of concern in the political, economic and socio-health fields. The impact of Covid 19, the fallout of the war in Ukraine, the economic and food crisis, the continuing menace of terrorism were some of the issues which concentrated the minds of many of the participating leaders. With these developments casting a long shadow on the Samarkand Summit, how successful was the meeting between the leaders of the SCO? How does the Samarkand Communique reflect these diverse issues?

Response: That is a good question. There are many contradictions with the members of the SCO. In this communique something that sticks out like a sore thumb, like other communique they tell you about the BRI. Every country except India subscribes to the BRI and that is listed there in a very peculiar way in the SCO communique. Look at terrorism for example the SCO formulation of terrorism is basically the Chinese formulation of terrorism. They talk about terrorism, separatism and extremism. This is a standard Chinese line. Essentially it is bothered about movements that China sees as problem to itself. It is not really bothered about the terrorist elements that India is bothered about. There are so many other differences in view. The communique is around 125 to 150 paragraphs. But how many important international developments and trouble spots did it mention. Just one, Afghanistan. It talked about the need for an inclusive government in Afghanistan, humanitarian assistance etc. It did not mention Syria, Libya, the Ukraine war. This itself shows what is the highest common factor of the SCO countries.

Generally, they say we have to cooperate with our justice departments, our parliaments, our law enforcement organizations and on counter-terrorism. It is a joke to have counter-terrorism organization operating with military of India, China and Pakistan. Very soon they will be in Manesar with counter-terrorism bills, it is very peculiar because these are the two countries, we believe are actually acting against India’s security interest. See, there are a lot of seeming paradoxes in this. SCO as such and the joint stand that SCO can take is exposed by this face. But where does it helps you? It helps in interesting with Central Asian countries and also there was this India-Russia summit, PM Modi had the opportunity to have a summit with President Erdogan which is very important because Turkey will play a very important role in the Eurasian region and we have to somehow create some kind of modus with Turkey in spite of our apprehensions with Turkey. It provides us an opportunity to interact with all the players of the region, Iran as well. SCO provides an umbrella for all these activities rather than an organization that articulates political vision of these countries.

Q. 3) The SCO was formed in 2001 as a partnership of choice between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China with the addition of three Central Asian States. With the addition of the three members thereafter and Iran joining in at the recent Summit to make it a nine and perhaps with the coming in of Turkey and others in the not-too-distant future, would Russia and China see some sort of dilution in their grip in the setting of the SCO agenda? How would this impact India’s membership in the SCO? Our Prime Minister remarked on the centrality of Central Asia in the SCO.

Response: For us the centrality of Central Asia is important because that is the reason why we are in the SCO. Now if we talk about the expansion of the SCO – Firstly it’ll take time for it to expand but what you can depend upon both Russia and China to try to do is for each to bring in countries which it is comfortable with so that is why we talk about Belarus as Russia is very comfortable with it. China will want some country in Southeast Asia to come in with it which it feels most confident about. So, each will try to bring in its constituents into that but the important point about SCO expansion is that it is a consensus-based decision. So even if they try to do this India will have now being into SCO will have a VETO on who it will bring in and who it’ll not bring in so to that extent our role will also become important and we don’t want more inimical elements coming into that region because eventually Central Asia centrality is a matter of geography. So, bringing in more people from the east or the west will still make Central Asia being central to SCO and central also to Indian interests. So, we will try to see that this expansion as I said SCO as a common vehicle for its members, political views does not exist anymore and that can only get more diluted. As you bring more members in the political visions will get more diluted. Given the flux in the world today even Russia and China have now differences and more such differences will come up as each try to protect their own interests. In the global geopolitical flux. So there will be differences even between them which will crop up one will be stronger and one will be weaker and depending on how one perceives itself, the strength that one perceives itself via-a-vis the other, its own positioning will change so SCO as an organisation will undergo all these challenges. We have to focus on what we want like we want this regional focus; we want to be present in the Central Asian region we want to make sure that we get this connectivity through Iran and thereby increase the influence of this region in the SCO. And that we will and we should continue to work for it.

Q. 4) In his statement, our Prime Minister had noted that SCO must make efforts to develop reliable, resilient and diversified supply chains in our region requiring better connectivity, as well as grant of full right to transit to members. We do have significant hurdles in this regard from Pakistan and maybe even from China. Would our active participation in the International North-South Corridor and our involvement in Chahbahar allow us to mitigate the negative effect of the denial of transit rights?

Response: There are three points that the Indian Prime Minister was simultaneously trying to make in this statement. One, is Pakistan–Afghanistan link which is the direct transit route which has been closed to India, PM also wanted to promote the INSTC which is the alternative connection to that and we are already members of various ‘Transit Arrangements’ at the Central Asian side viz the Ashgabat Agreement, TIR Convention also which India has joined which enables us to have seamless transportation once we reach the borders of Central Asia. So, that definitely helps improve the supply chain resilience as there is a lot of important raw materials which we can actually access in Central Asia provided we have the economically viable method of accessing them and the final point Indian PM was trying to make was China’s BRI because BRI effectively is a vehicle “Of China, For China and By China”. So, its basically a route which an infrastructure building that serves only China. Whereas, if we look at INSTC, it is a far more open transit corridor. This transit corridor is actually available to all of South-East Asia, South Asia and West Asia into the Eurasian landmass which is economically viable, open to all so PM is also trying to make that distinction between the exclusivity of BRI and inclusivity of INSTC. This India has not really put this out in a stronger way in the public domain. The world has not really fully recognised this.

Q. 5) Now I would like to speak a little bit about the security concerns. SCO members expressed their deep concern over the security threat posed by terrorism, separatism, and extremism. However, two of the SCO members seem to be oblivious to this very thought by deliberately ignoring India’s sustained campaign in the fight against the global menace of terrorism. How can we overcome this conundrum which does reflect on the non-seriousness of some of the members on the fight against terrorism. And India would be hosting the RATS meeting and the UNSC meetings on terrorism shortly.

Response: You know actually, when you join any multilateral organisation, you are very clear eyed about what you can get out of it and what you cannot get out of it. When you see the composition of the SCO, you know that you cannot get what you want out of it on terrorism and you went there with your eyes open. Just as you cannot get the SCO to suddenly express its support for India’s permanent membership at the UN Security Council. So, there are aspects of India’s core ambitions which you cannot expect the SCO to endorse. So, you should not try to do things which you cannot do. Now, what we have on terrorism, what are campaigns against terrorism and what we want to get on terrorism, we should pursue elsewhere. We should pursue other international engagements. We should pursue the United Nations. We should pursue our partners in the West. These are the constituencies where we should push our concerns about terrorism where they also share. So, India at SCO we will continue to do what we can do within SCO which is connectivity and terrorism to a limited extent, in the sense we do have one common concern about terrorism from Afghanistan not flowing out in all directions. That broad concern is there inspite of the fact that the Chinese only want to consider ETIM as a terrorist organisation and the Pakistani’s will not let the others be. But to the extent that the Afghanistan should have an inclusive society where by reduce its temptation to promote terrorist forces. There are these commonalities that are there and within the SCO in spite of Pakistan and China behaving as they do when we build our central Asian linkages, we are expressing that. You know we did have, immediately after the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, all the five Central Asian national security advisors were in Delhi along with the Russian national security advisor, to talk about the issue of terrorism and instability basically coming out of Afghanistan. That will remain.

In December we have another meeting on the Central Asian NSA’S with our NSA in India to talk about that. So, we can also promote within the SCO not at the SCO initiative within the SCO, with countries of the SCO, we are also promoting some of our interests within. We can do it. But that is all we can do. We cannot expect tomorrow the SCO to change its spots and do suddenly what you wanted to do. But you do that all along. I think that is how we need to play our cards in the SCO.

Q. 6) Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with President Putin reinforced the strength of India-Russia relations. The West has made much noise of the Prime Minister’s “era of war” remark. However, the response of the Russian leader saw an understanding. Going forward, how do you see India-Russia relations developing with the various churning processes going on in the global geostrategic environment?

Response: India-Russia relations have a long history. And that relation has been shaped both by history and geography. The geography part I have mentioned before also as part of the SCO. You have Russia and China dominating the land mass immediately to our north, very important to our security. So, if you want to look at it as a negative reason for the India-Russia relation, the negative reason is that you do not want Russia and China to form a hostile axis against you in Central Asia. Which can actually hurt your security interest. That is the one importance.

Geopolitics is 50% geography, that is an important aspect. Now you come to the positive aspect. As I keep explaining to my European friends all over the place. We do not have the same history with Russia as they have. They have a very complex history as part of Europe was dominated by Russia, part of Europe was occupied by the Soviet Union. They also have the history of rivalry and military conflict. We do not have any of it with Russia. Our history of Russia has been quite the reverse. Because of the geography and because of the geopolitics and the cold war, the Russians actually helped us. So, we need to keep that in mind and because of that also we have this defence cooperation. This defence cooperation is very deep and it has grown over the years. I keep saying it all the time, you cannot change your defence supplier like your soap or your shampoo. It is a very complex process. You have a series of technological bases for your equipment and many of the advanced military technologies that we have are Russian. At the same time, we have been diversifying our defence acquisitions over the last two decades. Not just now because the West told us to move away from Russia. We have been doing this from 2000’s. If we look at the SIPRI arms transfer register, you see that there is a progressive diminishing of the proportion of our military acquisitions from the Russia, increasing proposition of our military acquisitions from the US, from Israel and from France. But still today, the last March 2022 SIPRI report said that the 46% of our acquisitions were from Russia. You can't wish away that. It is a progress that is taking place, it is a decision that we took regardless of the Russia-US fallout. We have taken the decision to not put all our eggs in one basket. And we have been doing it. But it happens at its own pace.

Meanwhile, we feel no reason to quickly and completely tear ourselves from Russia to our detriment, to increase our military vulnerability. So, all of this is reflected in our approach to Russia. We made it clear; we do not support the Russian invasion of Ukraine; we clearly accept that it is a violation of territorial integrity and sovereignty. But no purpose is served at severing our relations with Russia over that. Because we have other interests in our region and I will come back to the Eurasian region where we have our security interest and so on.

If we look at what the Indian PM told President Putin, actually everybody focused on that one sentence “this is not the era of war, this is the era of peace”. But he said five other things. He reminded Putin that he has a personal relationship with him going back to the year 2001, where he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, when he went and signed an agreement in Russia. He talked about President Putin’s contribution towards India-Russia relationship, personally. He said that we will be talking about the contribution of fertilizer in three or four areas and in defence and many more. He said a lot of things and he also said that the India- Russia relationship are very strong. You know people have picked what they want to. That is alright, I mean I don't think we should object. Let them do that. If they want to declare success and say that thereby they got India to criticise Russia.

Also, if you go back, after I saw that and went through the various statements that Prime Minister Modi has made on Ukraine starting from February. And in various contexts, standing next to German chancellor Olaf Scholz. In may he said that, this is a war that cannot be won, and that there will be no victors in the war. And there is no alternative to dialogue and diplomacy and therefore we want this war to stop. He said that in Germany. When talking to President Biden, in April at the beginning of the 2+2 dialogue, he said the same thing. He said that we have been constantly asking for diplomacy and dialogue and as far as human rights violations go, we condemn human rights violations everywhere and we would like an impartial inquiry. That is what our foreign minister said in the UN security council speech, which was made. Prime Minister Modi said this already. So, you know actually everything that the foreign minister said, the only one addition the foreign minister made in the UN Security Council was the nuclear issue that is because of this new controversy that came up and obviously we will always say that we are concerned about the nuclearization.

So, going back to this therefore, President Putin also understands the pressures on India. He understands India’s position as he himself said that "I understand your concerns and I will discuss with you". So, it was a far more balanced position articulated by Prime Minister Modi and articulated by our foreign minister at the UN security Council. Then the public has deliberately chosen to portray it as. So, it's alright, I mean you don't want to portray it as suddenly India having flipped against Russia right. Let them do so. It doesn't really concern India-Russia relationship. India-Russia relationships are governed by what the two leaders say to each other.

Q. 7) Ambassador, there was some mention of the possibility of a Modi-Xi meeting following in what our External Affairs Minister saw as the removal of one point from the difficulties in India-China relations. I refer to the PP15 disengagement Expectedly, the meeting did not take place. From your experience both as a diplomat and as someone who had accompanied a former Prime Minister to various meetings, would there have the possibility of some exchange of pleasantries and even more between the two leaders behind doors? And where does this leave India-China relations? President Xi did mention China’s support and cooperation to India’s Presidency of the SCO.

Response: Yes, to take the last point first, that China express support for India’s presidency of the SCO these are formalities and niceties that all leaders will maintain regardless of bilateral relations between countries. You know you have even in the SCO communique they expressed appreciation of India’s handling of the RATS of which India was the chair this year. So, you know that kind of niceties and that kind of formalities, countries in multilateral organizations maintain regardless of bilateral relations. So, we should put that aside.

Secondly, quite often when you have multilateral meetings of this kind it does give opportunity for leaders even when they have a very difficult relations between their countries to express some niceties and to say a few things, maybe in the corridor walking down towards the same meeting and so on. It does happen, I do not know the reality because I was not there but it somehow from all the visuals that we have seen it would appear that such things did not take place in Samarkand between the Indian and the Chinese leaders. You saw that even, there was only one group photograph that, were the two were there. And there was no smile and no connection between the two and some of the other occasions where the leaders were together, conveniently neither President Xi nor Prime Minister Modi were present there and therefore there was no way of gauging any body language. So, it would appear that the two leaders had not actually taken the opportunity to meet each other. I think it was on the Indian side of course it has been, I think consistently maintained that our Prime Minister will not meet President Xi because they felt that not enough has been done to repair the damage of the April, May 2020 standoff and that as a foreign minister, the external affairs minister keeps saying the state of the relationship will depend on the state of the border, so the state of the border in India’s judgement has not reached a stage where you can have a dialogue with China, quite clearly that is the meaning of the absence of a meeting in Samarkand. Well, they have another opportunity when the G20 takes place. As when the G20 meeting takes place they will have another opportunity and let us see if there is some progress in the relations from either side. In between there will also be a meeting in an important meeting for President Xi in China, the congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and we’ll see how that impacts on the way China behaves, but similarly we did not have a meeting with Pakistan which was also anticipated, expected but nothing seemed to have happened.

Q. 8) Sir, speaking of Russia – China relations has there been some dent in the ‘no limits’ partnership? Would Beijing be setting those limits? How can India ensure its interests are preserved in this competing and conflicting interests esp. in the matrix of Sino-Russian ties?

Response: You know this there’s no limits partnership is a wonderful creation, it’s a creation of those who want to see it that way in order to justify many actions of theirs. Russia-China relations are very close they’re very strategic there are very important reasons why they should be so but they have never been no limits and they can never be no limits because there are very deep strategic and you in the C3S would know this better than I there are strategic fault lines which may have been papered over and which will be papered over when there are overwhelming reasons to do so, but they will again exhibit themselves when the occasion comes and when each side finds it possible to do so.

Now even as far as this, no limits partnership goes this quotation is from the communique of the joint statement that was issued when President Putin went to China in February just before he invaded Ukraine and that is why it became a very nice way to justify the fact that you know Russia and China are close together, but if you look at their communique at their joint statement which was done in June, I think of 2021 when their 20-year strategic partnership document was renewed. They also said this- they said something very much similar; they didn’t use this expression but they said that you know ours is a new type of international relations it is not like that of the Cold War but it goes above and beyond that, very close and they used a lot of flowery language which is just about the same as saying it is a no limits friendship. So, see that they do.

Whenever there is a US-Russia tension rises they go back and say this, whenever there is US-China tension rises they go back and tell each other, what good friends they are. So, this is part of a reaction and one should not take these public statements at face value so much, but as you know there are many fault lines. I mean even now China has been very careful about the kind of endorsement of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that Russia may have wanted, it has not endorsed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, what it has said was it has criticized NATO it has criticized NATO and then it conveniently criticized the United States for its Indo-Pacific initiatives and so on which where Russia and China have common ground, but the fact it has also tried to take advantage of Russia-Ukraine differences by in fact strengthening military cooperation with Ukraine not during the conflict but before the conflict they tried to buy up as you might know that the major turbine manufacturers of Ukraine when the Americans stepped in and stopped the purchase, so even in the BRI there are differences in the BRI, the Russians are not very keen on China establishing direct contact with each of the Central Asian countries expanding its not only economic footprint but political and security footprint in Central Asia. The Russians have tried to tell the Chinese to do the BRI through the Eurasian Economic Union which China has sort of said yes to but has ignored completely and also so many of the routes for BRI projects by pass Russia actually and they reach all the way to Europe bypassing Russia. So, there are many such fault lines and the way in which China treats Russia also there is a lot of Russian writing on the subject of frictions. China is careful at the top level to treat Russia as an equal but at other levels Chinese officials don’t treat Russian officials as equal and this rankles. So, it’s a stage when Russia is clearly on the back foot when they have to take what China is doing, if that situation changes even a little bit you will see its manifestation.

So, there is a potential rift there, right now to talk about a rift is very premature, but there is a potential for a rift and that is what people like the west, but also India, it is in India’s interest to create and widen that rift to the extent that it is possible for us and that should be part of our strategic goals as well. And of course, as you know there’s that whole million square kilometers of territory that used to be Chinese which is now with Russia. If China takes that away China will become a more comprehensive superpower because in addition to everything else it will become a hydrocarbon superpower and get the access to the Arctic which it craves for and cannot get today. So that is also a kind of a friction between Russia and China, potential friction between Russia and China. So, we need to take this into account rather than taking this formulaic description of Russia-China relations.

( The views expressed does not reflect the views of C3S )
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