The June 9-10 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended, was held at Qingdao in China and for the first time with India and Pakistan, which formally joined the group last year, but significantly two other simultaneous events in different parts of the world took the focus away from it.
The G-7 grouping of the industrially most advanced nations, constituting almost 50 per cent of the global economy, met on June 8-9 in Quebec, Canada. American President Donald Trump’s broadsides at the other attendees and his anti-globalisation views had already prompted the media to dub it as the G-6+1 meeting. French President Emmanuel Macron has even wondered whether the six were not better off without the United States, which was unleashing a trade war even against its allies despite having taken the lead many decades ago in the creation of a rules-based international trading system. President Trump arrived late and left early, skipping the session on the environment and climate change, which is anyway not his favourite subject, as he headed for Singapore for his much-awaited summit meeting with North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un on June 12.
With the BJP still reeling under the impact of its bypoll losses, its inability to form the government in Karnataka and hectic outreach to allies, the question could be posed whether the Prime Minister had at all needed to attend the summit. Although the SCO constitutes 40 per cent of humanity and 20 per cent of global GDP, the stated agenda was security cooperation, counter-terrorism coordination, economic development and cultural exchanges. Considering the deep faultlines between India, Pakistan and China, it is unimaginable for any serious cooperation in the security and terrorism-related areas to take place. The meeting, however, provided a good opportunity for Mr Modi to engage other leaders attending the summit, considering that even Iran is an observer and President Hassan Rouhani was present. An in-depth meeting with Pakistan President Manmoon Hussain (who was heading his country’s delegation as the Pakistan government is now led by caretaker PM Nasirul Mulk till next month’s parliamentary elections) made no sense, though the two did shake hands anyway. A meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin too was unnecessary as the two had met just weeks ago. Summits between leaders need to be spaced out to allow for follow-up on the decisions taken and a proper review thereafter.
The initial focus was, therefore, on yet another meeting between Mr Modi and Chinese host President Xi Jinping, the two having already had an “informal summit” only six weeks ago at Wuhan. The agenda thus was thin and two agreements were signed — one a memorandum of understanding on sharing hydrological data on the Brahmaputra river waters and the other an amendment to a protocol to provide for phytosanitary requirement for the export of rice from India, including non-basmati varieties. Both are important and probably flow from the Xi-Modi Wuhan summit. China was dragging its feet on the hydrological data, leaving India as the lower riparian state guessing about Chinese interference with the flow, if any, by building dams or other infrastructure upstream. The second is a small step to balance the yawning trade imbalance between the two countries, with Chinese exports being double that of India. China has been allowed to open a branch of a bank and has in turn allowed controlled entry to Indian pharmaceuticals.
SCO summits are useful as they allow India to monitor and if possible shape developments in India’s near neighbourhood in Central Asia, which may affect Indian interests indirectly via Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also enables India to balance India’s closer engagement with the United States, Japan and Australia in the Indo-Pacific. In fact, as these multiple summits were under way so were the Malabar naval exercises at Guam with the participation of the Indian, Japanese and US navies. Additionally, India would get an opportunity to engage Russia in this sensitive region, where it perhaps shares India’s concerns about the growing Chinese footprint through its Belt and Road Initiative.
Donald Trump looms large over this scenario. The Economist calls him the “Demolition Man”, quoting Henry Kissinger that “order cannot simply be ordained; to be enduring it must be accepted as just”. The best-case scenario for Mr Trump would be ready acceptance to denuclearise by Mr Kim; China, the European Union and Canada surrendering by making trade concessions on the lines Mr Trump sees as fair; and Iran agreeing to amend the nuclear deal and dropping the sunset clause and withdrawing its assets from the Shia arc extending to the Mediterranean. These appear to be impossible objectives and Mr Trump may well settle for less, passing that off as victory, thereby muddying the security scenario even further. He could compromise with Mr Kim if the North Korean leader abandons his long-range missile plans, thus securing US mainland. This would definitely undercut America’s allies in the Pacific.
As PM Modi’s domestic weaknesses mount, the world may start anticipating a post-Modi India. All democratically elected leaders, as their popularity slips, seek adulation and easy victories abroad. Rajiv Gandhi after his embroilment in Bofors and following a series of political missteps and the exit of charismatic Cabinet colleague V.P. Singh in July 1987, sent the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka to implement a peace deal that eventually cost him his life. Next year, in June 1988, he presented to the UN a nuclear disarmament plan that appeared visionary but was both unrealistic and irrelevant within two years as the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union collapsed and America’s hegemonic predominance for the next two decades commenced.
Mr Modi faces such a moment: he needs a new electoral strategy while the world encounters Trumpian disruption. This requires deft balancing between newly emerging polarities, with no clear friends and foes at home or abroad. History will judge the success of Mr Modi’s premiership not by the number of trips abroad or diaspora events or foreign potentates hugged, but whether he safeguarded India’s interests and helped shape a new and fair global order that is Trump-Xi proof. But the Indian electoral clock leaves him little time for that.