India Breaks Ranks With SCO, Refuses to Endorse China's Belt Road Initiative

The formula used in the Qingdao declaration that has allowed India to stand apart was a repeat of the naming method used in the press release of the SCO Council of Ministers meeting in April this year.

New Delhi: Sticking to its traditional position, India was the only country  among the eight members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to refuse endorsement of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the final declaration issued by the group on Sunday.

The 18th SCO summit in Qingdao in eastern China marked the first expansion of the group, with leaders of India and Pakistan attending the meeting as full members.

At the end of the two-day summit, the 17-page Qingdao declaration specifically inserted only the names of the country who have supported China’s belt and road initiative – with India being the notable omission.

Reaffirming their support for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Tajikistan and the Republic of Uzbekistan express appreciation for the joint efforts taken towards its implementation, including efforts to coordinate the development of the Eurasian Economic Union and the BRI and call for using the potential of the regional countries, international organisations and multilateral associations to create a broad, open, mutually beneficial and equal partnership in the SCO space.

The formula used in the Qingdao declaration that has allowed India to stand apart was a repeat of the naming method used in the press release of the SCO Council of Ministers meeting in April this year.

In contrast, the 2017 Astana Declaration – to which India was not a party as it became a full participating member after that summit – had given a blanket endorsement to China’s flagship connectivity project.

“The member states welcomed the One Belt, One Road initiative [as the BRI was initially called]. Having highly praised the results of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation that took place in Beijing on 14-15 May of this year, they supported the implementation of these results by coordinating international, regional and national projects geared toward cooperation in the interest of sustainable development on the principles of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit.”

India had first expressed its objection to the One Belt, One Road initiative ahead of the BRI forum in 2017, which it had not attended.

Earlier on Sunday morning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said in his intervention at the expanded plenary session that connectivity projects had to respect sovereignty.

“Today we are again at a point where physical and digital connectivity are changing the definition of geography. That’s why, India gives particular priority to connectivity projects with neighbours and members of the SCO. We welcome new connectivity projects which are inclusive, sustainable and transparent, and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations. Our commitment to connectivity in this area is visible in the International North-South Transport Corridor, the development of Chabahar Port and our active participation in specific projects like Ashgabat Agreement,” he said.

A day before, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale had indicated that there was no space for compromise on India’s opposition to the Belt and Road initiative.

“I think India’s position on this matter is already spelt out and I don’t need to specify any further.,” he said. “Essentially India supports all connectivity initiatives but believes these should also bearing in mind the sensitivity to each country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty as well as sustainability and viability in other ways.”

New Delhi’s concern over the Belt and Road initiative is centred on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which goes through areas of Gilgit and Baltistan – areas of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir that are now under the control of Pakistan. Gokhale’s reference to sustainability and transparency is a reiteration of India’s concern about financial implications for small states of accepting high-interest Chinese loans for infrastructure projects.

During the informal summit in Wuhan last month, Chinese president Xi Jinping had apparently told Modi that the Belt and Road initiative was purely economic in nature.

The Qingdao declaration noted that “new quality and dynamics have emerged in various fields of cooperation” from the full membership of India and Pakistan.

India had expressed interest in joining SCO for a decade, but the group formulated criteria for new members in 2010. The official green light for new entrants India and Pakistan was given in 2014, when they officially submitted their application and both countries were formally admitted in 2017.

Terrorism formulation tweaked

Besides the Belt and Road initiative, another section in the Qingdao declaration which was tweaked due to the presence of the new members, was on terrorism.

Just as in the previous year, the grouping called for a consensus on adopting the India-sponsored UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism based on the UN Charter.

The SCO declaration condemned all forms of terrorism and considered it necessary to promote the creation of a “unified global counterterrorism front with the central coordinating role of the UN on the basis of international law, without politicisation or double standards”.

The declaration also said that there can’t be any justification for acts of terror, but at same time talked about enhancing efforts for the “detection and elimination of factors and conditions that facilitate terrorism and extremism”.

A sentence in this section of the Qingdao Declaration seems to have been specifically devised to satisfy the differences between India and Pakistan on terrorism.

“The Member States note that the interference in the domestic affairs of other states under the pretence of combatting terrorism and extremism is unacceptable, as well as the use of terrorist, extremist and radical groups for one’s own purposes.”

SCO and India-Pakistan entente

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also had a public encounter with President Mamnoon Hussain of Pakistan on the dais on Sunday, when they shook hands and exchanged pleasantries.

The summit host has high expectation that SCO would be a forum to “better” relations between the South Asian neighbours. “We know there are existing and historical, unresolved conflicts between Pakistan and India. But I think after joining the SCO, maybe we can say that their relationship might be better,” said Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in an interview to state television channel CGTN.

The basis of his optimism seems to be the series of documents that both counties had to sign before becoming full members. “Because when they joined, a series of documents had to be signed and pledges had to be made…one of the key pillar is good neighbourly and friendly relations. They shouldn’t see other as foes and not to mention as enemies so because they have signed these agreements, they shoulder responsibility to implement them,” said Wang.

He described the SCO as a “great vehicle” for bettering relations between India and Pakistan, which “as a result is a better safeguard the peace and stability in the region”.

On the issue of regional stability, Afghanistan got some attention from SCO members, many of whom are immediate neighbours of the war-ravaged country.

The Qingdao declaration said that there was “no alternative to settling the situation in Afghanistan beyond political dialogue and an inclusive peace process by the Afghan people themselves and under their guidance, and call for boosting cooperation under a central coordinating role of the UN for ensuring stability and development of the country”.

There was approval for consultations under the “Moscow format”, which currently does not have any US presence.

In his speech at the summit, Modi backed the ceasefire on fighting with Taliban called by the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani on the occasions of Ramzan.

“Afghanistan is an unfortunate example of effect of extremism and terrorism. I hope the bold initiatives towards peace taken by President Ghani will be respected by all parties,” he said.