Building stronger intra-regional trade and connectivity in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and greater cooperation on health care will be on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda at the 22nd Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit that begins on Thursday, officials said.

Scheduled to be held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, the two-day summit will be the first in-person meeting of most national leaders.

Establishing a stronger alliance that pushes for reform of the (WTO) will also be pushed by India, officials added. Bilateral meetings with Chinese President and Russian President Vladimir Putin would be the high point of Modi’s visit.

The SCO is a political, economic, and security alliance of eight nations, historically led by Russia and China. It is considered the most important conclave in the Central Asian region, where other nations have significant interest in trade, connectivity, and resource extraction.

Set to be the fifth summit that India participates in as a full-fledged member, the 2022 summit will also see India assume the rotational presidency of the SCO. New Delhi may also offer a glimpse of what it intends to focus on, during its tenure over the next one year.

India has prioritised securing greater trade with Central Asian nations in the past few years. This is because India’s trade with the region stands at $2 billion, while that of China is at $100 billion, according to official estimates. New Delhi is also looking for ways to expand the $1 billion line of credit it announced in 2020 for infrastructure development projects in the region.

As had been the case earlier, the summit may see New Delhi hard pressed to steer clear of discussing China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, which has promised immense economic growth to the landlocked region. Beijing has already invested more than $200 billion through the initiative, according to the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

“While China has now abandoned its efforts to bring India to the discussion table on the BRI, it has protested India’s denouncing of the project,” a Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) official said. New Delhi has stressed that the BRI violates its sovereignty, with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Bilateral meetings

Modi will meet Xi in person for the first time since the 2019 in Brazil. Since then, Indian and Chinese troops have faced off in a series of deadly skirmishes as a result of multiple Chinese intrusions in Ladakh and Sikkim.

“A lot of bilateral diplomacy has gone into de-escalating the situation and the upcoming meeting between the leaders will be crucial in confirming this, face to face,” the official said. He added that the process of disengagement between Indian and Chinese troops in the Gogra-Hot Springs area in Eastern Ladakh was expedited keeping the leaders’ meeting in mind.

However, the bilateral meet with China is still set to be frosty as India has also continued to up the ante against the import of Chinese products, cracked down on Chinese firms operating in India, and has joined the US-backed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework to establish alternative supply chains for key commodities.

Meanwhile, a bilateral meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, which had been untenable from the beginning, will now definitely not take place, the official said. Sharif remains busy in managing the humanitarian crisis emerging out of the devastating floods in Pakistan, and only confirmed his visit to the summit two days back.

Though it remains unconfirmed at this point, Modi is also expected to hold his first ever bilateral meeting with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. “Any such meeting will focus on the Chabahar port and the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), and the series of associated logistical and financial challenges that have cropped up,” another MEA official said.

Regional platform

The SCO is the world’s largest regional organisation, covering approximately 40 per cent of the world’s population, and more than 30 per cent of global gross domestic product.

Formed in 2001 in Shanghai by Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China, the SCO was initially set up to reduce military build-up in the region.

It also committed to non-intervention by member states in each other’s internal affairs under the pretext of human rights. This is the reason why India doesn’t comment on reported atrocities against Uyghur, Tibetan, and other minorities in China.

In 2017, India and Pakistan both joined the SCO as full members. At this year’s summit, Iran may officially begin its entry into the SCO by signing a memorandum of commitment.

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