The new norm in multilateral diplomacy of virtual summits has made it easier for leaders to participate from home and address their colleagues.
As the opportunity for informal contacts has diminished, the summits have become speaking platforms.
This is particularly so when some of the groupings do not have regional, ideological or thematic linkages.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is such an alliance, which was announced on 15 June 2001 in Shanghai by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, essentially as a friendship group set up by China for the former Republics of the Soviet Union. Since then, the organization has expanded its membership to nine states, with India and Pakistan joining in 2017 and Iran in 2021.
With the membership of India, Pakistan and Iran, SCO is now a diverse group without any political glue to stick them together.
Apart from holding annual summits, military exercises are also regularly conducted among members to promote cooperation and coordination against terrorism and other external threats, and to maintain regional peace and stability. The SCO is the largest regional organisation in the world in terms of geographical coverage and population, but without a common agenda in several sectors.
The 21st meeting of the SCO Council of Heads of State was held on September 17 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in a hybrid format. The meeting was chaired by the Tajikistan President. PM Modi addressed the summit vis video link while EAM Jaishankar was present in Dushanbe to have bilateral meetings and to attend the rest of the summit.
SCO relevance amid Afghan tension
At a time when the international situation is dominated by the recent events in Afghanistan, the SCO summit had a special relevance as all the participants were neighbouring countries, which had a direct interest in the future of Afghanistan. They were not on the same page on their approach to Taliban, but all of them had a major stake in the future of Afghanistan.
The fact that Taliban returned to power after a US war on terror, which lasted 20 years was a shock to all of them. Pakistan, China and Russia were supportive of the new dispensation in Afghanistan, but others had several conditions for recognising the new Government. They were also concerned about the re-emergence of terrorism in Afghanistan and the possibility of an economic collapse, necessitating massive humanitarian assistance.
The indications from the Taliban that they would follow the same fundamentalist and medieval policies, based on Shariat law was a matter of concern for all of them, except Pakistan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his first extensive comments since the Taliban takeover, said that the political change in Afghanistan did not lead to an inclusive system and the process was not conducted through negotiation. He stated that the neighbours of Afghanistan would be seriously impacted by the developments in that country.
“The first issue is that the change of authority in Afghanistan was not inclusive and this happened without negotiation. This raises questions on the prospects of recognition of the new system. Representation of all sections of Afghans, including women and the minorities, is important. And that is why it is necessary that the global community should think carefully and collectively while deciding on the legitimacy of the new political system in Afghanistan,” he said. He expressed India’s support for the “central role” of the United Nations in the global deliberation regarding the current system in Afghanistan.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said that Afghanistan could not be “controlled from the outside” and that Islamabad will continue to support the war-torn neighbouring country even as he urged the Taliban to fulfil the promises they have made. Khan highlighted the need to mobilise international support for an immediate humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan which is now ruled by the Taliban.
“We must remember that the Afghan government is primarily depended on foreign aid,” “The Taliban must fulfil the promises they have made.” “Pakistan has a vital interest in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and will continue to lend its support,” Mr. Khan said. He spoke as the winner in Afghanistan, having helped the Taliban during the war with the US and shaped the new Government with the Pakistan spy network having key positions in the Taliban Government.
China’s President Xi Jinping called on the Taliban Government “to adopt prudent and moderate” policies and said its neighbours should encourage Kabul to do so, with Beijing stepping up its diplomacy with countries in the region, including Russia, Pakistan and Iran.
He urged the members of the SCO “to encourage Afghanistan to put in place a broad-based and inclusive political framework, adopt prudent and moderate domestic and foreign policies, resolutely fight all forms of terrorism, live in amity with its neighbours and truly embark on a path of peace, stability and development”. He said the country faced “many daunting challenges, and it needs the support and assistance of the international community”, as he called on SCO members “to step up coordination, make full use of platforms such as the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group and facilitate a smooth transition”.
China's 'informal meeting'
Significantly, the Chinese Foreign Minister, who was in Dushanbe held “an informal meeting” with Russia, Pakistan and Iran. The four country grouping, Mr. Wang said, had a role to play “as important neighbours of Afghanistan and influential countries in the region”. “It is necessary for us four countries to strengthen communication and coordination, make unanimous voices, exert positive influence, and play a constructive role in the smooth transition of the situation in Afghanistan,” Mr. Wang said.
He outlined a five-point proposal for the four countries to follow, including “urging the U.S. to learn lessons from the past”, working to tackle “spill over of security risks” and getting the new Taliban regime “to make a clean break with terrorist forces”, and providing assistance to the war-torn country.
“Regional countries have three main expectations for the new Afghan government: inclusiveness, counter-terrorism and good-neighbourliness,” he said, adding that “China is ready to step up coordination with Russia, Pakistan, Iran and other countries in the region to play a constructive role in preventing chaos, maintaining stability, combating terrorism and violence, realising peace and reconstruction of Afghanistan and ultimately achieving lasting peace in the region.”
The SCO summit served a useful purpose as all participants expressed the view that Taliban should reform itself, give up terrorism and gain recognition and assistance by setting up a moderate and modern nation. But the Chinese initiative to set up a group of four countries within SCO to take special responsibility for Afghanistan revealed the divisions within the SCO and undermined the consensus within the Organisation.