Prime minister Narendra Modi made a pitch for the India-developed Iranian port of Chabahar during his address at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit today.
The development of Chabahar Port was part of India's initiative to create an alternative access route to Afghanistan after Pakistan began obstructing the transport of supplies via the land route. With Afghanistan falling into Taliban hands—and the uncertainty in that country as well as in the neighbourhood—the question of Chabahar's relevance to India's foreign policy repeatedly popped up. In the long run, Chabahar was envisaged as part of the ambitious network of highways, railroads and ports under the International North-South Transport Corridor, running right from Russia, through Central Asia and connecting with ports of Europe.
It is this vision that Modi is selling to landlocked Central Asia, given the limited use of the port for India to access Afghanistan at the present. "We believe that land-locked Central Asian countries can benefit immensely by connecting with India's vast market. Unfortunately, many connectivity options are not open to them today due to a lack of mutual trust. Our investment in Iran's Chabahar port and our efforts towards the International North-South Corridor are driven by this reality,'' he said.
Modi was attending the SCO meet virtually—which is now one of the biggest multilateral summits being held in hybrid mode.
China initiated the SCO two decades ago to reach out to the Central Asian markets. Over the years, SCO has become a platform for discussing regional issues of terror, security, trade and connectivity. India and Pakistan became full-fledged members in 2017. This year, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar joined as dialogue partners. Iran is the newest member in this grouping.
"The expansion of SCO shows the growing influence of our organisation,'' said Modi.
Modi noted that the "biggest challenges in this area are related to peace, security and trust-deficit and the root cause of these problems is increasing radicalisation. Recent developments in Afghanistan have made this challenge more apparent. SCO should take an initiative on this issue.'' The prime minister noted Central Asia's historical experience of moderation, emphasising upon the strong Sufi influence and said that this could be used as a template by the SCO to counter radicalisation and extremism.
Connectivity is an important aspect of the SCO, and Modi said that connectivity was not a one-way street—it needed to be a participatory, transparent and consultative exercise, which respected the territorial integrity of partner nations. He said SCO should fix norms for such connectivity projects, only then would it actually connect people and not distance them further. Without actually taking names, Modi's indication was clear. He was alluding to China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and one of its biggest projects, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which brazenly runs through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and is a very sore issue with India. India has repeatedly kept away from BRI conversations, pointing out that the CPEC has not respected its territorial integrity.
With the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) falling by the wayside, largely due to issues between India and Pakistan, the SCO has offered a different and so far useful platform for India, especially for engaging with Pakistan. With India sharing membership with both China and Pakistan, it is able to table its objections to China's grand plan, even it cannot actually stop the progress of the dragon. More importantly, SCO has provided a platform for the two nations to reach out to each other and attempt at sorting their differences. It was at the foreign ministers' meeting of SCO in Moscow last year when S Jaishankar and Wang Yi first met after the Galwan incident and took the first baby steps towards disengagement. Later, at the defence ministers' meet of SCO, Rajnath Singh too had talks with his counterpart Wei Fenghe.
This time again, Jaishankar and Yi have had a meeting in Dushanbe. Jaishankar noted that since their last meeting in July (also in Dushanbe during the SCO foreign ministers' meet)there was some progress in the resolution of the remaining issues along the LAC in eastern Ladakh and the disengagement in the Gogra area was complete. However, there are still some outstanding issues that need to be resolved. in this regard, the ministers agreed that military and diplomatic officials would meet again and continue discussions.
Jaishankar also told Yi that India did not subscribe to the "clash of civilisations'' theory and said that the two countries had to deal with each other on merits and establish a relationship based on mutual respect.
While multilateral groupings allow countries to engage with each other and sort out several bilateral issues on the sidelines, SCO has helped in applying a band-aid to India China ties, which last year, dipped to the lowest in recent times. In fact, it was at the first SCO meet that Modi attended in Kazakstan in 2017 where he and Chinese president X Jingpin came up with the Astana Consensus, by which they agreed not to let the differences between the two countries scale up into disputes. The Astana Consensus was tested almost weeks later when the standoff between the troops of the two militaries happened at Doklam. The de-escalation then too was guided by the Astana Consensus.