Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 05, 2020
SCO comes to India

India chaired the 19th meeting of the Council of Heads of Governments (CHG), i.e., Prime Ministers, of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in a virtual format on 30 November, 2020. This was the first summit meeting of the SCO to be hosted by India since it became its member in 2017.

It is essential to fully understand the difference between the two Summits that take place annually between SCO member states before discussing the deliberations and decisions at the CHG summit chaired by India.

Evolution of the SCO

The SCO emerged as a regional grouping in 2001 from the then existing Shanghai Five. The Shanghai Five had come into existence in 1996 at the insistence of China. Before that, China and four countries with which it had unsettled borders viz. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, had come together after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 to amicably settle their boundary disputes. After the border disagreements were resolved, it was decided by these five countries to set up the Shanghai Five to promote cooperation in political, security, economic and cultural spheres. The Group was rechristened as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation with the induction of Uzbekistan in 2001.

All these six countries have a Presidential form of government with the Presidents being the pre-eminent functionaries in charge of foreign policy, security, defense, and military matters (amongst others) while the Prime Ministers, subordinate in hierarchy, have the mandate to deal with economic, trade, cultural and social issues. As such, two high level bodies were created—the Council of Heads of State (CHS), comprising the Presidents of the six countries; and the Council of Heads of Government (CHG), with participation of Prime Ministers of these countries. CHG deals with trade, economic, social and cultural issues.

India became an Observer of this Organisation in 2005. During its participation as an Observer, both the CHS and CHG meetings were attended by Indian Ministers of External Affairs or Ministers of Power (keeping in view the high reserves of energy—oil, gas, coal, and uranium—in several SCO countries). On account of India’s Parliamentary system of democracy, the Prime Minister of the country is invested with the executive authority to participate in CHS meetings.

India’s PM never attended any CHG or CHS meetings during India’s term as an Observer of the Organisation. The only time that the-then PM Dr Manmohan Singh participated in an SCO Summit when India was an Observer was in 2009 in Yekaterinburg, when Russia as the Chair of both BRICS and SCO, organised the Summits together. In 2015, Russia again was the Chair of SCO and BRICS and organised the Summits together in Ufa, the capital of the Bashkortostan province of Russia. PM Modi participated in that Summit. Since then, PM Modi has participated in all CHS Summits viz. in 2016 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; in 2017 in Astana (now Nur-Sultan), Kazakhstan; in 2018 in Qingdao, China; in 2019 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and on 10 November, 2020, in virtual format under the Chairmanship of Russia.

As far as CHG meetings are concerned, the External Affairs Minister has usually represented India. This was the case in the CHG meetings held in Sochi, Russia in 2017 and in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2018. Last year, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh led the Indian delegation to the CHG summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, presumably because of the rapidly expanding defence cooperation between India and Uzbekistan, as also because some bilateral defence activities like the India-Uzbekistan Joint Exercise Dustlik was to be held at the same time.

This year, PM Modi participated in the CHS Summit organised by Russia just 20 days ago on 10 November, 2020. It was hence felt appropriate that the Vice-President, who in protocol and order of precedence is above the Prime Minister, chaired the Heads of Government meeting on 30 November, 2020. In any case, PM Modi was otherwise engaged with a domestic commitment in his constituency on that day.

Chairman’s Address

Vice President (VP) Venkaiah Naidu opened his Address by greeting the participants in Russian. This is a language understood by all members of the Organisation except China and Pakistan. This can be construed as a subtle snub to China as it is the most significant country, both politically as well as economically, in the grouping. VP referred to the cultural, historical and civilisational space that India has shared with SCO members for millennia. He spoke about the rise of India in economic terms in recent years and the impressive manner in which it has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. He argued in favour of reformed multilateralism to effectively deal with the challenges that the international community is confronting. VP said that India has emerged as a trusted and transparent economic partner for the world as it has always complied with international laws. This was a veiled swipe at China, which is known to flout multilateral rules and norms and whose trust deficit with a large number of countries has grown significantly since the beginning of this year.

Without naming Pakistan, VP spoke about the need for all countries to act together to defeat the scourge of terrorism, particularly cross-border terrorism. Again, without taking the name of our western neighbour, VP chastised countries that leverage terrorism as an instrument of state policy. He castigated those members who raise bilateral issues in SCO deliberations as this is against the rules and charter of the SCO. PM Modi had also raised this issue at the SCO CHS meeting organised by Russia on 10 November, 2020. In this, he received the support of Russia.

India’s Initiatives

India had assumed the Chair of the SCO CHG last November at the conclusion of the term of Uzbekistan. Over the past year, India has not allowed the raging pandemic to stifle its style; on the contrary, it conducted several significant events to promote economic, commercial and cultural cooperation between SCO members.

During the course of its Chairmanship, India particularly focused on creating three new pillars of cooperation: Startups and Innovation, Science and Technology, and Traditional Medicine.

During its chairmanship, India organised in the virtual format, the first-ever SCO Young Scientists Conclave (24-28 Nov), in which more than 200 young scientists participated. This is particularly significant since the SCO accounts for 42% of the world population of 7.5 billion, out of which 800 million are young people. Better understanding and cooperation among the youth is essential for peace, development and prosperity of the region.

India also hosted the first-ever Consortium of SCO Economic Think Tanks (20-21 Aug) as well as the first-ever SCO Startup Forum (27 Oct). In the B2B format, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry convened the first SCO Business Conclave (23 Nov) with special emphasis on cooperation amongst MSMEs.

Keeping in view that India has the third largest Startup ecosystem in the world and has created a robust and dynamic environment for startups and innovators to thrive, India proposed to create a Special Working Group on Startups and Innovation. Since the launch of the Startup India initiative, India has established more than 38,000 recognised startups across 590 districts that have created nearly 400,000 jobs.

India also proposed to create an Expert Group on Traditional Medicine under the annual SCO Health Ministers’ meeting. Limitations of the modern medical system have become starkly clear with the unprecedented global spread of COVID-19. In such a scenario, traditional medicine systems have played an important supporting role in providing effective and low-cost alternatives to save the lives of millions.

During the year, India also hosted the meeting of SCO Ministers responsible for External Economy and Foreign Trade on 28 October and the meeting of SCO Ministers for Justice on 16 October in the video-conference format.

​On the cultural-humanitarian side, India implemented PM Modi’s commitment at the Bishkek Summit in 2019 by launching the first-ever SCO Digital Exhibition on Shared Buddhist Heritage by the National Museum on 30 November and translating 10 classics of Indian regional literature into Russian and Chinese. India also proposed to host an SCO Culinary Festival in 2021.

The Joint Communique adopted at the end of the Summit is a comprehensive, all-encompassing 66-para document straddling a diversity of issues including the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and establishment of the United Nations; combatting the COVID-19 pandemic; relevance and reform of the World Trade Organisation; achieving the SDGs; relevance of BRI for participants except India; implementation of decisions taken in past CHS and CHG meetings; proposed initiatives by some members of the Organisation, and a future plan of action to strengthen trade, economic, social and cultural cooperation between SCO member states.


The Prime Ministers of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Pakistan, the Secretary General SCO, and heads of different SCO agencies participated in the deliberations.

Some analysts suggest that there is no advantage for India to be a part of this China-dominated organisation. I strongly contest this assessment. It is true that even after 19 years, the SCO is struggling to emerge as a cohesive organisation because it lacks coherence on account of China’s pre-pondering influence. The organisation can, however, not be discounted because of its geo-political and geo-economic heft as also because it is the only regional grouping in the vast Eurasian space. The specific advantage for India lies in the SCO providing a robust platform for connecting with countries of Central Asia, which comprise our extended neighbourhood and with whom India shares millennia of vibrant, multifaceted linkages. Central Asia and Afghanistan are vital for India’s security, meeting its energy requirements, connectivity, trade and economic progress and growth.

India through its active participation has strengthened greater trade, economic and cultural cooperation within SCO by putting human beings at the center of SCO activities. It has fostered greater peace and prosperity in the region. India’s initiatives have emphasised its commitment to expanding its partnership with SCO by playing a proactive, positive and constructive role in the organisation.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Ashok Sajjanhar

Ashok Sajjanhar

Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...

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