Published daily by the Lowy Institute

SCO summit marks steady rise of India in China's worldview

SCO summit marks steady rise of India in China's worldview

This year's Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Heads of State Council Meeting, being held in Russia on 10 July, promises to be the most productive in years. Pakistan and India will likely be confirmed as full members (although ascension may not occur until 2016), a move Moscow has long advocated and Beijing has long opposed.

In return, Moscow dropped its opposition to the Chinese-proposed SCO Development Bank. In fact Russia is now actively campaigning for it.

On the surface this is another sign of growing China-Russia friendship. But in fact, Beijing approved India's ascension in order to court New Delhi rather than to please Moscow (or Islamabad, for that matter). 

Beijing was not under pressure from Moscow to approve the Indian and Pakistani memberships; it opposed the entry of India and Pakistan for years without damaging its Russia relations. Moscow's support for the SCO Development Bank was not decisive either. Beijing has reportedly demurred on the SCO Development Bank as it focuses on the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) and One Belt One Road (OBOR). 

Beijing's courtship of New Delhi goes far beyond SCO membership. In China, India is seen as vital for the success of the AIIB and OBOR; Chinese scholars have indicated this publicly, and it was mentioned to me privately during my visit to Beijing in May. India announced in June that it would be the second-largest stakeholder in the AIIB. [fold]

Chinese analysts are also showing more interest in India, albeit from a low base. Traditionally, Chinese observers have largely ignored India, except for issues around border tensions. However, also during my recent trip to Beijing, generalist scholars frequently (and unprompted) raised India's role vis-à-vis the US as well as the AIIB and OBOR. 

This growing interest has been reflected in leadership visits. Premier Li Keqiang's first overseas visit was to India. Xi Jinping also visited India earlier this year. Xi and Li's predecessors, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, both only visited India twice in ten years (and Hu's second trip was for a BRICS Summit). That is unthinkable for Xi and Li. At the very least Xi will have to visit again for an SCO summit, a BRICS summit and potentially a G20 summit before the end of his leadership. Prime Minister Modi was also treated to unprecedented levels of hospitality during his May 2015 visit to China.

Of course there are limits. Disparaging Chinese views of India won't disappear overnight. Most leading Chinese international relations scholars are still US and Japan specialists. There is also a huge gap in the economic and military power of both countries. As Zhu Feng of Nanjing University has said, 'We don't consider India a very successful contender and I don't think Modi can change that.'

Nevertheless, India's ascension to the SCO occurred because Beijing wants supportive partners for its growing regional ambitions, and India is the best fit in the increasingly important domain of South Asia.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Narendra Modi.

Related Content

You may also be interested in