India gives Shanghai the cold shoulderBANGALORE - At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Shanghai and the Conference on Interactions and Confidence-building Measures in Asia (CICA) at Almaty in Kazakhstan this week, India is being represented not by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but by Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Murli Deora.
India's low-key representation at these important summits seems to be aimed at placating Washington ahead of the US Congress vote on an India-US nuclear deal on civilian cooperation over nuclear energy.
The SCO is a six-member regional grouping including China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The six members are represented by their presidents at the summit. India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia have observer status in the SCO. With the exception of India, the other three observers are represented by their heads of state as well. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is also attending the meet as a guest.
It is not that the SCO does not matter to India. India had lobbied hard to get into the grouping and it was with Russian backing that Delhi obtained observer status. It has now applied for full member status in the grouping, as has Iran.
Downplaying its low-profile representation at the Shanghai summit, an official in India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) told Asia Times Online that there was no need for the prime minister to attend the meet as India was only an observer in the grouping.
He pointed out that last year India was represented at the SCO meet in the Kazakh capital, Astana, by its then external affairs minister, Natwar Singh. And now that it does not have a full-time external affairs minister - Manmohan holds the portfolio at present - the government is being represented by the petroleum minister.
Originally formed to resolve frontier problems between China and its post-Soviet neighbors, the SCO has since evolved as a grouping to promote regional security and has expanded its reach into counter-terrorism, defense, energy and economic cooperation.
Given India's considerable interest on these issues and its significant stakes in the Central Asian region - it is an important player in the region, has a military base in Tajikistan and is eyeing its vast gas resources - one would have expected Manmohan to show up at Shanghai.
This was an opportunity for the prime minister to engage with a galaxy of key figures, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf. If the prime minister was unable to attend, the government should have sent Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee, given the centrality of security in the SCO's agenda.
According to the MEA official, Deora was leading the Indian delegation to the SCO summit as the grouping was also focused on energy - a vital component of India's diplomacy in recent years. Indeed, the quest for energy security occupies an important place in India's diplomacy.
While in Shanghai, Deora is expected to remind his Kazakh counterpart of the pending decision of Kazakhstan to offer 50% stake in one of the two exploration blocks it had asked India's ONGC Videsh to study.
However, the reasons for the downgraded representation are more complicated. It appears that with the US Congress vote on the India-US nuclear deal coming up, India does not want to be seen hanging out with a group that is rapidly acquiring an anti-US image. Delhi does not want to take chances by ruffling Washington's feathers at this critical juncture.
Western analysts often dismiss the SCO as a mere "talking shop" and draw attention to SCO's "irrelevance as an anti-US containment front". But Washington is nonetheless wary of the grouping. It may be recalled that at the Almaty summit last year, the SCO, perhaps under pressure from Russia and China, called on the US to set a deadline for the withdrawal of American military personnel from the region.
Although the SCO maintains that it is not directed against any country, an anti-US thrust is clearly visible in its orientation. According to commentators, Russia and China seem to regard the SCO as a means to contain American presence in the region as well as to counter its unilateralism.
What has compounded Washington's worries now is that Iran, which has observer status in the grouping, would get a boost at the summit. Iran has indicated that it is ready to join SCO as a full-fledged member.
Washington's unease with the SCO's cozying up to Iran was evident early this month when US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld criticized Russia and China for seeking to draw Iran closer to the SCO. "It strikes me as strange that one would want to bring into an organization that says it's against terrorism ... one of the leading terrorist nations in the world, Iran," Rumsfeld said.
Zhang Deguang, secretary general of the SCO, responded to Rumsfeld's comment by stating that he did not consider Iran a terrorist state. The SCO's defense of Iran has obviously annoyed the US.
And now, Ahmadinejad is attending the Shanghai summit. While the Iran nuclear crisis isn't on the agenda of the formal summit, it has figured prominently in the bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the summit between Ahmadinejad, Hu and Putin. A warm embrace of Ahmadinejad by the SCO will be confirmation for the US that the SCO is indeed an anti-US bloc.
Delhi clearly does not want to be seen to be an enthusiastic partner in a bloc that Washington sees as anti-US. Not when the nuclear deal is just months away from being put before the US Congress for its approval.
Getting the nuclear deal through is a top priority for India. To this end it has made drastic shifts in its foreign policy, taking a pro-US line in the Iran nuclear controversy for instance. It voted in favor of an International Atomic Energy Agency resolution to report Iran's nuclear program to the UN Security Council, defying fierce opposition from the left parties in India.
India could have abstained if it did not want to be seen to be challenging the US position. However, in a bid to signal to the US that it was a reliable ally it went a step further and voted against Iran.
Both the Indian and the US governments are working hard to push the nuclear deal through. India is rallying support among congressmen and Indian Americans are lobbying aggressively to ensure that Congress ratifies the deal.
At a time when every vote in Congress counts, India is anxious not to be seen as an unreliable ally and more importantly as an irresponsible nuclear power. It is keen not to be seen to be holding hands with Iran at this point - hence the decision to cold-shoulder the SCO summit.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.