Lost Opportunities at Samarkand


A.G. Noorani

THE Samarkand summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which met recently, provided an excellent opportunity for what is referred to in journalistic jargon as a ‘bilateral’ summit or ‘on the sidelines’ of a summit. It is a great pity that the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi deliberately avoided a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Mr Sharif is an administrator of proven ability, a good statesman and a confirmed champion of Pakistan-India friendship.

This writer can state on the basis of personal knowledge that the former president of Pakistan, Gen Pervez Musharraf, held Shehbaz Sharif in considerable esteem, his estrangement with the prime minister’s elder brother Nawaz Sharif notwithstanding.

What cause is served by such international sulks? What national interest is advanced thereby? The US paid a heavy price for its secretary of state’s (the notorious John Foster Dulles) refusal to shake hands with the prime minister of China Zhou Enlai at the Geneva Conference on Vietnam in 1954. It took a lot of backdoor diplomacy for Henry Kissinger to visit Beijing in 1971 in secret via Pakistan and that through the good offices of the president of Pakistan at the time, Yahya Khan. All others, including Romania, had failed to arrange the summit.

At Samarkand, Chinese President Xi Jinping had a substantial meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Ukraine war notwithstanding, the West helps the hapless suffering people of Ukraine in no way by calling Mr Putin a war criminal. The Chinese leader’s meeting at Samarkand, in the present time of a grave crisis, with Mr Putin was a very sensible move. According to media reports, no doubt propelled by a common aversion towards the US, President Xi referred to President Putin as an “old friend”, while the latter leader expressed his gratitude for China’s “balanced” position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The SCO summit registered a landmark on the evolution of a new world order which witnesses the dwindling of American hegemony. The US clearly resents the revival of Russia under President Putin and the rise of China as a true Great Power. President Xi enjoys universal respect at a time when the US faces a decline. It remains a Great Power militarily and economically. But it visibly lacks the power it once enjoyed as other centres of influence arise to dilute its hegemony.

In this context, the Samarkand summit has been put forward as an alternative to a ‘Western-centric organisation’, at a time of increasing pressure on Moscow over Ukraine and growing anger in Beijing over Washington’s support for Taiwan, which was underlined earlier by US President Joe Biden’s offer of help to Taiwan in the case of an attack by China.

As reported in the media covering the summit, President Xi told the leaders who had gathered that “it was time to reshape the international system and ‘abandon zero-sum games and bloc politics”. Xi said that leaders should “work together to promote the development of the international order in a more just and rational direction”.

Putin, on his part, welcomed the increasing influence of non-Western countries outside the West, and criticised what he referred to as the “instruments of protectionism, illegal sanctions and economic selfishness”. He asserted: “The growing role of new centres of power who cooperate with each other … is becoming more and more clear.”

Meanwhile, the US State Department spokesman Ned Price said that China and Russia “share a vision for the world that is starkly at odds with the vision that’s at the centre of the international system, the vision that has been at the centre of the international system for the past eight decades”.

There can be no mistaking the radical change in the world order. China has emerged as a global player. Its presence is increasingly felt as it launches mega international projects. Russia is still a Great Power but a hugely diminished one. Gone is the empire in Eastern Europe; gone is the control over communist parties abroad — no funds for them; gone is also the very strict dictatorship of old.

America’s influence has waned. The Arab world is more assertive. So are South Asia and Southeast Asia. This is not the end. Assertion is now the norm in today’s world. Submissiveness is on the decline. The reaction is for governments to question or stand up to other states attempting to force their authority on them.

All in all, what is noteworthy is that the old global order is changing, though it is not easy to predict with any certainty or precision the shape the new order will acquire. The vague contours may be there, but with different stars in ascendance, and others dimming, it will be a while before a definite outline begins to emerge on the horizon.


The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai. The views expressed here are author’s personal. Taken from The Dawn.


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