Putin, Xi to attend virtual SCO summit hosted by India, as group seeks to expand

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Leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) on Tuesday will hold an online summit hosted by India seeking to expand the influence of the Eurasian group by including Iran and opening a path to membership for Belarus.

China’s President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin will participate in the virtual summit, which will be Putin’s first appearance at an international event since the short-lived mutiny by the Wagner mercenary group in late June.

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Formed in 2001 by China and Russia, with former Soviet central Asian states as members and joined later by India and Pakistan, the eight-member SCO is a political and security group that seeks to counter Western influence in Eurasia.

While Iran is expected to be accepted as a member at Tuesday's summit, Belarus will sign a memorandum of obligations which will lead to its membership later. When both countries, which have observer status and enjoy close ties to Moscow, are accepted as members of the SCO it will expand the grouping's western flank in both Europe and Asia.

The summit takes place barely two weeks after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was hosted by US President Joe Biden for a state visit, and the two countries called themselves “among the closest partners in the world.”

India, which holds the presidency of SCO and the G20 this year, has walked a diplomatic tightrope as relations between Western nations and a Russia-China partnership have been fraught due to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year, and Beijing’s growing as-sertive presence in the global geopolitical theatre.

Putin spoke to Modi in a call last week to discuss the aftermath of the mercenary mutiny. During the discussion, Modi reiterated a call for dialogue and diplomacy regarding the war in Ukraine.

Last year on the sidelines of the summit in Uzbekistan, Modi told Putin that it was not the era of war, which is the closest India has come to addressing the issue directly with the Russian leader.

Russian oil

Both Putin and Xi are expected to visit New Delhi in September as India hosts the G20 summit, and Biden and leaders of other member nations are also likely to be present.

India has refused to blame Russia for the war and increased bilateral trade largely by lifting purchases of Russian oil to a record high, which has irked several Western capitals.

The summit on Tuesday will also see Modi sharing the virtual stage with Xi for the first time since November when the two leaders were present at the G20 summit in Indonesia.

The relationship between the two nuclear-armed Asian giants has been frosty for over three years as they are involved in a continuing standoff on their Himalayan frontier.

It will also bring Modi face to face online with his Pakistani counterpart Shehbaz Sharif, 10 months after they both attended the SCO summit in Uzbekistan.

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres is also scheduled to speak at the summit, continuing a tradition that has seen the UN chief deliver remarks through video messages or through UN officials at previous meetings.

New Delhi announced last month that the summit will be held virtually, without providing any justification. India will hand over the presidency of the bloc to Kazakhstan at the summit.

SCO member nations are expected to discuss Afghanistan, terrorism, regional security, climate change and digital inclusion, among other topics.

Foreign ministers of SCO members met in India’s coastal resort-state of Goa in May, which ended in old rivals India and Pakistan attacking each other over Kashmir, terrorism, and a souring of bilateral ties.

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