The leaders represented the three biggest powers bidding to reform a US-dominated global order, meeting via video streams at a virtual summit on Tuesday. But beyond the unity implied by their common appearance, each seemed focused on his own, different goal.
For President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, this meant projecting force after the uprising by Wagner’s mercenary group and demanding international support for his war in Ukraine.
For China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, the summit was another opportunity to attack the United States by calling for an end to “hegemonicism” and “power politics.”
And for India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, the meeting’s host, it was a way to signal his country’s rising stature – and launch a thinly veiled blow at its arch-rival, Pakistan, calling on other nations to unite in a “fight against terrorism”. .”
The annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization offered no dramatic declaration of shifting alliances in prepared remarks by the leaders. But the forum – which was established by China and Russia in 2001 and includes Pakistan and the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – did provide a glimpse of how a regional club formed to counter Western influence might navigate their competing priorities.
There was no mention of the growing friction between Beijing and New Delhi, which has brought the historically non-aligned India closer to the United States.
And if Mr. Putin had hoped that his fellow leaders might make loud statements of support to soften his weakened position at home and to defend his war in Ukraine, he had to settle for general optics and warm tones instead.
More importantly, with the Biden administration and much of the rest of the world watching, the forum essentially appeared to be a statement that the three leaders are in control of their domestic affairs and are ready to usher in what Mr. Putin called a new “multipolar.” ” world.
“They all have incentives to downplay things and make everything look normal,” said Ian Chong, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “They showed that things are under control and that there are no differences despite Russia’s problems and India’s desire to explore ties with the United States”
No leader on Tuesday had a greater need to remake his image than Mr Putin, who faced the biggest challenge to his more than two-decade rule last month when Wagner’s mercenary forces tried to topple Russia’s military leadership.
While Mr. Putin was able to defuse the crisis by agreeing to allow a mercenary leader, Yegveny V. Prigozhin, to leave for Belarus, the brief uprising raised questions about his authority and future.
Speaking in his first international forum since the uprising, Mr Putin thanked member states for their support after the uprising, which he claimed lacked popular support in Russia.
“United by the deep responsibility for the fate of the motherland, Russian political circles and the whole society showed a united front against the attempted armed uprising,” Mr. Putin said. He also sought to cast the summit as a sign of international support for his invasion of Ukraine.
Nowhere is that support more important than from China, the only major nation that has provided Russia with diplomatic and economic cover. China did this because it made a long-term bet on Mr. Putin as a necessary partner to challenge the United States.
That bet comes at a price, however, with Beijing struggling to mend ties with key economic partners in Europe. China’s refusal to condemn the war in Ukraine has also drawn more global attention to Beijing’s aggressive stance on Taiwan.
The virtual meeting gave Mr. Xi an opportunity to advance China’s goal of wresting influence from the United States. He touted the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a way to “improve global governance” and promote “China-style modernization” — coded language that expresses a vision of the world in which Beijing and its partners have a greater say in international rules and norms.
Where India fits into that vision remains to be seen. China’s biggest emerging strategic rival, which joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2017, views the forum as a way to balance its ties with Western nations and its relations with China and Russia.
India has maintained stable ties with Russia, mostly economic, after refusing to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. But its relations with China have worsened over border disputes and India’s membership in a security-focused coalition with the United States called the Quad. Beijing views the Quad as a tool to contain China.
A high-profile visit to Washington last month by Mr. Modi reinforced Chinese suspicions that India is moving closer to the United States to blunt China’s rise.
Despite these tensions, India has a vested interest in the forum. It depends on Central Asian countries for energy supplies and to maintain influence in Afghanistan, which has a spillover effect on Pakistan.
Mr Modi praised the forum as an “important platform” for peace and prosperity, but urged the group to condemn countries that “use terrorism as an instrument of their politics.” The remark was a reference to Pakistan, which India accuses of sponsoring militants in the disputed Kashmir region.
“India will not leave or leave the Shanghai Cooperation Organization because that would deprive it of a foothold in Central Asia and concede the Eurasian region to India’s main adversary, China,” said Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the school of international affairs at OP Jindal Global. University near New Delhi.