With drifts in global geopolitics since the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war, the dynamics around multilateral mechanisms are undergoing a metamorphosis, and new fissures and areas of convergence are emerging. This is now visible in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
While the grouping focuses on combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism (TSE), China and Russia have long utilised SCO to forge an alternate vision of cyberspace governance and issues. Consequently, SCO has served as a platform for seeking regional consensus over concepts like ‘information security’, ‘cyber sovereignty’, and ‘internet sovereignty’.
However, Russia is now more dependent on China than ever before. Pakistan is contemplating its ‘all-weather’ friendship with China. Central Asia is witnessing rapid penetration by Chinese tech infrastructure, and New Delhi is observing increasingly strained ties with Beijing due to frequent border conflicts. These developments have complicated the SCO dynamics.
In recent months, India has moved closer to Quad partners in the cyber domain. The four Quad nations—India, Japan, Australia, and the US—have agreed to work on cybersecurity initiatives on user data, software, and supply chains. With this, there is a growing emphasis on cybersecurity resilience, countering disinformation, and assisting others in countering cyber threats.
There have also been plans to establish a Quad cybersecurity partnership to coordinate capacity-building initiatives and a ‘Quad Cybersecurity Day’ for increasing regional awareness. For Quad, cybersecurity is now one of the six verticals guided by ‘leader-level working groups’.
Meanwhile, to diminish India’s significance in Central Asia and Eurasia, Beijing has sought to promote Pakistan as the new digital hub for the region. Chinese companies like Tencent and Huawei actively cooperate with Pakistan over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.
In December last year, the Commerical Counsellor of the Pakistan Embassy in Beijing said that SCO members could use the Pakistani resources and markets to boost their digital economy. In late July this year, SCO Secretary-General Zhang Ming and Syed Aminul Haque, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for IT and Telecommunications, agreed to increase cooperation between the Ministry of IT and the SCO Secretariat.
China has held annual World Internet Conference (WIC) meetings since 2014. WIC provides an insight into Beijing’s global internet governance and digital sovereignty vision. For years, WIC has been a platform for China to showcase its homegrown tech industry and a representation of an international consensus over the Chinese perspectives on global cyberspace issues.
Along with the SCO platform, China has actively utilised WIC for norm discussions, developments, and diffusion. For example, in the last year’s version, China put forth its idea of ‘digital civilisation’, which seeks to ‘benefit people of all countries by promoting the construction of a community with a shared future of mankind.
Building on WIC’s success and popularity, especially among Central Asian and other anti-West nations, Beijing is now looking to transform the conference into a new international organisation to advance its goal of universal cyberspace, which will be ‘clean’ and ‘civilised’.
Challenges between India and the West have long served as foundations for India’s engagement in SCO and BRICS. However, disagreements over data localisation, cyber sovereignty and greater control over social media platforms always have limited India’s potential for a closer partnership with the West.
As SCO transforms into a Chinese tool for supporting its vision for cyberspace, increasing incompatibility with SCO’s evolving cyber agenda will compel New Delhi to tilt toward its Western partners.
Signs of change are already visible at the recent foreign minister’s summit, where no joint communique was issued, unlike the standard practice. Now all eyes are on the upcoming Heads of State Council meeting in mid-September, where Xi, Putin, and Modi will cross paths.