On September 15 and 16, 2022, the extended format of participants of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are scheduled to meet in Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road Karavansarai in Uzbekistan. SCO —founded in 2001— is the first international organization founded by Beijing. It started as the Shanghai Five with the task of demarcating borders between China and its Central Asian neighbors: Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Russia, and Tajikistan, following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The meeting in Samarkand marks the 21st Head of State summit of this organization, which is growing in international importance. All Heads of member states have confirmed their attendance.
SCO came to the attention of Washington policy makers, when Vladimir Putin used it as a vehicle to set a timeline on U.S. bases in Central Asia there to support operations in Afghanistan. Through direct engagement of President Bush with Chinese President Hu Jintao, this deadline was not repeated in the communique of the following year. This demonstrated Beijing’s unwillingness to have an open rift with Washington and made clear China’s leadership of the organization. Beijing’s interest in preventing anti-American statements has changed in the last 17 years. With the return of Great Power Competition in the Washington-Beijing relationship, who leads the SCO and what is on its agenda should be of considerable interest in Washington.
The SCO is no longer just a talk-shop between Russia and China with its Central Asian neighbors, but is now expanding to the Gulf, South Asia, South East Asia, and the Caucasus. The expanded membership of the SCO makes up 24% of the global GDP, more than half that of the G7 and more than that of the European Union in 2020. SCO’s expanded participant list accounts for 44% of the global population.
If those seeking membership status at the upcoming meeting in Samarkand achieve their goal, the SCO will include in its ranks: Azerbaijan and Armenia who recently fought a war in Nagorno-Karabakh; Saudi Arabia and Iran, competitors over the direction of the Gulf; and current members India and Pakistan, historic adversaries. Afghanistan and Mongolia are currently observer states in the organization. Partner countries of the organization are Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey, and Sri Lanka. The status of dialogue partner state will likely be granted to Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in September. Bahrain and Maldives are next in line for the latter status.
In 2005, the US had an opportunity to pursue observer status with the SCO. Those who supported it, saw it as opportunity for the US to shape this organization and for Afghanistan to reconnect with its neighbors with American support. Others thought our being an observer of the SCO would lend legitimacy to this nascent organization. Yet, overtime, flaws in the latter stance surfaced and was repeated by the Obama Administration’s failed attempt to isolate China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
In a vote on April 7 for the suspension of Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council, Turkey was the only participant in the expanded SCO out of 18 countries that voted in favor of the resolution. Of the member states, all voted against the resolution, with India and Pakistan abstaining.
For members of the SCO, energy highlights their importance on the global stage and is a tool used in their foreign policy. Following the 2022 summit, SCO states, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, among others, will account for over half of the world’s oil production annually.
Until 2020, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization played a largely regional role for China, the heart of which was Central Asia. Initially reluctant, the recent rapid expansion of the SCO shows that China realigned the organization from a regional one, to one capable of implementing its global ambitions.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization gained greater significance with the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, where an economically weaker Russia can turn to China, a partner with no limits and its leadership over the SCO.
At the 2022 Boao Forum, President Xi restated the goal of the 2021 SCO Dushanbe Declaration, where he articulated a world order not directed by the West. At this same summit, SCO members approved Iran’s membership despite international sanctions after a 15 year waiting period. Xi articulated in a flourish, calling it a community of a common destiny of mankind.
This has echoes of Chairman Mao’s vision of world relations, dating back to the 1970s. In meetings with Dr. Kissinger, Mao posited that imperialism and hegemony violate the world order. Instead, China should expand into what is now known as the Global South, including countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. China’s mission lives on and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is becoming its vehicle.