“Secure” – this is the theme of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit that will be chaired by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 4, 2023. The theme “Secure” is meant as an acronym highlighting the focus on ‘Security, Economy and Trade, Connectivity, Unity, Respect for Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity, and Environment’ for the SCO during India’s Presidency. After hosting nearly 134 meetings in person, the Chair, New Delhi, announced on May 30th that it would hold the 23rd Meeting of the SCO, Council of Heads of State (CHS) in a virtual format. All the other seven SCO member states’ China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, have been invited to attend the summit. In addition, Iran, Belarus, and Mongolia have been invited as Observer States. Turkmenistan, the only central Asian country which is not a member, has also been invited, in keeping with SCO tradition. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin will both be attending the summit and addressing the heads of states. At the invitation of PM Modi, Pak Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will also participate. Afghanistan received observer status at the 2012 SCO summit in Beijing, but because the Taliban government is yet to be recognised diplomatically, Afghan representatives have not participated in SCO meetings so far.
Although conceived as a Eurasian construct, with the inclusion of India and Pakistan as member states this multilateral structure is the world’s largest regional organisation in terms of geographic scope and population, with a combined GDP of around 20% global GDP. This powerful Asian multilateral structure, includes four nuclear powers.
The upcomingNew Delhi summit will however be significant because Iran, which has been an Observer state in the SCO will be elevated to full member. At the sidelines of the SCO Summit in Samarkand on 15 September 2022, the memorandum on Tehran’s commitments with regard to obtaining the status of SCO member state was signed by SCO Secretary-GeneralZhang Ming and Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. Earlier this year, Iran Ebrahim Raisi received the Zhang Ming in Tehran and complimented the SCO for being the world’s largest regional international organisation that plays an important role in maintaining regional and global security and stability.
Saudi Arabia has been granted the dialogue partner status, the accession procedures have been launched for the Republic of Belarus. Bahrain is at the final stage of obtaining the dialogue partner status.At the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers; meeting in Goa, memorandums were signed for granting dialogue partner status to Kuwait, Maldives, Myanmar, and the United Arab Emirates. Turkey and other countries are also seeking to join.
SCO is indeed abuzz with activity in recent days. Current chair India, commemorated June 15 which is observed as SCO Day by releasing a postage stamp, in the presence of Ambassadors of SCO Member States, observers and dialogue partners.
Initially formed as the Shanghai five to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism ‘3T’ in the Eurasian region, its transformation into the ‘Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’ in 2001 spawned a wider agenda and expansion of membership. At the July 2005 Astana Summit, former President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, famously declared that the SCO leaders are “representatives of half of humanity.” Co-initiated by Russia and China in 1996, from the very beginning border stability, counter terror cooperation, mutual economic interactions, military and joint intelligence exchanges were crucial to the organisation’s agenda. Security coordination; Economic integration; People to people exchange and humanitarianism, are the three broad strands of the SCO charter. Synergy in the trade, scientific advancement, culture, education, energy transportation, environmental protection and other fields has been a result of the SCO’s broad charter.
Aside from the expanding membership, SCO cooperation is expanding beyond security issues to focus on trade and finance. China has been advocating the establishment of an SCO development bank. At the Astana summit Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also indicated China’s interest in pursuing a free trade agreement (FTA) within the organisation, stating that, “This will help to remove trade barriers. They hinder the development of countries and the world economy.”
In 2017 when India and Pakistan both became members of the SCO dominant scholarship highlighted the likelihood of a negative impact of their rivalry on the organisation’s functioning. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that the SCO became one the sole forums where India-Pak have engaged productively. When Pakistan Minister of Foreign Affairs Bilawal Bhutto Zardari attended the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers meeting at Goa in early May he said that his decision to attend the meeting underlines Pakistan’s strong commitment to the SCO charter. However, as long as credible concerns such as security threats linked to terrorism in India, and expansion of Chinese projects remain, the engagement will remain superficial. India has taken the diplomatic channel to stop the construction of the CPEC in Gilgit-Baltistan.
There are concerns that China wishes to promote the SCO for boasting free trade along with regional interconnectivity. A growing sentiment is that China is increasingly acting as the leader of the SCO. Long standing partners Russia and India, might offset some of the Chinese ambitions through their congruence of interests.
The situation in Afghanistan is another issue that the SCO will have to essentially tackle. The six countries that share borders with Afghanistan and are directly impacted by the return of the Taliban at the helm in Kabul. Five of these are members of the SCO. At the cost of oversimplifying a complex security dilemma, the destabilisation of Central Asia by the export of militant groups from Afghan soil remains one of the biggest security challenges for the SCO. Although the establishment of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact group in 2018 was a positive initiative, continuous engagement with the Taliban is critical for a long term resolution possible only through a more integrative approach on a sustainable basis.
For India which does not share borders with Central Asian countries the SCO provides an institutional format for interaction with them and provides an impetus to its ‘Connect Central Asia’ Policy. The continental engagement in the SCO balances India’s maritime cooperation with the USA, Japan and Australia.
Briefly it can be said that every SCO member and observer nation has coincidental as well as divergent interests. Complementary interests are largely related to economy and security issues while incompatibility springs from political differences. Despite the expansion and growing stature of the SCO, the scope of the SCO rivalries has not diminished. In fact it has been suggested that SCO has assumed the role of a restraint mechanism, whereby China is able to obstruct Indian interaction with the Central Asian region. While economic development, security and regional stability, and humanitarian cooperation have been effective in SCO multilateral partnership, geopolitical considerations like interplay of India, Russia or expanding Chinese influence have diminished the organisation’s potential.