On July 4, the 23rd meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) kicked off in India which acted the rotating chair this year. Given the global vicissitudes and the geopolitical uncertainties ahead, the SCO holds immense and growing strategic significance in the world affairs. It is said of encompassing 1/4 of the global GDP, 60 % of the Eurasian landmass, and about 1/2 of the world population.
In 2017, India and Pakistan joined the SCO and then it has since evolved from the original six to eight now. This year, 2023, also greets Iran as the ninth member state of the Eurasian club. Given the seminal clouts of Iran in the region as it has possessed economic, military and rich natural resources, the member states of this expansive partnership that spans vast Eurasia which refers to the “heartland of the world” are increasingly viewed not only as a regional security platform, but also as an evolving forum for even greater regional economic cooperation. In the span of 23 years, it has continuously admitted its membership from a regional organization composed of China, Russia and Central Asian countries to a trans-regional organization with nine member states now, three observer states and 14 dialogue partners, demonstrating the vitality of the SCO.
Diplomatically, SCO member states have followed the “Shanghai Spirit” of “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diversity and common development. In theory and practice as well, it is poised to harness its collective potential, fostering an environment conducive to comprehensive cooperation, ultimately paving the way for a more prosperous future. As the SCO grows, it will be able to redefine the global landscape, guided by the principles of shared prosperity and harmony among nations. It is reported that countries like Belarus, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have expressed a keen desire to join its ranks. It obviously stands as a testament to its ability to transcend political, historical and cultural differences, including territorial disputes and ideological divergences.
Thus far, both scholars and the public have argued for a more dynamic SCO to act a geopolitical game-changer amid the relative decline of the U.S.-led hegemonic world order. Yet, China has urged the SCO to unleash its potential as a driving force for unity, peace and prosperity of all the member states in the region and beyond. With a steadfast focus on fostering cross-border cooperation, the SCO needs to capitalize on the diverse resources and capabilities of its member states to create an environment conducive to sustained stability and prosperity. China has opined that by leveraging its collective strength, the SCO stands out for its ethos of openness and inclusivity since it has garnered general admiration for its adherence to the “three no’s principles” — no alliance, no confrontation, and no targeting any third party.
This year, the meeting of the SCO not only reiterated the “Shanghai Spirit” which were enshrined in the SCO Charter for the future development, but also issued the New Delhi Declaration which contains the fundamental guidance of the SCO along with a series of major new initiatives. This article argues that in accordance with the principles of the SCO Charter, the member states have agreed to pursue a policy that excludes bloc politics, ideological disparity and confrontational approaches to address the issues of international and regional development. Put it simply, the global village needs to work closely to counter traditional and non-traditional security challenges and threats. Due to this, the member states of the SCO reaffirmed the relevance of initiatives to promote cooperation in rebuilding of a new-type international relations in the spirit of mutual respect, justice, equality and mutually beneficial cooperation, as well as formation of a common vision of the idea of creating a community of the common destiny of humanity.
It is worth to note that all the participants claim Central Asia to be the core of SCO and support the efforts of the countries of the region to ensure prosperity and peace, sustainable development and the formation of a space of good-neighborliness, trust and friendship. At the China-Central Asian Summit held in last May, China vowed to be committed to promoting regional stability and prosperity in the region and the world. In doing so, the SCO firmly rejects external forces instigating color revolution, and called for independent foreign policy in order to take one’s destiny into one’s own hands. In addition, the New Delhi Declaration denounces international terrorism and drug trafficking, rejects as a violation of international law the use of unilateral economic sanctions that have not been approved by the UN Security Council, calls for support of Afghanistan’s right to develop, and forcefully restates the principle of indivisible security of states in foreign affairs.
There is no question that some different policy priorities have existed among the SCO member states in general and the “Big-three China, India and Russia” particularly. For example, the New Delhi Declaration reaffirmed the support for China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ while Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan noted the ongoing work to jointly implement this project, including efforts to link the construction of the Eurasian Economic Union with BRI.” In other words, all the members of the SCO endorsed that formulation, except for India. It is not really surprising, since India has never backed the BRI for various reasons. Yet, though, India still spoke in favor of implementing the Roadmap for gradual increase in the share of national currencies in mutual settlements by the interested Member States.
China is aware of this dilemma and insists on maintaining a high vigilant against external attempts to foment a new Cold War or camp-based confrontation in the region. Accordingly, it vows to stand ready to work with all sides to implement the Global Security Initiative, promote the settlement of international disputes through dialogue and consultation, and encourage political settlement of international and regional hotspots, so as to forge a solid security shield in the region where all nations involved have aspired to see harmonious development of different civilizations while advancing modernization of the entire humanity through collective efforts to promote equal rights, equal opportunities and fair rules for all. As Indian Prime Minister Modi said that given the centuries’ old cultural and people-to-people ties with the shared heritage in the region, we do not see this area as an “extended neighborhood” but as an “extended family.”
In brief, it is essential for Russia and China, which are seen as the major driving force of the development of the SCO, to develop their own understanding of multilateralism that would not be reduced to the denial of the U.S.-led quasi-multilateralism. For this end, Moscow and Beijing are aware of what they don’t want, and they need to work together to cement cooperation in education and science, including what Stephen Walt has argued for the “Geopolitics of empathy”.