When I came to New Delhi in early February, I could observe a lot of hype there around the forthcoming G20 Summit. Though the summit is scheduled to take place only in September, it became the talk of the town right after India succeeded Indonesia as the G20 chair in late 2022. Indian journalists speculated about the G20 Summit agenda and many local think tanks hastily released G20-focused reports and policy briefs, the Delhi city center blossomed with colorful posters and billboards carrying G20 logos and slogans.
However, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit, which India will host on July 4 this year, did not get even a small fraction of this attention. In Delhi they seldom referred to the forthcoming event in expert and public discussions; and unlike G20, SCO did not make newspaper headlines or popular TV talk shows. In early June they announced that the SCO Summit would take place in the online format due to multiple complications in an attempt to coordinate schedules of the top-level participants.
Many analysts argue these days that the SCO is losing steam and that the Indian chairmanship will not be a step forward, but rather a step backward in the institutional development of the organization. Nobody doubts that the July summit will adopt a couple of important statements, finalize the Iranian membership and accelerate the Belarus accession to the SCO. On top of that, a number of nations (Kuwait, Myanmar, UAE, and the Maldives) will be embraced as new SCO partners. Still, numerous critics of the organization are likely to conclude that the SCO is approaching an institutional crisis and that its future remains quite dim or, at least, highly uncertain.
Such scepticism cannot be easily brushed away. The SCO was launched more than 20 years ago; it has already entered adulthood, but is nevertheless often perceived as an eternal teenager with many puberty complexes, fast and unexpected mood changes and identity problems. Initially, the idea behind the SCO was to combat the “three evils” – terrorism, separatism and extremism. Later on, there were attempts to turn the organization into a mechanism assisting economic integration and setting a free trade zone for its member states. With India and Pakistan joining the SCO in 2017, the SCO crossed a critical point of no return; the scope of its institutional opportunities has become more limited and more controversial than ever before.
Moreover, India and Pakistan unavoidably brought to the SCO the heavy legacy of their bilateral conflicts, territorial disputes, and confessional disagreements.
The accession of Iran to the SCO in 2022 complicated the balance of powers and the search for common positions within the institution even further. However, should we assume that Eurasia does not really need the SCO and that the organization is doomed to stay as a dispensable club of assorted members with diverging interests? Not at all. Though the SCO is not likely to become a cohesive group of like-minded countries as it was supposed to be some 20 years ago, this does not mean that there is no room in Eurasia for a multilateral communication mechanism between potential or actual opponents. Our vast common continent is and will be divided on many fundamental issues of security and development; defusing tensions, bridging diverging views and managing competition will be no less important than forging strategic partnerships in the mutual admiration spirit. The SCO might be very instrumental in dealing with the highly diverse security, political and economic landscape of Eurasia provided that the organization does its homework right.
First, if the SCO has started expanding, it should continue to grow in numbers of its members. The more members it has, the more legitimacy it can claim. Today the SCO has eight full members, four observers, nine dialogue partners and about a number of aspiring observers and dialogue partners. In other words, more than 30 countries of Eurasia are involved with the SCO in a variety of formats. This is truly a remarkable accomplishment that should be developed further to turn the SCO into a truly unique pan-Eurasian institution.
Second, the SCO should not be shy to discuss even the most sensitive and the most divisive matters. The ability to address these matters in a candid and constructive way within a multilateral framework is a comparative institutional advantage, a source of SCO strength rather than a source of its weakness. To articulate specific differences in positions and interests is at least as important as to outline common or overlapping positions and interests. Of course, we should be realistic – the SCO cannot replace bilateral negotiations, it is not and will not be able to “fix” relations between Pakistan and India, between India and China or between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Still, the SCO can contribute to paving the way for more sympathetic and productive bilateral negotiations, which is not an irrelevant contribution.
Finally, to be instrumental the SCO has to resist the temptation to find a narrowly defined focus for its future activities. The breadth of its mandate is yet another comparative advantage to be preserved and expanded. In Eurasia today the three most important dimensions of international relations—security, economic cooperation and human interaction—are often disconnected. They are handled by various bureaucracies, have separate budgets and different rules of engagement. By keeping its mandate broad, the SCO will be in a position to assist in integrating these three dimensions into uniform multidimensional projects.
In sum, it would be unwise to dismiss the SCO as a high-level political taking shop. It might and it should position itself as an organic element of the emerging Eurasian security and development ecosystem, an element that would not compete with other regional and inter-regional structures, but would rather serve them as a facilitator and, in some cases, as an integrator. Hopefully, the July online SCO Summit will be a practical, albeit a modest step in this direction.
From our partner RIAC