- SCO is now among the world’s largest regional organisations with its members accounting for around one-third of the global GDP, about 40 per cent of the world’s population, and nearly two-thirds of the Eurasian landmass.
- India, a member of the QUAD, is willing to play a far-reaching role in the larger geopolitical game in the region.
- SCO has displayed a much greater capacity to advance shared military and security goals than the QUAD has been able to do thus far.
- If relations between India and Pakistan or India and China further deteriorate, the SCO can hit a few roadblocks.
Initially, since its inception, the path of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was specific and not similar to any other multilateral political organization. This was the first-ever consolidation initiative by China, Russia, and the Central Asian states. And the interest in the SCO has grown because the transition of the international system to a multipolar system has been hastened by the Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine. The collective West has positioned itself in a constant confrontation with two members of the SCO- China and Russia, while most of the Global South has asserted neutrality and opposes sanctions. Three countries in this Forum face different types of sanctions. Yet the member states of the SCO command a combined 30% of global GDP. But the downplaying of the role of SCO in the past reflected not just a tendency of Western scholars and analysts to gloss over Asia’s continental heartland but also to see the organisation as something of an empty multilateral vessel.
Yet since its creation in June 2001, the SCO has performed an important role in the geopolitics of the world’s biggest and most crucial continent. It was first established by the People’s Republic of China as a geopolitical stabilisation mechanism in its West Asian borderlands – a zone that had developed a sense of endemic instability in the 1990s. From the outset, the SCO presented itself as a bulwark against “terrorism, separatism and extremism”, a language that sought to capitalise on the global counter-terrorist consensus of the 9/11 era, as well as reflecting real concerns in Beijing about threats to Chinese Communist Party power. As the SCO has evolved, it has focused not only on counter-terrorism but also on drug trafficking, and military cooperation and dabbled with economic collaboration. In many respects, it was an illustrative example of the ways in which Asia’s states turned to multilateral security mechanisms in the 1990s and early 2000s as they began to grapple with the security consequences of globalisation and the unsettling of the old strategic balance.
More recently, it has been energised by the growing alignment of Russian and Chinese interests as well as the increased significance of Central Asia. While the SCO has, formally, a broad agenda, its security and geopolitical dimensions have begun to grow in significance. Early on, the focus was aimed on reducing American influence in the region which had become significant due to the sustained engagement in Afghanistan. More recently, it has been energised by the growing alignment of Russian and Chinese interests as well as the increased significance of Central Asia. The founding members were China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan joined in 2017, reflecting the priority that the two South Asian states placed on the Asian landmass and their recognition of its growing weight.
This leaves the SCO now among the world’s largest regional organisations with its members accounting for around one-third of the global GDP, about 40 per cent of the world’s population, and nearly two-thirds of the Eurasian landmass. SCO meetings over the years are timely reminders of just how important this zone has become, how substantial the membership is, and how far this grouping is from being aligned with what might be described as a status quo geopolitical and ideological orientation to the global order.
For the Quad members, the SCO makes for a slightly uncomfortable outing. Most obviously India, a crucial member in the four-party grouping, is showing a willingness to play a much more autonomous hand in the larger geopolitical game in the region. Also, the SCO has displayed a much greater capacity to advance shared military and security goals through its range of initiatives and regular military exercises, including the large-scale “Peace Mission” drills that involve all members, than the reformed Quad has been able to do thus far.
In its early years, concerned Western analysts described the SCO in somewhat breathless terms as a nascent Central Asian Warsaw Pact. While that was premature, as the leaders of eight member states prepare to gather near the tomb of Tamerlane the great, the geopolitical significance of the Central Asian space to the dynamics of world politics, the scale of the SCO’s membership, and its decidedly illiberal ambitions, mean that this body has to be taken seriously on its own terms and not just as a backdrop for a Putin-Xi meeting.
India & SCO
India’s relationship with the individual components of the SCO and internal contradictions impact its relations with the SCO as a whole. It is common knowledge that India has a historic, strategic and economic partnership with Russia, whereas it has unresolved territorial disputes with China and Pakistan. In addition, India faces state-supported terrorism from Pakistan. With the Central Asia state members, India wants to develop deep, long-term economic, cultural and energy relations. However, if relations between India and Pakistan or India and China deteriorate, the SCO can see some roadblocks emerge, even though bilateral relations are not discussed at this forum.
India’s relations with multilateral organisations, where India has worked with all countries including China and Pakistan on many issues, like WTO rules, climate change and damages issues and so on have been effective. China and India have been on the same side on many international issues, including those concerning Russia and the countries of the Global South. So India’s negotiations in the SCO have not been bogged down by bilateral contradictions.
India’s operationalization of its security, economic, cultural and other interests is set to expand its relationship beyond South Asia to the broader Asian region. India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ (2012) ‘Look East’ and other such policies operationalize its foreign policy goals. During the 2023 Indian presidency of G20 and SCO, India’s position is to project the voice of the Global South. So India has engaged with the SCO at the highest level of Indian leadership and contributed to the consolidation and expansion of the organisation.
Is SCO about countering the West?
New Delhi has stated that “India is very clear that the SCO is not an organisation which is against any other bloc of countries or any other country. The SCO is a venture for constructive cooperation and peace and stability in the world. There could be concerns of different countries on various kinds of issues, but the forum is there to talk about these issues,”
Though Russia has sought to frame the SCO as a sort of anti-NATO, it has pushed for a reinforcement of the organisation’s military dimension, proposing a joint military exercise on Russian soil next year. Moscow sees the SCO as the core of a China- and Russia-led anti-Western bloc. That Putin invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to attend a summit that Russia was not even organising speaks volumes about the active role it intends to play in the organisation. At the same time, the fact that two of the SCO founding members.
But for the proper functioning and existence of SCO, it should be maintained as a venture for constructive cooperation and peace and stability in the world. There could be concerns of different countries on various kinds of issues, but the forum is there to talk about these issues.
SCO brings together countries with different political systems, international weight and economies. As the SCO member states adhere to non-identical views regarding their goals in the organization, the threat of the emergence of new risks is obvious. Thus, in the face of growing global challenges, the SCO can turn into a “declarative” organization that is unable to work out a joint strategy and promptly counteract external threats. However, the SCO is a useful tool to defuse regional tensions and prevent the spread of separatist and terrorist elements for all members without exception. Even if Chinese and Western scholars have two alternative views on the status and future of the SCO, after the expansion both sides define it as the most prominent Eurasian regional security organization.
In this regard, Rashid Alimov summarized the role and place of the SCO as follows: “The SCO is clearly a young organization searching for its development path in a world brimming with challenges and threats. Yet, it has managed to make a worthy place for itself on the world’s political map in what, by historical standards, is a short period” [Alimov, 2018]. On the one hand, the enlargement of the organization increases its international recognition and credibility. On the other hand, it raises challenges related to prospects for integration within the SCO and the functionality of its institutions. However, the SCO model is still under development and construction, and the political will of the member states could change the structure of the organization and its operation. Obviously, the interest in SCO is growing day by day, while its member states contemplate a new comprehensive model of cooperation between great, middle and small powers in Eurasia.
(The author is a post-graduate student in International Relations at Kalinga university, Raipur. The opinions expressed are the author’s own)