The upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit will be held on June 9-10 in Qingdao-a coastal city in China’s Shandong province. It is poised to become a significant step forward for the grouping as this will be the first time when new entrants to the group will participate in the SCO Summit. Chinese President Xi Jinping will chair the Summit. It may be noted that India and Pakistan were accepted as full members of the SCO at the Astana summit in Kazakhstan in 2017.
Two decades ago, when China and Russia, along with three newborn Central Asian Republics-Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, formed ‘Shanghai Five’, it was perceived by many as a grouping aimed at keeping the former Soviet flock together with some fringe benefits for China. For Chinese policymakers, however, the reasons were linked closely with the domestic situation. Domestic turbulence in Xinjiang province coupled with political instability in a volatile Central Asian region posed a spillover challenge on Xinjiang. Securing border and thereby securing the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party became the foremost objective for the Chinese leadership. In 2001, with the induction of Uzbekistan, a rather narrowly focused Shanghai five turned into SCO. The grouping’s mandate, membership, and modus operandi mutated in unique ways making it stronger and multifaceted.
Over the years, in ways more than one, China has assumed greater significance in the structural and substantive dynamics of the region, superseding and overshadowing the Russian predominance over the region. Such has been the impact of China that today it is hard to imagine the existence of SCO without Beijing in it. This explains why the Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Silk Road Economic Belt in Kazakhstan- a Central Asian country - in 2013. Naturally, China is a major trading partner and predominant investor in most of the Central Asian Republics- the member countries of SCO. An ever more confident China today clubs its own foreign policy initiative - One Belt, One Road (OBOR) - with the SCO agenda, without much reservations, leave alone protests, from the other member countries.
Despite the two giants, Russia and China, vying to exercise their influence, SCO has proved to be a reasonably resilient body. This is a feature somewhat unique in SCO, which is not noticed in other Asian groupings such as ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) or the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation).
What then is the importance of SCO, except as a platform to showcase that China too believes in multilateralism for it has played a critical role shaping the regional body? There are several reasons that amply prove that as the SCO is coming of age, it is proving itself to be pan-regional forum which has showed increasing resilience and also finding a modus vivendi for the members of the group.
For one, with India and Pakistan as full members, while the eight- member countries of SCO account for nearly half of the world’s population, over 60 per cent of the Eurasian landmass, and around 20 percent of global GDP (Gross Domestic Production), it is difficult to imagine how SCO would address India’s concerns on terrorism which fall on the other side of spectrum vis-à-vis Pakistan and China.
Second, China has been promoting its OBOR agenda multilaterally through SCO, and bilaterally with member countries of the grouping. Whether India’s concerns on OBOR will be taken into consideration or India and China would agree to disagree on OBOR at SCO would be interesting to take note of.
Third, while Russia has actively promoted that Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), it has also been getting increasingly wary of the Chinese dominance over SCO; one of the factors which prompted Moscow to bring new members on-board. For China, which was quite content with the initial number of members, expansion in membership is not a bane. On the contrary, China has been receptive to the idea though it has occasionally registered mild protests against the expansion in membership.
What then is the role for India, which is neither as powerful as China or Russia in the grouping, nor a ‘local’ like the Central Asian Republics. India’s entry into the SCO as a member, alongside Pakistan, would bring in new elements of regional dynamics. While it is an open secret that India’s entry will act as a natural balancer to regional equilibrium, it is also true that such an act throws open significant strategic challenges before India. Entry of the other new member, Pakistan, also exposes SCO to hidden challenges. Terrorism, trans-regional energy supplies, and infrastructure connectivity projects are to name a few.
Dealing with actors as diverse as China, Russia, India, and Pakistan, would not be an easy task for SCO. It is important to see whether and how much SCO mutates to accommodate new actors in different capacities and their individual priorities while dealing with the regional identity and challenges. While SCO’s past whispers of a bright future, whispers might get lost in a cacophony of diverse national interests and priorities.
Sana Hashmi is affiliated with the East Asian Centre, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi .
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.