Can the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Live Up to Its Name?

6 MINS READJun 9, 2017 | 00:04 GMT
Can the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Live Up to Its Name?
At its annual summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's big struggle will be to redefine its purpose.
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The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will soon host its annual summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, and the group's big struggle this year will be to redefine its purpose. In recent years, the six-member organization has evolved from little more than a talk shop into a forum for active security and economic coordination. But at the upcoming summit, to be held on June 8-9, the SCO will be welcoming two more nations into its ranks: India and Pakistan. Though the new additions will open up more opportunities for cooperation, they will also shake the organization's focus as its members continue to bring different agendas to the table. 

Since its inception, the SCO has struggled to define itself. The organization launched in 2001 as an outgrowth of the Shanghai Five, which was founded in 1996 and comprised Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China. (A name change came with the addition of Uzbekistan.) The Shanghai Five's original goal was relatively straightforward: to define the disputed borders of Central Asia's former Soviet states, both with one another and with China. But once that task was complete, the organization began searching for a new purpose. Eventually, its gaze shifted to multilateral security issues in the region.

Moscow envisioned the SCO as a security alliance that rivaled NATO. Beijing, however, wanted to see the organization become an economic platform from which it could expand its influence into Central Asia.
Moscow envisioned the SCO as a security alliance that rivaled NATO. Beijing, however, wanted to see the organization become an economic platform from which it could expand its influence into Central Asia.

Over the past decade and a half, the SCO's attention has been pulled in different directions by its largest and most influential members, Russia and China. Moscow envisioned the organization evolving into a security alliance that rivaled NATO. Beijing, meanwhile, wanted to see the SCO become an economic platform from which it could expand its influence in Central Asia. The conflict between the two powerhouses stalled the SCO's progress, and for many years the organization's members made few real strides.

In recent years, however, the SCO has gained momentum as its members' views on the value of economic and security collaboration have slowly begun to align. Rising threats to the stability of the region have led SCO members to coordinate more on what they call the "three evils": terrorism, separatism and extremism. These are threats that all member states fear, both within their own countries and across their borders. In 2014, five of the six SCO members — Uzbekistan was absent — gathered in China for the largest installment yet of the group's regular counterterrorism exercises, dubbed peace missions. Some 7,000 troops including ground, air and special operation forces trained with drones, airborne early warning aircraft, air defense missiles, tanks and armored vehicles.

In the past four years, the group has expanded its economic portfolios and mandates as well, thanks to Chinese pressure on Russia. By striking bilateral deals with the bloc's Central Asian members outside of SCO parameters, China has spurred Russia to support a more economically focused organization. Moscow, after all, wants to ensure it can have a role in shaping such deals. It has started to comply with Beijing's economic proposals, which include cooperation with the BRICS bank and an SCO fund to shore up Central Asia's struggling economies. Now China wants to expand that mandate even further, creating an SCO development bank and free trade zones — issues that will be discussed at the summit this year.

Moscow is also becoming more interested in the possibility of merging the group's economic programs with China's Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to create land bridges and maritime routes across Eurasia and South Asia along the old Silk Road. Russian President Vladimir Putin made an appearance at this year's summit on the initiative, promoting his country's strategic role in the massive undertaking. Though Russia is an outlier to the project, which emphasizes Central Asian routes, Moscow does not want China's influence to begin outweighing Russia's in its borderlands. Consequently, it is attempting to shift the plans of the Belt and Road Initiative to include either a Russian route or Russia's help in developing Central Asian routes via the SCO.

The SCO is finally starting to look like an organization that understands how to make progress as a collective. But this year the group will undergo an upheaval as it expands to include India and Pakistan. The two countries have long held observer status — along with Belarus, Mongolia, Iran and Afghanistan — but they will attend the approaching summit as full members. Their inclusion, which will mean SCO members hold 42 percent of the world's population and nearly 20 percent of the world's gross domestic product, was the result of another compromise between Russia and China. Russia wanted India to join the organization in order to balance China and strengthen Moscow's ties to New Delhi (particularly its military ties). China, however, did not want India to join without including its longtime rival and counterweight, Pakistan.

The sudden expansion comes as Russia desperately searches for allies amid mounting pressure from the West. Russia recently co-hosted its annual economic forum with India and welcomed a wave of Chinese investors. A survey by independent pollster, Levada, showed that Russia's population considers China and India among the country's top five friends. Of course, China welcomes the SCO's expansion as well, particularly since India has continually tried to avoid participating in the Belt and Road Initiative. Both new members are also interested in stability in Afghanistan — a key mandate for the group. (Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad have all sponsored Afghan peace talks in the past year.)

Even so, the incorporation of India and Pakistan will complicate things for the SCO. In some cases, the two states define "the three evils" differently than the organization does. Moreover, there are several points of friction for New Delhi and Islamabad — with each other and with other SCO members — that have historically resulted in tense flare-ups. For example, India and Pakistan disagree on whether cross-border attacks in Kashmir are considered terrorism, and in the past year Islamabad has accused New Delhi of spying in Pakistan in hopes of sabotaging China's plans to build an economic corridor through the country. India and China, meanwhile, have a series of ongoing disagreements to contend with. India's tacit support for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government is a point of contention with China, while Beijing's persistent shielding of Pakistan with regard to Kashmiri militancy continues to frustrate New Delhi.

The members of the SCO struggled for two decades to find a common purpose, largely because of enduring disputes between Moscow and Beijing. Now the organization's new members will bring even more conflicting perspectives to the table. The group's expansion will force the SCO to once again redefine its goals. And though the bloc has recently made considerable progress in working together to get its projects off the ground, this year's summit will likely see the SCO's long-standing struggle to reach its full potential continue. 

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