Shanghai Cooperation Organization comes of age

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M Saeed Khalid*

*The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.


The six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has registered a quantum leap by admitting Pakistan and India as full members. Few would have missed the irony of South Asia’s feuding neighbours taking seats at the organization’s summit held in Astana (Kazakhstan) in June 2017, because they hardly see eye to eye on any issue. Despite this challenging situation, China, Russia and their four Central Asian partners – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – have accepted Pakistan and India to lend greater credibility to the SCO’s vision of Asian peace and harmony.

In addition to the eight members, the SCO has four observer states – Afghanistan, Iran, Mongolia and Belarus. Six other countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey – have been accepted as dialogue partners. Turkmenistan enjoys guest status as do the UN, CIS and ASEAN.

The expanded SCO, with 3.5 billion inhabitants, represents 40% of the world’s population and a quarter of its GDP. It also covers 60% of the Eurasian land mass. Yet, high expectations from or fears of the loose association on global economic and security parameters would be premature if not farfetched. Similarly, claims of SCO becoming a double game changer with CPEC for Pakistan’s economic prosperity are loud wishes at best.

Both India and Pakistan need to do some soul-searching about their commitment to the objectives and goals of the SCO as listed in its Charter and the SCO Treaty on Long-Term Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation. There is a huge obstacle in so far as the BJP has embarked on a campaign to isolate Pakistan, in the region and globally, as demonstrated in Delhi’s shameless arm twisting of smaller neighbours to torpedo the SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan in 2016.

The Indian lobby in Washington has been working overtime to undermine the tenuous Pak-US ties by accusing Pakistan of sheltering the Taliban and Haqqani commanders and supporting Kashmiri militants.

The Indian planners behind these moves obviously underestimate the intelligence of its interlocutors who should be aware of India’s terror campaign in Pakistan in league with the Afghan intelligence, confirmed by Kulbushan Yadav, Indian naval officer commanding operations from Chahbahar in Iran and now on death row in Pakistan.

China is likely to continue to be the locomotive pulling the SCO with support from Russia and the four Central Asian members. It would also be the main beneficiary of economic links to emerge among the member states. Beijing is already well placed to step up its slowing economic growth with the help of its Belt and Road Initiative encompassing all SCO members with the exception of India. Pakistani industrialists have drawn their government’s attention to the threat that Chinese investments under CPEC might pose to the country’s manufacturing sector, teetering from unfair competition from countries offering unfair advantages to their industries.

The Shanghai Five was launched on 26 April 1996 with the signing of the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in border Regions by the heads of state of China, Russia and three central asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. A year later, the Shanghai Five signed the Treaty on Reduction of Military Forces in Border Regions. At the Dushanbe summit in 2000, the members agreed to ‘oppose intervention in other countries’ internal affairs on the pretext of protecting human rights or humanitarianism. They also committed to support the efforts of each other in safeguarding their “national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and social stability.”

In the annual summit of 2001, held in Shanghai, the five welcomed Uzbekistan as their sixth member. The six heads of state signed on June 15, 2001 the Declaration of Shanghai Cooperation Organization aiming to take the grouping to a higher level of cooperation. The next summit in Saint Petersburg in July, 2005 led to the adoption of the SCO Charter which encompassed the organization’s purposes, principles, structures and forms of operation.

The SCO’s main goals are: strengthening mutual trust and neighbourliness among its member states; promoting cooperation in politics, trade, economy, culture, research, technology, as well as in education, energy, transport, tourism, environmental protection, and other areas; making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region; and moving towards the establishment of a democratic, fair and rational new international and economic order.

Proceeding from the Shanghai Spirit, the SCO pursues its internal policy based on the principles of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, mutual consultations, respect for cultural diversity, and a desire for common development, while its external policy is conducted in accordance with the principles of non-alignment, non-targeting any third country, and openness.

The SCO has an elaborate executive structure with the Heads of State Council as its supreme decision making body. It meets once a year and adopts decisions and guidelines on all important matters of the organization. The SCO Heads of Government Council also meets once a year to approve cooperation strategy, programmes as well as the budget of the organization. The SCO secretariat is based in Beijing while its Anti-terrorist Structure is based in Tashkent. Russian and Chinese are the official languages but greater room will have to be made for English with the entry of India and Pakistan.

There is also a mechanism for meetings between heads of parliament, ministers of foreign affairs, defence, economy, transport and other areas of mutual interest.

The SCO embarked on major projects related to transportation, energy and telecommunications and held regular meetings of security, defence, foreign affairs, economic and cultural officials from the member states. The primary impulsion to erect a super structure of SCO probably was to check western intervention in the Asian heartland and coordinate efforts aimed at containing militant Islam after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Islamic militancy in member countries.

Some western observers hastened to label the creation of the SCO as a bid to counterbalance NATO and in particular to avoid conflicts that would allow the United States to intervene in areas bordering both Russia and China. They also took note of the hard line Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s references to the United States during his speeches at the SCO summits.

Iran has been accepted as an observer at the SCO but an application by the U.S. for the same status was turned down in 2005.The 2005 summit also requested the U.S. to set a clear timetable to withdraw its troops from SCO member states – Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. This was followed by Uzbekistan’s request to the US to vacate its airbase established to provide logistic support to its military operations in Afghanistan.

The emergence of the SCO has led to a revival of geopolitical theories about the importance of Central Asia in the wider power game. Reference has been made to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s theory that control of the Eurasian landmass is the key to global domination and control of Central Asia is the key to control of the Eurasian land mass. According to Iranian writer Hamid Golpira, Russia and China have been paying attention to this theory by launching the SCO in 2001, “ostensibly to curb extremism in the region and enhance border security, but most probably with the real intention of counterbalancing the activities of the United states and NATO in Central Asia.”

A declaration of the SCO heads of state at their 2005 meeting indirectly rejected the western particularly the U.S. mode of domination, by calling upon “the international community, irrespective of its differences in ideology and social structure, to form a new concept of security based on mutual trust, mutual benefit, equity and interaction”. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov followed up by proclaiming that “Shanghai Cooperation Organization provides us a unique opportunity to take part in the process of forming a fundamentally new model of geopolitical integration”. He emphasized that the SCO is “working to establish a rational and just world order”.

The People’s Daily of China claimed that the SCO “Declaration points out that the SCO member countries have the ability and responsibility to safeguard the security of the Central Asian region, and calls on Western countries to leave Central Asia. That is the most noticeable signal by the Summit to the world”.

The 17th SCO summit held in Astana (Kazakhstan) in June 2017 welcomed Pakistan and India as full members thus marking the entry of two major countries with democratic systems to a grouping characterized by one party systems with centrally planned economies. Both countries pledged to adhere to the Shanghai spirit and the SCO Charter that calls for security cooperation and fight against terrorism and violent extremism, besides envisaging multiple spheres of cooperation across Eurasia.

Imtiaz Alam, a longtime observer of regional issues, argued that the admission of Pakistan and India in the SCO has created the bridge between South Asia and Central Asia, making the SCO the largest Eurasian economic and security arrangement. According to him, “Unlike SAARC that remains a hostage to bilateral disputes between India and Pakistan, SCO has the flexibility of allowing bilateral and multilateral cooperative relationships. The SCO is not SAARC, it allows India and Pakistan yet another regional forum to explore possible avenues of cooperation including against terrorism if they agree to bring mutually destructive proxy wars to an end.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hua Chunying expressed the hope prior to the summit that Pakistan and India would improve bilateral relations after becoming the full members of SCO. “We hope that Pakistan and India will inject new impetus to the development of SCO.”

The SCO framework envisages political, economic and military cooperation and seeks to enhance member states’ role in the evolving post cold war world order. Central Asia is poised to play an important role both on account of its natural resources as well as a region both China and Russia want to secure from extremist movements springing from the post jihad turmoil in Afghanistan. Both Afghanistan and Iran enjoy observer status hoping to accede as full members of the SCO. Central Asian republics hope to consolidate their economic links with both powers while looking for a security network in support of their stability.

In his address at the summit, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lauded the SCO’s contribution to regional stability, and described it as a powerful platform to promote peace, build trust and spur economic development for shared prosperity. He said the organization helps to combat terrorism, reduce arms race, eliminate poverty, fight epidemics, deal with natural disasters, tackle climate change, and ensure water security.

Pakistan has been stepping up its association with SCO, working with institutions like the SCO’s Business Council, Inter-banking Consortium and Regional Anti-terrorist Structure.

The member states have agreed to take all necessary steps for strict border management. They will regularly hold military exercises along their border regions to check arms smuggling and monitor activities of militant organizations. An exercise conducted by Chinese and Kyrgyz forces along their border in June 2017 was observed by representatives from all SCO countries. China has been deeply concerned about the threat from militant separatists, in particular from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The recent exercise saw simulated actions by helicopters, armored jeeps and 700 border police officers from the neighboring countries in Xinjiang’s Kyrgyz prefecture.

Nawaz Sharif welcomed President Xi’s proposal on the need for a treaty of good neighbourhood for the next five years. He said:

“As leaders, we should leave a legacy of peace and amity for our future generations; not a toxic harvest of conflict and animosity. Instead of talking about counterweights and containment, let us create shared spaces for all.”

Pakistan sees its membership of the SCO – along India and Afghanistan’s presence as an observer – as a framework to address bilateral issues with both countries. Sharif said that Pakistan’s becoming full member of the SCO would help in resolving bilateral disputes with India and give impetus to efforts for greater regional connectivity and economic prosperity.

While Pakistan is fully committed to the goals and objectives of the SCO, India’s role as a US partner to counter China, places certain restraints. India’s open hostility to China Pakistan Economic Corridor and lukewarm attitude to the greater Belt and Road Initiative raise questions about India’s goal of connectivity with the Central Asian states. India has launched the Chahbahar port project on Iran’s coast to bypass Pakistan for trade with Afghanistan and beyond. That will however pale into insignificance when pitted against a shorter route through Gwadar and the CPEC road network.

While Mr. Modi was attending the SCO summit with India joining the organization as a full member, the country’s army chief claimed that his forces could deal with China and Pakistan at the same time. Gen Bipin Rawat blamed Pakistan for stoking unrest in Indian Held Kashmir, but believed that the situation there would normalize soon. He said India was on course to keep pace with China’s defence modernization. India’s belligerence toward China and Pakistan casts further doubts about New Delhi’s real intentions in making a positive contribution to the SCO’s goals of peaceful good neighborly relations among the member states.

Indian Express noted that the SCO provided a rare occasion for India and Pakistan to take part in a joint military exercise. The Astana summit, the newspaper wrote, fulfilled India’s long time desire to attain full membership of the organization. That would strengthen India’s position in Central Asia and also help the country’s aim of regional integration and promote connectivity and stability across borders. India wanted to use the framework to achieve regional and global stability and prosperity “but Pakistan’s inclusion in the SCO poses potential difficulties in India’s plan.”

In his address at the summit, Mr. Modi reiterated that terrorism is a major threat to humanity, and asked for coordinated efforts to counter that menace. He voiced support to projects for greater connectivity but stressed that state sovereignty and territorial integrity were the key factors. This, among others, means India’s continued objections to the ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor that runs through the Northern Areas along Pakistan-China border.

President Xi of China sounded a note of caution on the menace of terrorism by stating that “recent acts of terrorism in this region show that the fight against three forces (of terrorism, separatism and extremism) remains a long and arduous task.” This is in sharp contrast to some other countries using the fight against terror as a propaganda tool, as seen in the form of an orchestrated harangue by Kabul, Delhi and Washington asking Pakistan to ‘do more’ while sweeping under the rug, terrorist acts against Pakistan coordinated from the Afghan territory.

The SCO summit proved to be conducive for an in depth exchange of views between Prime Minister Sharif and President Ghani with a view to evolve a mechanism to address each other’s complaints and improve border management and coordination against terrorism.

The mechanism could be placed under the supervision of the Quadrilateral Monitoring Group of Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the US.

Some in India claim that the SCO is both a threat and an opportunity but India’s joining is imperative if only to prevent Pakistan and China from making SCO a platform for a one-way discourse on Kashmir.

Further, New Delhi is keen to ensure that it is not kept out of the heartland power perimeter in a China-Russia coalition that includes Pakistan.

According to FIRSTPOST, a web-based Indian paper, Modi’s other focus was greater connectivity and access to regional resources in Central Asia, bypassing the obstructionism of Pakistan. India also gets the chance to share its concerns on terrorism in a bloc that was formed primarily as a reaction against the cesspool of violence created by radical Islam. Modi used the opportunity to make repeated references to the menace of terrorism and the need of making concerted efforts to prevent radicalization, terrorist recruitment, training and financing.

C Raja Mohan wrote that India could shape its SCO strategy in three ways: to prevent Pakistan and China ambushing Delhi on the Kashmir question; intensify engagement with Central Asian states; and seize potential shifts in SCO politics over the long term keeping a low profile for now.

Indian observers have identified areas of discord with China; India’s bid for membership of the NSG and designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the UNSC. China, for its part is frustrated by Indian reticence over the Belt and Road Initiative launched by China. Modi’s meeting with Xi in Astana was seen as focusing on areas of Indo-China convergence and avoiding the issues of divergence except in broad terms. Strangely, India sees itself in a role to counter China’s rising influence, aligning India to the US grand design in Asia, without attempting to analyze the fallout on bilateral ties with China.

Somewhat like Indian obsession with isolating Pakistan, Indian analysts are focused on ways to counter China’s growing influence in Asia. Overall, Delhi’s attitude toward SCO is fashioned more by India’s vision of relations with China and Pakistan rather than contributing to a mechanism of good-neighbourliness.

The SCO has been primarily focused on security related threats from terrorism, separatism and extremism. The Regional Anti-terrorism Structure (RATS) was established in 2004 with its secretariat in Tashkent. In 2006, the SCO announced plans to fight cross border drug crimes under the counterterrorism rubric. These goals are understood to lead to greater cooperation among the armed forces of the member states without the organization becoming a military bloc.

The SCO’s activities have expanded to include increased military cooperation, intelligence sharing, and counterterrorism. A number of joint military exercises have taken place over the years.

The SCO is also aiming at greater cooperation on cyberspace activities deeming the dissemination of information “harmful to the spiritual, moral and cultural spheres of other states” as security threats. An accord adopted in 2009 defined information war as an effort by a state to undermine another’s “political, economic and social systems.”

Other ideas for greater cooperation under the framework of SCO relate to trade, banking, energy and culture.


The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, that has its origins in the shared concerns of Russia, China and the Central Asian countries over threats from terrorism, separatism and extremism is shaping up as an important Eurasian concert aimed at multifaceted cooperation network in the decades ahead. The SCO has also served as a network led by China and Russia to resist the US and NATO extending their sphere of activity into Central Asia. China evidently is the largest and most important player in this strategy. Viewed in conjunction with the Belt and Road Initiative, SCO is a pillar of support in China’s plans to emerge, gradually but surely, as a leading Asian and global player.