Western observers are skeptical that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will become an effective regional power. The group was born out of a “border resolution” mechanism in 1996. Its underlying objective was to build “mutual trust and good neighborliness” which had attracted the interest of all, including India.
SCO is not an “ alliance, ” but it is one of the most powerful groups in size (four nuclear-powered states) with a combined GDP of $ 19 trillion. It annually attracts key Eurasian leaders to participate in the anti-Western power game. The group adheres well to the regional security agenda – its defense-focused structures and activities have certainly achieved considerable success in the fight against regional terrorism.
Twenty years later, however, the grouping lacks the convergence of foreign policy or the will to stimulate regional economic growth that tends to frustrate its member states. Critics suspect that this is a deliberate ploy by China and Russia (the main agenda makers) to advance their own bilateral interests, but what is really behind the flurry of High-profile events of the SCO is the intense underlying regional affliction that existed even before India. and Pakistan joined in 2017. It mainly revolves around a nebulous but poorly concealed rivalry between Russia and China.
For years, Moscow effectively prevented the SCO from becoming a Chinese-dominated economic bloc – and repeatedly derailed Beijing’s plans to push for a free economic zone and SCO development bank. This was done to ensure that the SCO does not surpass Russia’s own regional integration agenda, the overlapping Eurasian Economic Union in Central Asia. In fact, many believe that Moscow deliberately pushed India into the SCO to dilute China’s influence. Beijing responded by pushing Pakistan to join the group.
Some observers point to the decline in China’s interest in the SCO after India’s admission to the group. That aside, regional feuds as well as the SCO has consistently taken a high-standing stance and rhetoric against the West has pushed Central Asian countries to seek an alternative “C5 + 1” dialogue mechanism with the West. United States and others.
In 2019, even China opted for a C5 + 1 format whose scope goes beyond the economic domain to cover security and geopolitics. It even seeks to “form an area of security, stability and prosperity in Central Asia”. In addition, Beijing’s priority over the years has shifted to promoting its BRI projects, which travel in the same geographic space.
Multiple internal contradictions beset SCO – the India-Pakistan conflict being the latest addition. In addition, conflict-prone Indo-Chinese relations create an acrimonious atmosphere. Regional connectivity is seen as a priority for SCO integration and growth. But, project such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) seriously violates India’s sovereignty, which in turn violates the SCO’s core principle of “respect. mutual sovereignty and territorial integrity of states ”which will erode its growth.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also revealed the fragility of the OCS. For example, the epidemic and lockdowns instantly sent an economic shock wave to Kyrgyzstan, plunging the country into political turmoil and chaos. Crowds were quick to oust the country’s president from office amid a dispute over the rigged results of the October parliamentary elections. In Belarus, a SCO observer state, similar pandemic-induced unrest turned to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko’s election victory in August. To add to the regional woes, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict worsened amid the pandemic, although it was a mischief destroyed by Turkey to undermine Moscow’s influence in the Caucasus.
Even oil-rich Kazakhstan could face a similar situation in parliamentary elections scheduled for January. Clearly, the results of votes of over 97% declared in favor of incumbents are unlikely to go unchallenged in the post-Covid-19 scenario.
Economic vulnerabilities were also exposed. Significant economic disruptions led to a decline in GDP of 3-5%. Falling oil prices, falling remittances from Russia, etc. have created a myriad of social problems. A protracted crisis would then be exploited by China, which is already expanding its cooperation on Covid-19 under its BRI scheme rather than under the SCO heading.
Moscow actually helped resolve the recent Kyrgyz crisis, but China has become the main beneficiary. New Kyrgyz leader Sadyr Japarov, who emerged from anger at the street protests, was quick to announce his friendship with China as he sought immediate debt relief from Beijing. In return, he pledged to protect Chinese investments and the safety of Chinese citizens and businesses in Kyrgyzstan.
During a week of unrest in October, large Kyrgyz mobs broke into Chinese gold mines and ousted Chinese workers. Apparently, at least six Chinese private security companies (PSCs) are now operating in Central Asia to protect BRI projects. The Kyrgyz foreign minister recently held talks with his Chinese counterpart to defer billions of dollars in debt. Beijing, in return, hopes that Kyrgyzstan will synergize its national development strategies with the BRI. As for the strategic dimension, the West has so far not really targeted the Eurasian body. Rather, the US administration followed an ongoing strategy of strengthening the sovereignty and independence of the countries of Central Asia. However, Secretary Mike Pompeo, in his final months, has deployed diplomatic measures in the C5 + 1 format to push back Chinese influence and divert Central Asian states that are too dependent on Beijing and Moscow. His Central Asian counterparts, however, avoided entering into the “unwanted political consequences” of the great power rivalry.
Much will depend on how the Biden administration conducts its policy in China and Russia. Both nations were rather late in responding to Biden’s victory. At the Moscow summit, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping pledged to stick to multilateralism and stay united in the post-Trump era, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, both leaders opposed the politicization of the pandemic.
While not everyone is happy with the late progress of the SCO, the consortium certainly played a big role in keeping Eurasia relatively stable and free from the threat of extremism and terrorism, a concern serious given what is observed in West Asia and neighboring Afghanistan. , and a reason why India joined the grouping.
Still, given the potential of its member states emerging as strong markets, the SCO could finally achieve its goal of becoming a strong community in Eurasia. When New Delhi holds the summit meeting on November 30, it is expected to present a new model in optimistic terms to make the SCO more meaningful and organized with economic content. India’s potential in Eurasia is limitless.
(The writer, a former Indian Ambassador, is the founder of the Ladakh International Center and a member of the Advisory Board of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs.)
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