The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is expanding. At its 2018 Qingdao Summit, it formally welcomed India and Pakistan as the organization’s new members. Stretching from Eurasia to South Asia, the SCO now contains 44 percent of the world’s population and 21 percent of its GDP. It is also an organization with four nuclear weapons states and two on the UN Security Council. Despite these impressive numbers, the organization has yet to demonstrate its full potential and its expansion presents new challenges just as it offers new opportunities.
Beijing aims to build the SCO into a cohesive organization with deep mutual trust between member states. It wants the SCO to be an active player in regional security, both traditional and non-traditional, and a platform to expand economic cooperation — a bridge that links China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Eurasian Economic Union spearheaded by Russia. The expanded SCO provides a good opportunity to promote what Beijing has espoused — supported by Moscow — as a new type of international relations characterized by diversity and equality that is beyond power politics.
At the same time, the inclusion of India, the world’s largest democracy, adds weight to the organization’s voice as it makes the SCO less a club of authoritarian states. India’s membership also renders Washington’s moves to enlist India to counterbalance China through the newly relaunched Quadrilateral Security Dialogue a more complicated undertaking.
While Beijing’s initial motivation for establishing the SCO was to combat the ‘three evils’ — religious extremism, ethnic separatism, and terrorism — it has also sought to extend its political and economic influence into Central Asia and Eurasia through the organization by building a network of bilateral and multilateral ties. Through the SCO, China works with Russia and other Central Asian republics to promote a worldview that emphasizes respect for sovereignty and non-interference. For example, Beijing and Moscow have jointly pushed back against ‘coloured revolutions’ in Central Asia. Using the SCO as a platform, they have also advocated a new international order and security concept based on mutual trust, cooperation, and dialogue.
Energy security and Central Asia’s market potential have also been key considerations for China. Beijing has secured major energy deals with Russia and Central Asian states and built extensive pipelines for transporting crude oil and natural gas back into the country.
China’s efforts to turn Central Asia into a major market for investment and commerce have been less successful — not the least because of Moscow’s resistance, if not outright opposition. Indeed, a number of proposals by Beijing — from an SCO development bank to a Central Asia free trade area — have remained on the drawing board largely because of Russia’s reluctance to endorse them. The slow progress in promoting its economic agendas within the SCO is one of the factors that drove Beijing to launch the BRI in 2013.
In recent years, Western sanctions have made Moscow more receptive to China’s economic proposals — including agreeing to cooperation between the BRI and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). It can be expected that Beijing will continue to push for economic cooperation within the BRI–EEU–SCO framework.
The expanded SCO presents challenges for Beijing though. It is well known that India’s membership had been actively lobbied by Russia. China only gave its consent after it was assured of Pakistan’s admission. In addition to unresolved border disputes with China, India is the only SCO member that refuses to endorse the BRI and has criticized the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — one of the six key economic corridors of the initiative. This could make it more difficult for Beijing to use the SCO as a platform to promote the BRI.
One of the successes of the organization over the years has been the close coordination among member states’ law enforcement organizations in confronting terrorism in the region. ‘Peace Mission’, SCO’s biannual anti-terrorism exercises, remains one of the more concrete and high-profile activities conducted to counter the ‘three evils’. With India and Pakistan’s inclusion, the SCO‘s anti-terrorism program now extends into South Asia. This presents the challenge of how to effectively integrate both India and Pakistan into the organization’s anti-terror framework and, in particular, how to convince the two countries to resolve their own disputes over terrorism in the region.
Beijing has played a critical role in establishing and developing the SCO in response to emerging non-traditional security challenges, notably the ‘three evils’ and energy security. Together with Moscow, Beijing has gradually built the SCO into a regional institution crucial to China’s growing interests in Central Asia.
The SCO’s recent membership expansion presents both opportunities and challenges as the organization’s cohesiveness, effectiveness and policy coordination will go through a period of refocusing, redefining and re-energizing. China’s role will remain indispensable. How the SCO’s next phase transpires will both affect Beijing’s critical interests and reflect its leadership.
Jingdong Yuan is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies and the Department of Government and International Relations. He specializes in Asia-Pacific security, Chinese defense, and foreign policy, and global and regional arms control and non-proliferation issues
This article first appeared in East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original.