Upcoming expansion will enhance the SCO's role in addressing international challenges
By Zhao Wei  ·  2023-05-15  ·   Source: NO.20 MAY 18, 2023
Indian teenagers use a calligraphy brush to write Chinese characters during a dialogue between students from Shanghai Cooperation Organization members and Chinese astronauts in orbit at the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi on April 20 (XINHUA)

'We see serious prospects here; not only for economic liaisons, but also for political and diplomatic cooperation. This is very important today," Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Aleinik told his country's media when asked about his meeting with Secretary General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Zhang Ming on March 9. The SCO is a political and security union that spans Eurasia and currently has eight members—China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

"The SCO is one of the main pillars of the multipolar world. It is very important to be involved in the processes of strengthening multipolarity from the group's standpoint. The same applies to the cultural and humanitarian dimension," Aleinik added.

Belarus was granted dialogue partner status in the SCO in 2010 and became an observer in 2015. Upon its application, leaders of the SCO member states decided to start the procedure for the country's accession to the organization at their annual summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, last September. Recently, the two–day SCO foreign ministers' meeting in Goa, India, discussed the admission. The meeting kicked off on May 5 and was widely considered a prelude to the SCO summit in New Delhi in July.

SCO dialogue partner status allows the countries to take part in specialized intra-SCO events at the invitation of the member states, according to the organization's website. Observer countries can attend public meetings as non-voting attendees, but they are not entitled to participate in the drafting and signing of the organization's documents. 

From five to more 

Along with Belarus, Iran is also awaiting full SCO membership. A memorandum of understanding on including Iran as a new member of the organization was also signed at last year's Samarkand summit.

Founded in 2001, the SCO is the successor to the Shanghai Five, which was initially developed in 1996 on the basis of strengthening trust and disarmament in border regions of China with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

In June 2001, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the birth of the Shanghai Five, the heads of the group's member states and the president of Uzbekistan met in Shanghai and jointly created the SCO, with the new organization's fundamental mission being to combat the three forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism. In addition to security cooperation, the member states also teamed up in promoting common development and cultural exchanges in the region and beyond within the SCO framework in the following years.

The 2017 summit in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, decided to grant membership status to India and Pakistan, bringing the number of member states to eight. In addition to full-fledged members, the organization now has four observer states and 14 dialogue partners.

Currently, the SCO accounts for 40 percent of the world's population and spans over 60 percent of the Eurasian landmass. In 2021, the combined GDP of its member states was $23.3 trillion, 13 times higher than when the organization was founded.

"Having new members is a very welcome initiative. It will strengthen the organization's functions and objectives, which are quite unique and unlike the institutions dominated by Western countries," Mohammed Saqib, an Indian economist and Secretary General of the India-China Economic and Cultural Council, told Beijing Review, adding the SCO members reject the notion of a unipolar world order and promote a multipolar world.

According to Saqib, the SCO has an unusual structure, with the concepts of full-fledged members and observer states allowing for a flexible and inclusive approach to cooperation and dialogue. The group's mandate covers a wide range of issues, including security, economics, culture and education. This multidimensional approach allows it to address complex issues in a holistic manner.

"China is the SCO's leading country and I believe more countries showcasing a willingness to join the organization is also because of the role of China, the appeal of the country's huge economic volume, as well as its political philosophy of peaceful coexistence, which is appreciated by other developing countries," Han Lu, a researcher with the Beijing-based China Institute of International Studies, told Beijing Review.

What lies ahead 

The SCO is an important constructive force in international and regional affairs; the more complex the international situation, the more necessary it becomes to carry forward the Shanghai Spirit and build a closer community with a shared future, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang stressed during talks with his counterparts in Goa.

Featuring mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for cultural diversity and the pursuit of common development, the Shanghai Spirit is the set of values that underpins the SCO.

Qin also put forward a five-point proposal, which lists "adhering to strategic autonomy and strengthening solidarity and mutual trust" at the top. He further made it clear that attempts by external forces to interfere in regional affairs should be resisted.

"The SCO is currently in its second round of expansion and has entered a new stage of development. The organization's international influence will greatly increase, but the ensuing challenge is how to manage differences between and enhance solidarity of member states," Han told Beijing Review.

In Han's view, since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in early 2022, the relationship between Russia and the U.S., and the West at large, is headed for full-scale confrontation. This has greatly complicated SCO members' dealings with the U.S.—and the West, because they hold different attitudes toward it. Some Central Asian countries want to maintain good relations with the West to attract investment. "It's difficult for member states to coordinate their policies toward Washington," Han said.

In addition to solidarity and mutual trust, Qin's proposal also focuses on security cooperation, defending stable and smooth industrial and supply chains, improving global governance and strengthening mechanism building.

"These points reflect the urgent needs of the region, particularly in the areas of security and economic cooperation, which are essential for maintaining stability and promoting prosperity in the region," Saqib said.

"I believe Qin's five-point proposal is a positive step forward for the SCO and demonstrates the organization's commitment to promoting cooperation, stability and progress in the region. It will be important to see how member states respond to and implement the proposal in the coming years to realize its full potential," he concluded.

(Print Edition Title: The Shanghai Spirit) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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