Tenth anniversaries are usually marked by an important event or development, so it’s not surprising that analysts were waiting eagerly to see what the 10th annual summit of the heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) would produce. They needn’t have held their breath – as with so many previous SCO meetings, attendees at the June 15 summit in Astana did little more than issue vacuous declarations.
Like previous SCO communiqués, the one issued in Astana called for a multipolar world order (i.e. one not dominated by the United States) in which the United Nations (not NATO) made all important international security decisions. And, in contrast to Western government statements describing Western-style political and civil liberties as universal values, the Astana Declaration called on all governments to respect the sovereignty and independence of countries.
This time, the Astana Declaration also contained some specific criticisms of various Western policies. For example, it called for an end to the NATO military operation in Libya. But the comments are likely to have as much impact as past SCO declarations. After all, the organization rarely follows up its collective statements with joint actions, especially on issues outside the organization’s geographic heartland of Central Asia.
One thing that has always been a little surprising is the lack of progress the SCO has made in developing its collective economic potential and promoting multinational economic cooperation among its members. By world standards, none of the SCO economic mechanisms could be considered ‘serious’ instruments, and so far at least, SCO members have allocated limited resources to them, further constraining their potential. Instead, SCO governments have preferred to offer financial and development assistance on a bilateral basis, which gives them greater influence.
More broadly, though, the SCO remains stuck in a dilemma over expansion. For the sixth year in a row, the SCO hasn’t admitted new full members or formal observers. The current roster of full SCO members includes only those six states that joined the organization at its founding in 2001: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The four observer states (India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan) have remained constant since 2004. Instead, the organization has resorted to proliferating new categories of external association, producing a confusing mixture of members, observers, guests, and dialogue partners.
Why? The SCO governments argue that they need more time to establish the rules and procedures needed to govern new members. In reality, the existing SCO members have proved unable to overcome their differences over which countries should receive membership or observer status. The SCO’s consensus rule gives any member the right to veto decisions (although Russia and China are clearly the most influential members in shaping the organization’s policies). At this week’s summit, Beijing vetoed India’s application to become a full SCO member, which effectively denied Pakistan’s right to also advance to that status. Both Moscow and Beijing also opposed Iran’s application or full membership. Chinese opposition may also have derailed Afghanistan’s application, supported by the Russian government, to become a SCO observer.