With the declaration of the 2016 Summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the heads of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states put forward the formal admission of India and Pakistan as full members of the Organization in 2017.
The basic principles regarding the expansion of the SCO were expounded at the 2014 Dushanbe Summit, while the decision to admit both countries as full members was taken at the 2015 summit in Ufa, Russia. This decision prompted great efforts within the SCO to expedite the start of the organization’s historic expansion. India’s and Pakistan’s signing of the memoranda of obligations on the occasion of this year’s summit finalized the technicalities of the process of the SCO’s expansion in 2017.
Both India and Pakistan, which formerly were observers within the SCO framework, applied for full membership in order to play a more significant role in the ongoing regional development. However, the SCO initially focused on the completion of its vertical consolidation before starting to expand horizontally. In this regard, not all members were fully comfortable with the accession of new states — possibly worrying about new challenges that would come along with expansion. While China raised concerns about an Indian entry and insisted on admission “when conditions are ripe,” Russia and Kazakhstan were in favor of its accession, eyeing the benefits of the new organizational arrangement.
At the summit in Tashkent, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested further development goals for the SCO. He noted that the organization’s expansion has to be an ordered process. The accession of India and Pakistan means a new maturing phase of the organization’s development, which must be based on an improved organizational structure and the member states’ consensus “through consultation.”
Wang stressed that throughout the 15 years of its existence the achievements of the SCO in safeguarding peace and development on the international as well as regional level have been remarkable and have boosted the organization’s position and influence on a global scale. The accession of India and Pakistan and the concurrent integration of a wider Asian region into the SCO would account for the organization’s growing relevance in global affairs, signalling the “vitality and bright prospects of the organization.”
This conforms with the Russian vision for the role of the SCO. In 2014 the Russian ambassador to Great Britain, Alexander Yakovenko, described the SCO as “an influential organization and an important factor in the emergence of a new polycentric world order.” The heavyweights of the SCO, China and Russia, have endeavored to boost the organization’s development over the last 15 years in order to promote their concept of multipolarity vis-à-vis a more Washington-directed global order. The SCO’s development into a more competent and sovereign regional body would help meet this aspiration.
Yet the apparent optimism engendered by the first enlargement of the SCO since 2001 dismisses the pitfalls of integrating Pakistan and India into a greater Asian cooperation arrangement. Not only could the accession of both make it somewhat complicated to find common ground on decision making, hampering the intended forward momentum laid out by the SCO development strategy toward 2025, it could also raise questions about the nature of the SCO’s normative framework as well as its effectiveness. The aspirations of China and Russia for the SCO to play a more decisive role on a global level could become more difficult to achieve.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: China’s Brainchild
The foundation of the SCO in Shanghai in 2001 with the formal inclusion of Uzbekistan built on the establishment of the Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan). The Shanghai Five was founded in 1996 to settle issues of border demarcation after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Beside the focus on the resolution of border issues, the Shanghai Five soon expanded with regard to its agenda and devoted its efforts to issues of transnational terrorism, separatism, and extremism (“The Three Evils”). In 2000, the president of China, Jiang Zemin, suggested institutionalizing the cooperation in a regional body, which was formed in 2001, incorporating economic as well as cultural cooperation.
Thereby, the normative framework of the SCO was based on China’s “New Concept of Security,” which was put forward by China in 1997. China intended to organize its neighborly relations according to the new contexts of the 1990s and to execute a paradigm shift to multilateralism. This concept, which set the ideational framework for future cooperation, puts an emphasis on sovereignty, territorial integrity, and mutual non-interference. Accordingly, the SCO’s “Shanghai Spirit,” the organization´s normative framework, accommodates concerns over the already well-protected sovereignty of Asian states, where the traditional understanding of sovereignty differs from that of the Western hemisphere. The SCO’s values of “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diversified civilizations and pursuit of common development” — which imply non-interference in domestic affairs and peaceful coexistence — are a double-edged sword. Although these values generate the appeal for cooperation within the SCO framework they also leave the organization with nothing more than hope for consensus and goodwill to implement its decisions within the member states. The lack of enforcement mechanisms and relatively non-committal nature of agreements could hamper the forward development of the organization, since members are not bound to commit to any decision.
Article 16 of the SCO Charter it does not preclude member states from engaging in cooperation bilaterally when a member state refuses its participation in a multilateral project. But the SCO’s framework limits the organization’s prospect of developing into something more than a regional forum for the particular interests of the member states. As the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, emphasized, the SCO should not develop into an “amorphous, bureaucratic, and paper organization”.
Given the ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, which recently erupted thanks to turmoil in the disputed region and a terrorist attack on an Indian army base, the ability for consensus within the SCO will probably be constricted by the accession of both states. It is not to be expected that this dispute will be solved by the SCO’s involvement, nor does any party have an interest in external interference in the conflict. Future agreements concerning India and Pakistan will have to take into account the nature of the dispute and circumvent potential conflicts by bilateral negotiations without one of the disputing parties. Even though economic win-win cooperation is one of the SCO’s declared goals, it is unlikely that such India-Pakistan cooperation will take place under the SCO umbrella.
Under these circumstances, the development the SCO from a coherent multilateral regional body boosted by a consensus of all members into a more sovereign entity that avoids appearing a “paper tiger” could be complicated by the enlargement. Furthermore, unlike the authoritarian regimes of Central Asia, which have turned toward Russia and China to resist Western pressures for democratization, democratic India and the Islamic Federal Republic of Pakistan have far less geopolitical pressure to support the SCO beyond their rational strategic economic interests.
Great Power Competition
It is no secret that China was concerned that the already fragile internal cohesion of the SCO would be upset by the accession of India and Pakistan. Additionally, with India, a major competitor for China will enter the scene and alter the balance of power in the organization.
China and Russia, which have traditionally dominated the SCO, have created dependencies with the Central Asian member governments by providing financial subsidies, loans, or weapons to support regime stability. The region is also very important for China to push its “One Belt, One Road” initiative. With new partners entering the scene, Central Asian republics will now have the opportunity to diversify their ties and balance the traditional influence of China and Russia.
Certainly, India seeks to ensure its huge demand for energy, eyeing the landlocked resource-rich Central Asian region. For instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent Chabahar port agreement with Iran will connect Central Asia with India and bypass Pakistan. In addition, India has already committed to the idea of an “Asian Energy Strategy” proposed by Kazakhstan. India’s energy security diplomacy could threaten Chinese dominance in Central Asia, which formerly seemed to be consolidated through enterprises such as the 1800 km Turkmenistan-China pipeline.
Given the relatively weak authority of the SCO, the organization will have little potential to moderate any growing great power competition, which could increase over the question of energy supplies. Although this concerns Russia as an energy exporter less than China, rivalry with India for energy supplies from Central Asia could destabilize the multilateral basis of the SCO as a consequence of the relapse to a predominant bilateralism guided by mistrust. It is not that bilateralism would completely offset the organization’s workings, since it has been always an integral part of the SCO‘s cooperation. Nevertheless, the linkage to energy rivalry could paralyze and impede any intended development of the organization toward a more sovereign body and reduce the SCO to a mere forum for more or less protectionist, self-maximizing strategic cooperation.
The pillar of regional security, which was once a top priority for the founding members of the SCO to counter regional terrorism and extremism, seems thereby the only case where consensus and limited transfer of sovereignty is possible. However, in light of the looming enlargement it is questionable if this would be enough to develop a coherent and well-knit entity in order to transcend the organization’s current status. play a more substantial role on a global level, and, in Ambassador Yakovenko’s words, contribute to the “emergence of new a polycentric world order.”
André Hantke is a Master’s student in International Relations at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China.