While much of the world watched the tense G7 meeting in Charlevoix, Canada from June 8 to 9 and chattered about the rapidly approaching June 12 Singapore summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Qingdao, China on June 9-10 the leaders of eight other nations also gathered in concert.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) annual summit returned to China at the opening of a new chapter. Not only has the organization expanded — this summit was India and Pakistan’s first as full-fledged members — but the global order itself appears to be sliding from West to East. The slide may not be new, but the two summits side-by-side display the dissonance: a West breaking apart and an East consolidating.
Trump’s Twitter tantrum en route to Singapore, in which he lashed out at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and said he’d instructed U.S. representatives not to endorse the G7’s final statement, exposed the already existing cracks between Trump and other Western leaders. The summit’s most iconic photo — with Trump seated, arms crossed, and Angela Merkel standing across a table from him — has been alternatively interpreted. To his critics, Trump appears petulant and to his supporters, he appears defiant. National Security Advisor John Bolton tweeted the photo with this captions: “Just another #G7 where other countries expect America will always be their bank. The President made it clear today. No more.”
Meanwhile, as the Financial Times described it, the SCO summit proceeded “smoothly” with much media attention on the bonhomie between China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. As the FT notes, also, Chinese media in particular “portrayed the SCO summit as emphasizing the gap in global leadership that has opened” between the United States under Trump and China under Xi, “who used every opportunity to skewer Washington over trade tensions and unilateral behavior.”
It is important to note that the G7 and SCO, apart from being groups of world leaders, are quite different. This may not matter to the optics, but it matters to the actual implications of tension at the one and smooth sailing at the other.
The G-678 and the Shanghai Spirit
What is now the G7 began as an informal gathering of top financial officials in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis. The first summit of the then-G6 brought together the leaders of six nations, France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States; in 1976 Canada — then led by Pierre Trudeau — was added. The countries represented the world’s top economies, its leading industrialized nations. They were also united by the so-called liberal world order and democratic governments. Russia’s addition — making it the G8 — in 1998 was, in a sense, an aspirational move. In 2014, Russia was expelled from the group. The pushing out of Russia was tied to its annexation of Crimea, but frankly speaking, Russia had not developed, politically, in the way the G7 countries had hoped. The G7, while formalized in annual summits, remains an informal gathering of world leaders with shared interests and significant influence on global affairs.
The SCO, on the other hand, is a more formal but younger and less effective grouping. Born as the Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) in 1996 with the intent of setting residual border disputes between China and its neighboring former Soviet states, the group welcomed Uzbekistan in 2001 and became the SCO. The so-called Shanghai Spirit of “mutual trust, mutual respect, equality, respect for diverse civilizations and pursuit of shared development” undergirded the new organization, which expanded its remit to cover an ever-expanding universe of issues from economics to culture.
As Alexander Cooley writes in the June issue of The Diplomat Magazine:
“The organization, despite its mostly regional Central Asian focus, is often referred to as the most populous multilateral organization in the world, a pioneer in the rise of non-Western arenas for global governance, and even a new paradigm of international relations. Yet, many of the organization’s high-profile initiatives continue to be aspirational and unfilled – especially in the area of economic and energy cooperation – while the organization’s strong norm of consensus effectively means that the body is rarely used to ‘problem-solve’ or host contentious debates among its members.”
Furthermore, Russia and China, Cooley writes, “differ over the organization’s exact purpose and scope.” China views the SCO as a multilateral forum “to ensure China’s regional security and economic interests” and a “multilateral vehicle for channeling China’s role as an emerging public goods provider.” Russia, on the other hand, views the SCO in more global terms, “serving as a key forum for Moscow’s foreign policy revisionism and opposition to the U.S.-led global order…”
The induction of India and Pakistan — the SCO’s first expansion since its 2001 rebirth — further complicates the SCO’s management and meaning.
Trump and the Crumpling World Order?
Trump’s haphazard diplomatic style, apparent preference for autocrats, and obsession with the idea that U.S. allies have been taking advantage of the United States in trade matters, brought bilateral tensions into the G7 gathering.
Before the summit, Trump set it up for tension by proposing that Russia be let back in. Trump commented, “It may not be politically correct, but we have a world to run.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded on the summit’s sidelines that EU leaders agreed it wasn’t time for Russia to return. “Here we all agreed that a return of Russia to the G7 format summits can’t happen until substantial progress has been made in connection with the problems with Ukraine,” she said.
In the trade arena, Trump’s decision to impose steel and aluminium tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the EU — which had initially been exempted — has triggered anger in the United States allies. In his closing remarks at the G7 summit, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commented that the national security rationale for the steel and aluminum tariffs was “kind of insulting” given the fact that Canadians have stood with Americans in conflicts around the globe from World War I onward. Trudeau promised retaliatory tariffs, to begun July 1 and said, “Canadians are polite and reasonable but we will also not be pushed around.” Trudeau’s comments are apparently what triggered Trump’s rejection of the G7 communique and the ensuing firestorm highlights even more concerns about the future of the Western world order.
In rejecting the G7 communique, Trump was walking back an endorsement of a statement that led with this iteration of the Western order: “We, the Leaders of the G7, have come together in Charlevoix, Quebec on June 8–9, 2018, guided by our shared values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and our commitment to promote a rules-based international order.” The statement goes on to catalog a litany of shared positions: fair rules, free trade, equality, and shared responsibility. There were more specific provisions too: criticism of Russia’s “destabilizing behavior”; harsh words for “foreign actors” (i.e. Russia again) “who seek to undermine our democratic societies and institutions, our electoral processes, our sovereignty and our security…”; a statement on the East and South China Seas; and so on.
An American leader walking away from such a statement would be a surprise if the president of the United States wasn’t Donald Trump.
Matthew Burrows, former counselor at the National Intelligence Council, told Axios that such a tumultuous G7 feeds the conviction held by Xi and Putin that “the West is in free fall.”
The SCO summit’s final declaration — the Qingdao Declaration — led with an emphasis on a “reconfiguration” of the geopolitical landscape and a shift toward a multipolar world. The statement is a comprehensive jumble of easily shared positions: mutual cooperation, peaceful settlement of disputes, anti-terrorism.
Xi quoted Confucius — “What a joy to have friends coming from afar!” — and commented that “The SCO enjoys strong vitality and momentum of cooperation.” Xi also described “democracy in international relations” as “an unstoppable trend of the times.” China may propose bringing more countries at the table in its rhetoric, but Beijing’s actions make clear that China will sit at the table’s head.
The SCO’s Outlier: India and the NPT
The SCO summit, while civil, was not without its own cracks. India, in particular, is an awkward fit given its Western-style democracy and cyclical but persistent tensions with China. India-China relations may have been “reset” in Wuhan, as the optimists would have it, but Delhi isn’t any closer to endorsing Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While most of the topical statements in the declaration referred to “the member states” the reference to welcoming the BRI listed countries individually, leaving India off the list.
The BRI has come, in the past five years, to feature in the SCO’s post-summit declarations. In 2017’s Astana Declaration, the communique depicted absolute unity behind China’s endeavor:
The member states welcomed the One Belt, One Road initiative. Having highly praised the results of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation that took place in Beijing on 14-15 May of this year, they supported the implementation of these results by coordinating international, regional and national projects geared toward cooperation in the interest of sustainable development on the principles of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit.
2016’s Tashkent Declaration did much of the same, noting “Member States reaffirm the support for the initiative of the People’s Republic of China on the creation of the Silk Road Economic Belt. For these purposes, the work shall continue to implement this project as one of the tools of creation of favorable conditions for the development of regional economic cooperation.”
But the Qingdao Declaration introduces a lack of consensus that had been absent up to this point:
Reaffirming their support for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Tajikistan and the Republic of Uzbekistan, the Member States express appreciation for the joint efforts taken towards its implementation, including efforts to coordinate the development of the Eurasian Economic Union and the BRI and call for using the potential of the regional countries, international organisations and multilateral associations to create a broad, open, mutually beneficial and equal partnership in the SCO space.
In one other area — support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty — the declaration made a distinction, noting that “The Member States that are signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty are committed to strict compliance with NPT provisions…” This, like the BRI segment, was a break from consensus that had featured in previous declarations. In the 2017 Astana Declaration, for example, the NPT was referred to thusly: “The member states consistently advocate strict observance of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons…”
The West may be in free fall but the SCO isn’t set up to replace it just yet. The two summits, occurring almost contemporaneously, invite easy comparisons focused on tone and optics. Here certainly, we get the feeling of a Western order breaking apart and an Eastern order firming. But while dissonance in the so-called Western order — or more accurately, Trump’s abdication of the United States’ place in it — is concerning, such dissonance exists in the East as well at several levels. The G7, perhaps, can wait out Trump’s term; can the SCO live through a conflagration between India and Pakistan or a future worsening of relations between India and China?