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SCO Set Grow in Astana With Addition of Belarus

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SCO Set Grow in Astana With Addition of Belarus

The SCO Summit will add Belarus to the roster. Xi and Putin are attending, but Modi is skipping. 

SCO Set Grow in Astana With Addition of Belarus

The line-up at the SCO’s last in-person summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in 2022.

Credit: Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India / Wikimedia Commons

On July 3-4, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will gather in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, for its annual leaders summit. After a virtual affair in 2023, the in-person summit will be closely watched as Belarus makes it a 10-member organization. This expansion moves the SCO further away from its original regional mission, as Eva Seiwert, an analyst and project coordinator at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), wrote in this month’s Diplomat Magazine.

Belarus’ addition “fully commits the SCO to its role as a multilateral representation of the ‘new international order’ championed by China and Russia,” Seiwert argued, going on to note that “[e]nlargement has raised the SCO’s profile and put it in a bind – international visibility comes hand in hand with a loss of regional relevance.” As a result, members might “seek other formats for tangible regional cooperation.”

The SCO originated with the Shanghai Five. Formed in 1996, the initial group — including China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan — sprang from border talks between China and the former Soviet republics that became necessary in the extended wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. In the ensuing years, its regular summits expanded in scope to encompass a wider range of issues beyond borders and security. In 2001, the SCO was formally launched with the inclusion of Uzbekistan and a shift in focus to regional security, with an eye on Afghanistan and counterterrorism.

India and Pakistan joined the group in 2017, marking its first major expansion and setting a new tone even as it brought major bilateral flashpoints into the group. Iran became a member last year, amid a summit that was held virtually by host India. 

Indian officials did not provided a clear explanation for why the 2023 summit was held virtually after returning to a typical in-person format in 2022 when the summit was hosted by Uzbekistan in Samarkand, but I noted at the time that there were “no shortage of available motivations.” Those included the awkward geopolitical positioning of India between Russia and the West in light of Moscow’s continued war in Ukraine; but perhaps more critically souring relations between India and both China and Pakistan. 

Although newly re-inaugurated Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reportedly planning to visit Russia July 8 to 9 in what would be his first trip to Moscow since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, he is skipping the SCO summit in Astana. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar will lead the Indian delegation instead.

Meanwhile, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is attending the SCO summit and tacking on state visits to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. He is scheduled to arrive in Kazakhstan on July 2 and travel to Tajikistan after the summit, departing the region on July 6.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, fresh off his June trips to North Korea and Vietnam, will attend the summit in Astana, where he aims to also hold sideline meetings with various members and partners. In mid-June, Russian officials floated hopes for arranging a meeting between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey, a NATO member, has been a dialogue partner of the SCO since 2013 and may be eying membership, much like Belarus, as a diversification tactic amid difficulties with the European Union in particular.

Presumably, the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan will travel to Astana for the summit, though specific announcements have not been made. Given Modi’s absence, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif can be expected to attend — but that has not been confirmed in media reports yet either. 

When it comes to Iran, the most recent new member of the SCO, it seems unlikely that acting President Mohammad Mokhber will attend. Mokhber took over the Iranian presidency after the unexpected death of Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter accident in May, which also killed the country’s foreign minister. Iran is set for a presidential run-off on July 5 following an inconclusive first round of voting on June 29.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko recently thanked Russia for its support in the county’s ambition to join the SCO, during the recent visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Minsk. He’s expected to attend the summit.

Not expected to attend, but a veritable elephant in the room will be the Taliban. Afghanistan holds observer status in the SCO, but since the country came under the Taliban’s control in August 2021, it has not been invited to SCO meetings. However, in January Kazakhstan removed the Taliban from its list of terrorist organizations and Russia is contemplating doing the same. That could yield, in the future, an invitation for Afghanistan to again attend SCO meetings as an observer, or more.

In early June, Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said Moscow would conditionally support a Taliban bid for full membership in the SCO for Afghanistan, despite ongoing hesitation to commit to fully “recognizing” the Taliban government. Given the practical reality that China has all-but-recognized the Taliban and is the next president of the SCO, we very well may see a more concerted effort on the part of the SCO to engaged Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Some commentators, particularly Chinese, have written effusively optimistic previews of the summit, calling it “a significant event with far-reaching implications for regional and global affairs.” The degree to which this is true or not largely rests on our assumptions about what the SCO is, and what it is trying to accomplish. 

In 2019, writing about that year’s summit in Bishkek, I remarked: “…can the SCO’s Shanghai Spirit — ‘mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diverse civilizations and pursuit of common development’ as the Chinese put it — thrive if some of its members are on the edge of conflict with regularity?”

That was before the Galwan clash in 2020 re-focused attention on the inherent tensions in the China-India relationship, and before the flashes of violence on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border in 2021 and 2022; then there’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to consider.

At the time, I answered:

… broadly yes: the SCO has weathered conflict between members in the past with a combination of fingers-in-the-ear ignoring of tensions and platitudes about respect for internal affairs and appeals for stability. But at the same time, that status quo also arguably hamstrings the group’s ability to operate beyond the boundaries of talk shops and counterterrorism exercises, not to mention undercuts its international credibility.

Five years later, the question still stands, and the answer is largely the same. Belarus’ addition will certainty serve to widen the group, but also dilute its focus. It will arguably further damage its international credibility, what little it had; Belarus is a heavily sanctioned autocracy and a vocal supporter of Russia. 

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on July 1, “China believes that this [SCO] summit will help build more consensus, open up a new chapter of cooperation, and contribute to the security, stability, development and prosperity of all countries and to building a community with a shared future for mankind.”