The SCO summit: New Challenges

Spearhead Analysis – 12.04.2019

By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

At its annual summit in Tashkent, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) announced India and Pakistan are now full members of the security grouping. This was the first time the organization admitted new members. On June 14-15 this year, all SCO members are set to meet again at its 19th Summit of Heads of State in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek.

This time around however, the upcoming SCO summit is faced with a unique set of challenges. When the decision to make India and Pakistan full members of the SCO was first revealed, including two nuclear states in the forum that have already fought three wars against each other was argued to be a huge security risk. The incentive behind the decision was clear: if both India and Pakistan are part of the forum the SCO could provide a platform to settle future disputes or conflicts. China’s relationship with Pakistan and Russia’s with India was cited as one of great significance in any attempts by the organization to reduce tensions in the troubled India-Pakistan dynamic.

It was also considered that if Pakistan was to be the only SCO member, this risked isolating India which many observers argued could be a far greater threat to security and stability in the organization and the region at large. Regardless, the inclusion of both countries was received with some skepticism.

The SCO, formed in June 2001, was designed as a security forum looking to cater to the shared transnational security concerns of governments in the region—these concerns could relate to terrorism, religious extremism and ethnic separatism. While at first the SCO was largely a Central Asian security forum, with India and Pakistan now as full members, the forum has indicated a desire to pursue its geopolitical ambitions beyond Central Asia as well. According to reports the SCO may also be looking to expand to the Persian Gulf.

With the removal of sanctions on Iran in 2016, reports circulated claiming Iran may also be upgraded from an observer state to a full member state within the SCO. China’s deputy foreign minister has indicated support for Iranian membership where he’s been quoted as saying, China “welcomes and supports Iran’s wish to become a formal member of the SCO.” Iran’s inclusion can potentially pave the way for the SCO’s expansion towards the Middle East. This may also attract Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members’ interest in the organization. For now however the SCO has stated countries under the United Nations sanction cannot be a part of the organization.

Since China in all likelihood is the SCO’s most dominant actor, the group’s progress on its expansion plans is signaling an increasingly confident China, which may be set to take a leadership role and further its own version of global governance through the international organization. The recent India-Pakistan confrontation over the terrorist attack on Indian troops in Pulwama and the subsequent state of India-Pakistan relations however puts China in a difficult spot, with its ability to lead the SCO (the first multilateral organization created by China) and the organization’s own international credibility at stake. 

The Pulwama attack and the unfolding state of crisis presented an ideal opportunity for both India and Pakistan to shore up their nationalist visions for South Asia. The rise of tensions between the two states is the first example of a high-level military confrontation between SCO members and directly challenges SCO harmony and stability. Russia and China has in the past offered assistance to ease Indo-Pak tensions and presented the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) as a platform that could be of use in the matter.

However so far claims relating to the SCO’s actual ability to become a means to create and maintain regional stability have been notably vague and ambiguous. Before the inclusion of India and Pakistan as full member states, and before expansion efforts made by the SCO took off, such a noncommittal stance was understood in light of the SCO’s limited number of member states and its short existence. With the SCO now an eighteen-year old organization gradually growing and expanding base, the present challenge it faces with respect to the India-Pakistan relationship puts the organization’s present and future significance and its continued existence to test.

It is needed for the organization to substantially accelerate its efforts to mediate. A comprehensive plan needs to be created to ease tensions and engage both India and Pakistan. Previously the SCO created the SCO-Afghanistan contact group. The Contact Group was established with the purpose of elaborating proposals and recommendations on realization of cooperation between the SCO and Afghanistan on issues of mutual interest. The Contact Group was meant to conduct its activities in the form of consultations, which were held by mutual agreement on the premises of the SCO Secretariat and/or the Embassy of Afghanistan to the People’s Republic of China. A similar approach could also perhaps be taken by the SCO to help India-Pakistan ties. Such a group could include members from both India and Pakistan and work towards closing the gap between the two.

There are some reports that SCO may be looking to expand even beyond security issues now, and also focus on trade and finance. The Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called for establishing an SCO development bank, and hinted that China may also be interested in pursuing a free trade agreement (FTA) within the organization. As the SCO looks towards initiating a second round of expansion, regional observers will be paying close attention to SCO’s ability to fulfill its immediate responsibilities with respect to containing conflict between its existing members.