With the formal accession of India and Pakistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has extended its list of full members beyond the borders of Central Asia. So what sort of organization does that make it? It’s an appropriate time to take stock given the recent SCO summit which concluded on 9 June.
The SCO is notable for including security cooperation and anti-terrorism among its objectives, but it does not intend to be a military bloc, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization is supposed to serve that function in Central Asia in any case. Members talk often about economics, but the role of two outside projects — China’s Belt and Road and the Eurasian Economic Union —dwarfs that of the SCO itself as the primary government platforms for discussions on trade and investment. The organization certainly brings its members under one roof and encourages dialogue, but it cannot hope to solve the bitter territorial and political disputes between India and Pakistan. Not even Belt and Road is a unifying factor. India resists the program, skeptical that it will significantly expand Chinese influence in the region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said as much during his address in Astana, implying that Belt and Road can pose a threat to national sovereignty.
What can be said of the SCO is that it reflects the complex geopolitics of the broad space its members now represent. India wants to expand its trade ties in Central Asia and with Russia, and entering the organization alongside Pakistan may well be intended to check both Pakistan and a growing Chinese presence. For Russia and China, the organization can more strongly claim to represent a non-Western pole, fuzzy though its contours may be. And for Central Asia, it never hurts to bring rival suitors for investment and trade ties closer together.
More concretely, at the summit the SCO deepened its commitment to combatting terrorism, and continued discussions of an SCO development bank. Both initiatives have potential. Perhaps the SCO powers could extend the reach of the anti-terrorism efforts by seeking cooperation on the issue with the broader international community. A global effort is needed, and the sphere is one where the SCO can make a key contribution.