The rapid and significant horizontal and vertical expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has had a negative impact on the coherence, coordination, efficiency and especially the executive guarantee of the organisation's policies and decisions, writes Vali Kaleji.
In his article, Dr. Vali Kaleji, a Tehran-based expert on Central Asia and Caucasian Studies, postulates that the rapid and significant horizontal and vertical expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has had a negative impact on the coherence, coordination, efficiency and especially the executive guarantee of the organisation's policies and decisions. In horizontal development, the expansion of the SCO’s main members, observer members and dialogue partners to include vast and different area such as Afghanistan, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and the Caucasus, has led to more heterogeneity in this organisation compared to two decades ago, when the main focus of the SCO was on Central Asia. As a result, in spite of the SCO Regional Anti-terrorist Structure in Tashkent, the CSTO has played a much more effective role in the security arrangements of Central Asia in recent years, especially the border disputes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as the protests and violence in Kazakhstan. In vertical development, expanding various tasks and functions in the political, security, economic and socio-cultural affairs, has led to an “overload” of responsibilities of the SCO secretary. This process can transform the SCO as a “regional organisation” to an “international organisation” like the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), as a place to discuss and announce positions and views. To overcome these aforementioned challenges, the SCO should stop the rapid process of “horizontal expansion”; in “vertical expansion”, it seems that the structure of the SCO's secretariat should be fundamentally changed in order to be able to effectively deal with a wide and diverse range of goals and missions. The structure of the European Union Commission can be a suitable model for organising and defining the various missions and tasks of the SCO and in this regard, eight commissions can be formed in the secretariat of the SCO under the supervision of the Secretary General of the organisation with the membership of a representative from each member country in each commission. The main and ultimate goal should be to transform the SCO into a coordinated, coherent, effective and decisive organisation with specific supervisory and executive mechanisms.
Since its establishment in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has experienced several horizontal (expansion of members) and vertical (tasks and functions) evolutions. After two decades, the SCO has “nine main members” with voting rights: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan and Iran. During a virtual summit hosted by India for the SCO Heads of State Council on July 4th, 2023, Iran became a full-fledged member of the SCO, which is the latest important stage of horizontal development of this organisation. Indeed, the SCO has “three observer members without voting rights”: Mongolia, Belarus and Afghanistan. Although Afghanistan holds an “uncertain observer status” in the SCO following the Taliban's return to power in 2021. In accordance with the non-recognition of the Islamic Emirate by the international community (including the members of the SCO), Taliban representatives have not been invited to various meetings of the organisation since August 2021. It remains to be seen how this situation will develop in the future. Furthermore, Belarus signed a memorandum of obligations during a virtual summit hosted by India for the SCO Heads of State Council on July 4th, 2023, which will lead to its membership in 2024. As for Mongolia, which joined the SCO in 2004 as an observer member, it seems unlikely that there will be a change in its status in the near future.
Also, the SCO has “14 Dialogue Partners” including Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Myanmar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cambodia and the Maldives. The SCO dialogue partner status allows the concerned countries to take part in specialised intra-SCO events at the invitation of the member states. Therefore, during the past two decades, the SCO has expanded significantly from its initial region in Central Asia to regions such as the South Caucasus, East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East. For this reason, “Today, the SCO is the world’s largest regional Organisation. The total area of its member-states exceeds 34 million square kilometres. This is more than 60% of the territory of the Eurasian continent. The total population of the SCO states is 3.2 billion people, which is about half of the world’s population.”
The diagram below clearly shows the horizontal expansion of the SCO from 2001 to 2022.
The horizontal expansion of the SCO from 2001 to 2022 (Global Times, Sept. 16, 2022)
On the other hand, the SCO has undergone significant vertical expansion in terms of its tasks and functions. While the main and primary focus of the organisation, as the successor of the “Shanghai Five Group”, was on border issues and tackling the so-called “three evils” (terrorism, extremism and separatism), its mandate has gradually expanded to include a wide range of economic, cultural, and scientific fields. Today, the SCO hosts a variety of meetings and initiatives focused on interregional trade, transit, industrial cooperation, innovation, start-up projects, poverty reduction, the digital transformation, tourism, public diplomacy and other spheres. This broad and diverse agenda presents a significant challenge for the SCO's secretariat, which must coordinate and manage the various initiatives and activities of its member states.
The rapid and significant horizontal and vertical development of the SCO has both strengths and weaknesses. While the expansion of the organisation's membership and mandate can be seen as a positive development by some experts, it can also lead to concerns about the coherence and efficiency of the organisation. Some experts even talk about the SCO having an “identity crisis”. This criticism is raised that the decisions of the SCO lack the necessary executive guarantee and in result, this organisation, like the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), has become merely a place to discuss and announce positions and views. In this regard, critics compare the organisation not only with the European Union, NATO and ASEAN, but also with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
One of the main reasons for this situation is that the SCO is faced with problem of being “overloaded”, as it has accepted a large number of different tasks and responsibilities. As a matter of fact, the SCO has defined a very wide and diverse range of missions and cooperation during the last two decades, including political and parliamentary meetings, defence, security and intelligence armaments, socio-cultural and scientific cooperation, supporting non-governmental organisations (NGO) and public diplomacy, as well as economic, commercial, banking, energy and transit cooperation. Although all the mentioned cases are followed up by the secretariat of the SCO, it should be noted that this organisation currently has only has three permanent bodies: the “Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure”, “Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Business Council” and “Interbank Consortium”. While it seems that the SCO is constantly taking on new commitments and defining new goals and missions in different fields, the current structure of the secretariat has faced the problem of “overload”; this problem has had a negative impact on the coherence, coordination, efficiency and especially the executive guarantee of the organisation's decisions.
What has intensified this process is the intense horizontal development of the SCO during the last two decades and the acceptance of new main members, observers and dialogue partners. It is not deniable that the SCO has become more heterogeneous compared to two decades ago, and while the main focus of the SCO was on Central Asia, accepting countries like India, Pakistan and Iran led to this organisation becoming more heterogenous, including with respect to geography (the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East) as well as missions and challenges (decades of discord between India and Pakistan, Iran's differences with some Arab and Western countries). Amid these circumstances, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan have also joined the SCO as dialogue partners, while many challenges continue to face the Caucasus region. A very important question is whether the SCO has the capacity and possibility to face such a high volume of conflicts and disputes in different regions such as Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and the Caucasus? Could the non-participation of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at the SCO Summit in Samarkand in September 2022 or India's inability to hold the SCO Summit in person (it was held in a virtual format) in July 2023 be seen as problems stemming from this heterogeneity?
It seems that the excessive horizontal and vertical expansion of the SCO has even left a negative impact on the role of this organisation in the security arrangements of Central Asia. While the “Shanghai-5 Group”, as the initial core of the formation of the SCO, had a very successful experience in resolving disputes and determining border boundaries between Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in recent years, the SCO has not played effective role in managing border tensions between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the CSTO was able to steer the process of mediation and settlement in disputes between Bishkek and Dushanbe.
Another clear example is the absence of the SCO when protests and violence erupted in Kyrgyzstan in October 2020 and Kazakhstan in January 2022. In particular, Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested military assistance from the CSTO on January 5, 2022 “to help Kazakhstan overcome this terrorist threat.” This raises many important questions: Why did Tokayev request military assistance from the CSTO but not the SCO? If Kazakhstan’s leaders and officials declared the protests and violence a “terrorist threat,” why not seek help from the Regional Counter-Terrorism Structure of the SCO in Tashkent, Uzbekistan? When protests and violence escalated, why did Kazakhstan’s political and security officials first turn to the CSTO? While there are many answers to these questions, the most important factor is the extent and heterogeneity of the SCO that prevented the active role of this organisation in curtailing one of the main security threats in Central Asia in recent years.
Beyond this, the SCO has to define its strategy toward some important issues. For example, in spite of Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran having extensive access to the sea and oceans, the SCO has rarely focused on maritime issues and has no specific strategy in this regard. Iranian Defence Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani unveiled the proposal for a maritime security mechanism, the so called “Shanghai Maritime Security Belt”, at a meeting in India of the SCO Defence Ministers in April 2023. But it seems that Iran's push for joint SCO action at sea may hit a dead end. Since the SCO's main military and security focus has been land-based and focused on dealing with the threats of “terrorism, separatism, and extremism,” as noted in the body’s charter, it seems that the organisation should determine its strategy regarding the sea during the process of its geographical expansion.
Generally, regarding “horizontal expansion”, the SCO should stop this rapid process and answer key questions before launching any new horizontal expansion, including: how far does it plan to expand geographically? Will the process of changing the membership of observer members to main members continue in the future? Can dialogue partners become observer members and in the next step switch to maining members? Is the SCO able to face numerous conflicts and differences in the vast geography of Central Asia, Afghanistan, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and the Caucasus?
But in vertical development, it seems that the structure of the SCO's secretariat should be fundamentally changed in order to be able to effectively deal with a wide and diverse range of goals and missions. The structure of the European Union Commission can serve as a suitable model for organising and defining the various missions and tasks of the SCO. In this regard, the following commissions can be defined under the supervision of the Secretary General of the SCO with the membership of a representative from each member country in each commission: a Commission for Political and Parliamentary Dialogues, a commission for military, security and intelligence cooperation, a dispute settlement commission, a commission for economic, business, commercial and banking cooperation, a commission for transit and transportation cooperation, an Energy Commission, a Scientific, a Commission for cultural and social cooperation, and a Commission for non-governmental organisations. These commissions can collect, analyse and organise the plans and ideas of member countries in different fields with the coordination of the Secretary General, it can be discussed and decided in various meetings including the SCO Heads of State Council, The Council of Heads of Government (Prime Ministers), the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, and Meetings of Heads of Ministries and/or Agencies.
After the approval of the plans, the commissions can take on the executive and supervisory role of the decisions, so that in this way, the various decisions of the organisation will have a better guarantee and executive support. In this regard, the SCO should not worry about amending or changing the charter and integrating some permanent bodies into new commissions, including “Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure”, “Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Business Council” and “Interbank Consortium”. Following the forum of “prospects for the development and strengthening of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation” that was held in Sochi on April 17-18, 2018, the officials of the SCO and many experts including the author participated in it; another forum can be held to discuss and answer the aforementioned questions and suggestions. The main and ultimate goal should be to transform the SCO into a coordinated, coherent, effective and decisive organisation with specific supervisory and executive mechanisms.