Organisations don’t exist on their own; they consist of participants, and their success or failure is determined by the extent to which the goals of these participants coincide, to what extent they are ready to yield, and how they build interaction with each other, writes Valdai Club expert Alexei Kupriyanov. The article is published as part of the Valdai Club’s Think Tank project, continuing the collaboration between Valdai and Observer Research Foundation (New Delhi).
When India and Pakistan were admitted to the SCO in 2017, political scientists and experts were divided into two camps: optimists and pessimists. Pessimists predicted that the admission of New Delhi and Islamabad to the organisation would mean its end: India and Pakistan would bring their array of conflicts to the organisation, completely paralysing its work. Optimists, on the other hand, said that without India, and even without Pakistan, one cannot build a full-fledged system of stability in Eurasia, so there was no real question of whether to accept them or not. Let’s accept them, their logic went, and perhaps the parties will be imbued with what is called the Shanghai spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding, and they will decide to put all quarrels aside and together help build a prosperous and calm Eurasia. So the two countries became members of the SCO.
In general, the situation has worsened. When India and Pakistan were admitted to the SCO, relations between them were far from ideal, but now they even resemble a sluggish conflict. To make matters worse, there have been problems on the Indo-Chinese track. In 2018, after Narendra Modi’s visit to Wuhan to meet with President Xi Jinping, the Indian media started talking about the “Wuhan spirit” of trust in New Delhi-Beijing relations. Xi’s return visit to Mahabalipuram seemed to strengthen this mutual understanding, and a few months later, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar announced that India plans to resolve the long-running border problem with China in the near future for mutual benefit. But literally six months later, not a trace remained of the “Wuhan spirit”: clashes took place in Ladakh in which dozens of people were killed. Although neither India nor China is interested in further confrontation – for India, the conflict with China will mean the end of a carefully cherished strategic autonomy, for China it means the opening of a southern front, and additional forces and resources will have to be spent, diverting them from the main Pacific theatre, – they cannot retreat without losing political points.
In principle, until the last moment the situation did not look particularly critical: there still are border conflicts between countries, including the SCO countries. After all, when the organisation was just being formed, territorial disputes between China on the one hand and Tajikistan and Russia on the other, for example, had not yet been resolved; agreements were reached only a few years later. The border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan has not yet been completely delimited; there still are regular clashes. That is, the SCO, in principle, manages to function successfully despite conditions when territorial disputes persist between its members.
The problem is that the Indian leadership, after the clashes in the Galwan River Valley, radically changed its position on the settlement of the territorial conflict with China. For decades, the Indians insisted on the formula “first, the settlement of territorial disputes, then normalisation and rapprochement in other areas.” Under Rajiv Gandhi, this formula changed: Rajiv believed that before solving difficult issues, it was necessary to increase mutual trust, and as a result, the border problem was left for later. But the present Indian leadership, amid the excitement of the masses in the midst of the pandemic and the growth of patriotic sentiments, has declared that business as usual was no longer possible and returned to the old formula. If earlier India and China could conduct a full-fledged dialogue within the SCO, gradually overcoming (at least as the politicians hoped) mutual distrust, now this will have to be forgotten; this refusal of the Asian giants to engage in dialogue because of the bloodshed on the shores of the Galwan River is one of the biggest challenges for the SCO.
Organisations don’t exist on their own; they consist of participants, and their success or failure is determined by the extent to which the goals of these participants coincide, to what extent they are ready to yield, and how they build interaction with each other.
In principle, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has three possible development scenarios for the near future.
The first, optimistic, one assumes that India and China will either restore their border issue, or put things back the way they were, or find some other way to make sure that the border problem does not interfere with the development of their relations (for example, to turn the disputed territory into a neutral zone). Likewise, the contradictions between India and Pakistan would be resolved or at least mitigated. This is an ideal scenario for the development of events that will give a new impetus to the work of the SCO and dramatically increase its importance as a regional organisation. But it is unlikely to be fully implemented in the foreseeable future: if India is in principle ready to negotiate with China, then New Delhi does not even consider it necessary to enter into a meaningful dialogue with Pakistan. In recent years, India has been systematically building economic and political networks which bypass Pakistan, and it is unclear why it should stop this practice. But even if this scenario is partially implemented, it in any case will be good.
The second option implies that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will not consider what is happening as a challenge at all, but will continue to work in areas where the contradictions between India on the one hand and China and Pakistan on the other are not critical, and consultations on issues, for example, the fight against terrorism, will be carried over to the bilateral level. This will significantly narrow its capabilities in the near future, but it may be salutary in a strategic sense: if the dispute is settled sooner or later, the SCO will continue to work in the areas that were interrupted earlier. One gets the impression that this option suits the Indian and Pakistani participants quite well, but there is a danger that, dealing only with a limited range of topics, the SCO will not survive until that moment, having turned into a ghost organisation like many others that exist only on paper.
And, finally, the third option – two organisations will actually appear within the SCO: one – relatively speaking, the “broader SCO”, where all the participants interact on those issues that do not cause any particular contradictions; and the “restricted SCO”, with alternative mechanisms of interaction, through which a dialogue is conducted on topics blocked by Pakistan and India. In short, broad engagement for everyone, the Shanghai spirit for those who need it. Not a bad option from the point of view of a long-term strategy.
There is, however, a fourth option: the collapse and dissolution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. I would like to see it avoided, because there is no alternative to this format in the Eurasian space yet, nor is there one pending in the foreseeable future.