What Is the Future of the SCO?

Today the SCO is facing two extremely important, strategic problems that until recently were addressed by multilateral diplomacy and proved intractable because of disagreements between states. Nevertheless, diplomatic compromises and tools have made it possible to find somewhat satisfactory solutions.

The first problem is expansion. In fact, SCO expansion has already occurred, and now the task is overseeing the harmonious (or as harmonious as possible) incorporation of India and Pakistan, with all their difficult internal and regional problems, into the SCO’s structures, procedures, rules and politics.

The second problem is how to use the SCO to consolidate the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt.

Today, the first problem seems settled, but more problems are likely to crop up later. In the second case, there are problems galore but they seem set to disappear in the wake of decision-making; either that or the SCO will have to muddle through.

Generally, one has the impression that certain member states are slowly but surely losing interest in the SCO and are reluctant to look for new ways to develop it.

The growth of China’s economic clout in recent years has made this country an informal SCO leader, causing political and diplomatic discomfort among some members. Economic power, finances and projects have gravitated to China, which was a non-violent, natural and in some respects reasonable process. For the CIS countries, this could have been compensated with political and security benefits, but the SCO’s performance has been insufficient in this regard and the compensation is mostly provided by the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Under the SCO rules, the decision to accept new members is taken by consensus. Sluggish consultations went on for a long time, with common approaches and positions asserted in various documents, including declarations, but actual accession was permanently delayed, no matter how strongly it was urged by candidates, particularly Pakistan and Iran. Foreign ministers asked them to be patient. Allegedly, the accession documents were insufficiently elaborate or there were none at all. The SCO secretaries-general cited procedures and rules, and ultimately there was no progress.

Two important events spurred on the process. First, Russia has launched its Eurasian project that includes the Eurasian Economic Union. China has launched its Silk Road Economic Belt project that includes the New Silk Road, etc. And, finally, the Greater Eurasia idea was proposed (EAEU, SCO, SREB, ASEAN and, possibly, the EU, with SCO candidate countries squeezed in). This was the geopolitical task.

Second, the candidates were increasingly coming to favor freezing their accession bid, weary as they were of the long wait. This was a very unpleasant sign for the SCO member states, given the organization’s repeated statements about its openness, transparency, and so on. This was the geostrategic problem.

US activity in India played a no small role as well, and it was reciprocated by Delhi.

The joining of India and Pakistan and Iran’s planned accession will boost the SCO’s geopolitical resources and potentially its economic standing. This will lead to the emergence of the biggest international organization (of the non-integrated variety) in history in terms of territory, population, and cultural and civilizational diversity, if not in terms of GDP.

On the other hand, this will weaken the already inefficient organizational, logistic and administrative structure and ultimately turn the SCO into a conference of heads of state. There is nothing terrible about this: the majority of international organizations function in the same way and only a few can claim to be any different.

The newcomers’ positions on what the main members see as crucial and the commitments they take are also of importance. And this is where a lot of PR problems as well as geostrategic, political, economic and other discrepancies come to the surface. To avoid them, many pressing and urgent issues will have to be dropped from the agenda and the relevant documents, including the declarations.

India’s accession will understandably enhance the importance of the RIC, which will occasionally (or continuously as the case may be) discuss SCO problems, some of which are even more serious than within the SCO, which makes consensus between them a crucial factor.

Within this triangle, relations between Russia and India and between Russia and China seem more favorable and friendly than those between China and India. Can Russia play a mediating role, given the disagreements existing between China and India, or will this role be assumed by some other country? The compatibility of these two countries (and Pakistan) will either enhance or diminish this opportunity.

The most difficult problem is how Indian-US relations will develop after India joined the SCO. Does this portend new trouble or new preferences? Some changes, albeit not fundamental, are certainly in the offing.

With India and Pakistan in, the SCO acquires some unique and unprecedented characteristics. First, it emerges as a community of nations with different political systems. Second, all of them, particularly the leading members, are on different economic development levels. Third, they are home to different faiths. Fourth, they belong to different civilizations. But there are other differences as well. The SCO used to combine these traits earlier, but now its frayed identities are particularly obvious. Neither the EU, nor NATO, nor ASEAN, nor any other international organization can boast a similar set of characteristics.

But this heterogeneity is a source of different approaches to understanding the role one’s country and other states play internationally. Accordingly, it influences diplomacy and political orientations. All of this will certainly affect the positions of countries within the SCO.

Is this a positive or negative factor? I think, neither. Much will depend on concomitant, non-SCO factors and circumstances.

Some share of the world certainly hopes that the SCO will be in a position to (1) facilitate the emergence of a new political and economic order, (2) curb extremism, terrorism and other cross-border crime, (3) provide economic assistance to developing and backward countries, (4) devise new or upgrade old rules and standards of international economic affairs, and so on and so forth. But before following these vectors, the SCO would do well to analyze what keeps it together. Is it anti-Americanism? Hardly. Fighting religious extremism and terrorism? Maybe. Creating a common economic space? There is no question of that.

Given these different approaches to international issues and economic cooperation, the SCO needs a new concept of development that is radically different from all currently existing ones.

Another serious problem is its future cooperation with the EAEU and connectivity with the Silk Road Economic Belt.

By and large, it has the necessary set of capabilities as a (1) partner,  (2) geographical entity and (3) resource.

As a partner, the SCO is an established and internationally recognized organization with functioning administrative and executive institutions. What is needed is a partner status. The question is whether the EAEU will need this partner, particularly after the Eurasian Commission has reached a cooperation agreement with China? Greater Eurasia will certainly have a slot for the SCO, but it is likely to remain a passive observer.

The SCO’s geographical factor is highly attractive. First, this space is “well-documented.” Second, the SCO space, particularly in Central Asia, needs to be covered by economic development projects with relevant foreign investment and technologies. Third, its security is basically satisfactory but there is still a need for a regional collective security system that can be created jointly by the CSTO and the SCO.

As a resource for promoting ideas and initiatives, the SCO is not quite so constructive due to disagreements between its member states.

The SCO is at a crossroads. With the Eurasian project on the move, with new members and others on the way, and faced with new and not always positive circumstances, factors and conditions in its member states, the SCO needs a thorough conceptual and organizational overhaul. But this must be arranged between the SCO member states.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.