Shanghai Cooperation Organisation
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is an intergovernmental Eurasian political, economic, and security organization founded in Shanghai on 15 June 2001. It is the largest regional organisation in the world in terms of population and geographic coverage, accounting for more than 30% of the world’s GDP and over 60% of Eurasia. The SCO currently comprises nine “member states” including China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Iran was provided with permanent membership of the SCO in this year’s annual summit of the heads of states of SCO’s member countries. The SCO has four “observer states” interested in acceding to full membership (Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia), and six “dialogue partners” (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkey).
In 2021, the decision was made for Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to formally become the organisation’s dialogue partners. The SCO aims to foster good relations among the member countries by promoting cooperation and coaction in the fields of politics and economy, trade and commerce, science and technology, peace and security, culture and education, energy and connectivity, tourism and environmental protection; thereby creating synergy and strengthening mutual confidence.
The organisation intends to change the dynamics of world politics and move towards the establishment of a new, democratic, just, and multipolar political and economic international order. Since its inception, the organisation has actively sought joint efforts to mitigate regional terrorism, ethnic separatism, polarisation, and extremism, and to enhance regional security and development.
Following the “spirit of Shanghai”, the SCO conducts its internal policy in accordance with the values of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equal rights, consultations, respect for the diversity of cultures, and a desire for shared development. In contrast, its external policy is conducted in line with the principles of non-alignment, inclusivity, respect, and openness.
2022 SCO Summit
On September 15-16, the historic Uzbek city of Samarkand hosted the 2022 annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Heads of State Council. This follows the SCO meeting that happened in Tashkent from 28-29 July. The agenda for the summit provided by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the president of Uzbekistan, included initiatives to increase the organization’s potential and power, maintain peace and stability, combat poverty, and ensure food security in the region.
In addition, he emphasised the creation of an intraregional trade growth strategy comprising steps to lower trade barriers, harmonise technical regulations, and digitalize customs processes. The 2022 SCO summit was held at a critical juncture in an unprecedentedly challenging and fast-changing geopolitical environment. It was the organisation’s first in-person meeting since 2019 following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The Russian war in Ukraine has had an adverse economic impact on all SCO members. Regional geopolitics and economic stability have been significantly affected by the end of the US war and the return of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which holds observer status at the SCO, along with the Russian war in Ukraine and the following Western sanctions.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, two member states, are at war over their shared border. Forces of the SCO’s dialogue partner states, Azerbaijan and Armenia, also engaged in armed escalations while their leaders participated in the summit. Pakistan has been affected by climate change-induced flash floods, leaving one-third of the country submerged.
Diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan, permanent members of the SCO since 2017, remain hostile with no sign of improvement as leaders of both nations refrained from meeting on the peripheries of the summit. Therefore, cooperation on the SCO’s fundamental purpose of counterterrorism and regional stability remains challenging. Moreover, the border dispute between China and India had heightened tensions in the region.
After a two-year estrangement, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came face-to-face at the summit but did not meet on the sidelines of the conference. It is pertinent to note that just prior to the Samarkand summit, the two nations reached an agreement on troop disengagement from the Line of Actual Control.
Regardless of conflicts among the members, the two-day summit and bilateral meetings conducted on its sidelines provided a useful forum for cooperation on a multitude of issues. The details of how the 2022 SCO summit and the meetings held between different heads of states on the sidelines of the Samarkand conference unfolded for the SCO’s three giants—Russia, China, and India, along with the most anticipated meeting in recent history between Xi and Putin—and other member countries including Pakistan, Iran, and the Central Asian states have been delineated below.
Putin Repudiates Threats of Global Isolation
Russian President, Vladimir Putin, attended the 2022 summit of the SCO Head of States Council primarily with two objectives. Firstly, to show Russia is not isolated despite Western sanctions following Russian military aggression in Ukraine since February, and secondly, to emphasise Russia’s continued global influence.
The first only required the Russian delegation including Putin to attend the summit and repudiate Western threats and claims of isolating Russia. Putin’s second goal— interlinked with the first one—is more complex and comprehensive. Putin needs to demonstrate not only that Russia is not a pariah state but that it also has a significant role in and influences regional politics and global order.
In pursuit of achieving this objective, Putin rallied his neighbouring countries, close allies, members, and dialogue partners of the SCO to utilise the forum to not only challenge but change the West-dominated world order. Support for Putin’s agenda varied among different countries, with China, Turkey, India, and Iran agreeing to a certain degree and emphasising multipolarity.
However, India raised its concerns about the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine on the international economy, order, and stability. Similarly, owing to the Western influence on China’s economy, Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to strike a balance between China’s support for the new international order proposed by Russia and its coexistence with the West.
Putin was forced to acknowledge the concerns raised by China and India on the crisis in Ukraine in their respective sideline meetings with the Russian President. With the imposition of sanctions on Russia by the West and Russia curbing gas supply to Europe, Russia is now looking to diversify the market for its goods by enhancing trade with Asian countries, challenging the West-centred world order, and focusing on regional economic growth and development.
Xi Focuses on Cooperation and Solidarity
Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the 2022 SCO summit in Samarkand which was his first foreign visit in two years since the coronavirus pandemic broke out and the country had implemented a nationwide “dynamic zero Covid” policy. On his way to the SCO Council of Heads of State summit in Uzbekistan, Xi stopped in Kazakhstan for a state visit, thereby beginning a new chapter of China’s post-Covid foreign policy, especially in Central Asia.
Experts believe Xi seemed to focus on pursuing three primary objectives at the SCO meeting. Firstly, Xi’s first foreign visit in two years came just a month before the 20th Party Conference, a sign of his assurance before a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party that is anticipated to confirm him as China’s leader for another five years. The 2022 SCO summit provided him with the opportunity to present himself as the most formidable leader in the world’s largest regional organisation.
Secondly, Xi urged the SCO member states to unite and emphasised mutual cooperation in the face of rising global uncertainty, stressing the potential risks posed to their national sovereignty by foreign interference. Lastly, Xi promoted a number of his most recent trademark international initiatives at the 2022 SCO summit.
Xi largely succeeded in accomplishing his first objective for the two-day conference as he was seen as the most important and powerful leader, with significant regional and global influence, at the SCO summit—the platform which has been co-chaired by Beijing and Moscow equally for a long time—as Putin found himself on the defensive and faced criticism for the conflict in Ukraine.
Putin also officially acknowledged Chinese concerns while applauding Beijing’s “balanced” response to the situation in his conversation with Xi on the sidelines of the SCO summit. Following the Xi-Putin meeting, the Chinese government declared its “strong support” for Russia’s “core interests”.
It was nevertheless evident that Putin felt compelled to publicly address Beijing’s displeasure as he promised Xi at their first face-to-face encounter since the conflict in Ukraine began to provide a “detailed explanation” of Russia’s position on Russia’s policy and crisis in Ukraine. In pursuit of his other two objectives, Xi emphasised their necessity and significance for the SCO members in the changing regional and global dynamics.
In line with the points articulated by the Russian President, Xi used the occasion to condemn the West, albeit subtly and indirectly, for its “Cold War mindset and group politics”. Xi argued for the SCO to take on a stronger role in addressing global issues, encouraging SCO members to work together to thwart attempts “by external forces to promote ‘colour revolution’.”
He also presented his two new international frameworks, the Global Security Initiative (GSI) and the Global Development Initiative (GDI), and proposed the inclusion of these ideas in China’s foreign and security policies. According to Xi, China is willing to provide grain and other humanitarian aid to underdeveloped nations as part of its GDI, while GSI recommendations imply that it will channel Chinese support to bolster the internal security capacities of governments.
Xi proposed a China-SCO base for the training of counterterrorism specialists from SCO member states, also offering Chinese help to law enforcement professionals in these countries.
Xi-Putin Meeting on the Sidelines of the Summit
The Russian and Chinese presidents met on the sidelines of the 2022 SCO summit in a much-anticipated encounter as Putin’s relations continue to deteriorate with the West following his war in Ukraine and the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia. Moreover, China’s aggression in Taiwan has escalated since US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and has put Xi on a course of collision with Taipei’s Western allies as China expects sanctions and respective influence on the country’s economy.
The two leaders have supported each other amid standoffs in Taiwan and Ukraine and challenging the Western-dominated world order. In line with the Kremlin’s description of the conflict as “a special military operation,” China has refrained from condemning Russia’s offensive against Ukraine or using the term “invasion”. Similarly, Russia sided with China over Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, cautioning Washington that such a provocative move could backfire.
Russia also extended support for Xi’s “One China” policy over Taiwan. Putin thanked Xi for China’s balanced position over the crisis in Ukraine and stated at the beginning of the talks that he was prepared to discuss the “concerns” that China had over the situation in Ukraine as Beijing has been concerned about the effects of volatile oil prices and economic instability as a result of the almost seven-month-long conflict in Ukraine.
A statement issued by the Chinese government said that Xi had pledged to “strongly support” Russia’s “core interests”, without mentioning Ukraine. Although the statement was ambiguous, experts believe Beijing refers to “core interests” when discussing matters like national sovereignty. Besides challenging the Western-dominated global order and cooperating on international affairs, China and Russia are reinforcing their economic ties as well.
Observers claim that as the West seeks to set a price restriction on Russian energy resources and even restrict their imports entirely, Russia is likely to become more and more dependent on China as a market for its oil and gas, which is why the Putin-led government is now actively seeking to strengthen its alliance with Xi’s China.
During their meeting at the SCO, Xi stated that China is willing to expand pragmatic cooperation in sectors including connectivity, trade, and agriculture and strengthen bilateral relations. He also called on Putin to maintain the region’s security and interests, as well as the shared interests of developing and rising market countries.
Additionally, he urged both sides to improve cooperation within the SCO, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, BRICS, and other multilateral institutions to foster comradery and mutual trust among states with similar interests.
Modi Emphasises Multilateralism
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the 2022 SCO summit with the intention of pursuing two objectives. First and foremost, Modi advocated multilateral cooperation and trade development. As a rapidly developing country, India sees the potential to lead this new multipolar order both domestically and internationally.
Modi advocated multilateralism (e.g., the QUAD, I2U2) within a multipolar world order to complement existing structures such as the United Nations, ASEAN, and SCO with ad-hoc cooperative arrangements. While Modi took advantage of the occasion to engage in bilateral meetings, he purposefully avoided meeting with Xi Jinping of China or Shehbaz Sharif of Pakistan.
Secondly, with India reoccupying its place as the world’s fastest-growing economy, Modi emphasised mutual cooperation and joint effort to achieve common goals of food security, increased connectivity, scientific development, and innovation. Modi suggested that India could assist SCO members with a working group on startups and innovation and offered the SCO expertise on millets, for instance, as a way to increase food security in the region.
The presidency of the SCO Head of States Council has been passed to India from Uzbekistan for the upcoming year and it will now host the Council’s annual meeting in 2023.
Sharif Rallies Building Climate Resilience
Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shehbaz Sharif, focused on increasing regional security and development, particularly emphasising building climate resilience following the climate-induced flash floods that have affected 33 million people and submerged more than a third of the country. To achieve his first objective, Sharif highlighted the significance and potential of the SCO to boost regional connectivity and cooperation.
According to him, the SCO vision that represents the aspirations of 40% of the world’s population has immense potential to pave the way forward at a time when geopolitical and geo-economic change is gravely concerning. The Prime Minister reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to the Shanghai Spirit and stated that mutual respect and trust may serve as the cornerstone of shared prosperity and growth.
He also highlighted the impact of the situation in Afghanistan on the region and called peace in Pakistan and Afghanistan interlinked as he said that it would be a “big mistake to ignore Afghanistan this time around.” Moreover, meeting with different heads of state on the sidelines of the summit, Sharif stressed bilateral engagement in the fields of trade, investment, agriculture, information technology, and tourism.
In pursuit of his second objective, PM Sharif highlighted the scale and extent of devastation that Pakistan has undergone as a result of the recent, cataclysmic floods and urged the SCO member states to “build a wall” against the menace of climate change that threatens regional security, stability, and development.
The Central Asian States
The Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are full members of the SCO. Most Central Asian states emphasised SCO’s untapped economic potential to shift the organisation’s focus from being solely designed to address security issues.
An effort was made to revamp the SCO at the 2022 summit, making it an organisation with clearly defined economic and infrastructure-focused objectives, including promoting new transportation routes, diversifying connectivity channels, ensuring the stability of supply chains, and promoting wider opportunities for growth generation.
Uzbekistan, the host for the 2022 summit, in particular stressed the importance of environmental disaster prevention and management and the convenient provision of humanitarian aid through the abovementioned suggestions. These initiatives can allow the SCO to develop into a more inclusive, strategic, and regionally focused organisation.
It is pertinent to note that on September 14, as the presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were both in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for the summit, armed military troops of both nations exchanged gunfire, escalating tensions along the long-tense border between the two countries. The fighting affected the civilian population and settlements on both sides of the undelineated border, killing over 100 people.
Meeting on the sidelines of the summit, the two leaders discussed the conflict along their shared border and agreed on a ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops and assets from the line of contact. Regional conflicts, particularly the recent military conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the border skirmishes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan serve as examples of the potential and significance of the SCO in resolving member states’ conflicts and concerns.
Raisi Signs Memorandum for SCO’s Permanent Membership
On September 15, Iran was included in the SCO as a permanent member after it signed the memorandum of obligations. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, said that after acceding to the permanent membership of the SCO, Iran has now “entered a new stage of various economic, commercial, transit, and energy cooperation”.
Experts believe the significant value of the SCO as a regional organisation has increased with Iran’s inclusion in the organisation’s framework. In order to address regional issues like security, connectivity, and economic development, the SCO now has all the required stakeholders.
With the simultaneous induction of Saudi Arabia as the SCO’s dialogue partner, the organisation will help provide a platform for Iran and the Kingdom to resolve their disputes. On the other hand, it may also provide an opportunity for Pakistan and Iran to meet and discuss contentious issues that affect the two neighbouring countries.
Addressing the summit, Iran’s President, Ebrahim Raisi emphasised the significance of maintaining close ties and interactions with all regional countries, especially the SCO states. Iran’s admission to the SCO signifies regional integrity and cooperation and heralds the “beginning of a new era of regionalism”.
Given the rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics and world order, the leaders of the SCO member countries attended the annual summit of the organisation’s head of states council in Samarkand to discuss regional and global challenges and resolved to achieve common goals of climate resilience, regional connectivity, peace, security, and economic development, notwithstanding the conflicts among member countries.
If you want to submit your articles/research papers/book reviews, please check the Submissions page.
The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.