Unpacking the 2023 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit: Potential, Challenges, and Opportunities

Malik Zaeem Ul Hassan*

The 2023 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit, hosted virtually by India on July 4th, marked a significant event in the history of the organization. Under the banner ‘Towards a SECURE SCO,’ it set the agenda for discussions on security, collaboration, and mutual obligations among member nations. The Summit showcased the opportunities and challenges faced by the SCO in leveraging its potential as a potent economic and geopolitical bloc.

Broadening the Membership Base: Enhancing SCO’s Strategic Significance

The SCO has always aimed at uniting Eurasian countries under a collective umbrella, promoting mutual cooperation and regional development. In 2023, the organization took a momentous step towards this goal by welcoming Iran as the ninth member. This expansion enhanced SCO’s geographic and strategic footprint, adding a new dimension to its sphere of influence.

The possibility of Belarus joining the SCO, currently under discussion, further underlines the organization’s ambition to strengthen its presence in the Eurasian region. With every new inclusion, the SCO is gradually transforming into a formidable bloc with a vast geographic scope and large population base. Catering to about 40% of the world’s population and accounting for more than 20% of the global GDP, the SCO has the potential to become one of the world’s most prosperous and influential geopolitical blocs.

The New Delhi Declaration: Spotlight on Internal Challenges

The 2023 Summit was not only about expansion and collaboration; it also brought to the fore significant internal challenges that confront the SCO. The New Delhi Declaration, issued post-summit, emphasized a collective international effort against terrorism, separatism, and extremism, with member states committing to proactive measures.

However, the underlying geopolitics within the SCO was impossible to ignore. India refrained from supporting a segment of the declaration tied to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), primarily due to disputes over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s passage through Azad Jammu and Kashmir and concerns about the debt burdens imposed by BRI projects on regional countries.

These bilateral disputes and the varying perspectives of member nations underscore the challenges in achieving SCO’s full potential. While it is crucial to present a united front against shared adversities, it is equally essential to address internal conflicts constructively. The success of multilateral organizations like the SCO lies in their ability to provide a conducive atmosphere for resolving regional disputes.

Economic Ambitions and Contemporary Challenges

In the economic sphere, the joint declaration pointed towards SCO’s ambition to enhance mutual settlements in national currencies. Amidst global challenges such as the growing digital divide, supply chain instability, trade barriers, and the impacts of climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, the SCO member states recognized the need for new, innovative strategies. These aim to promote equitable international cooperation, minimize economic disparities, and ensure sustained regional development.

Shared Challenges and the Call for Increased Cooperation

Terrorism, climate change, poverty, disease, and ultra-nationalism are not confined to national boundaries. These shared challenges, which confront all member nations of the SCO, underscore the need for greater bilateral and multilateral collaboration.

The 2023 Summit introduced five new pillars for cooperation to promote practical collaboration and connectivity among SCO nations. It also adopted two joint statements proposed by India aimed at countering radicalization and advancing digital transformation. Such initiatives can act as a catalyst in fostering a unified approach towards shared challenges, replacing rivalry with cooperation.

It detailed the steps member states have committed to undertake for combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism. These include proactive measures to disrupt terrorism financing channels, suppress recruitment activities, eliminate terrorist safe havens, counter radicalization of youth, and block the cross-border movement of terrorists.

The Declaration’s part on countering terrorism was different from the previous Samarkand Declaration as it replaced “ultranationalism” with “chauvinism” while emphasizing the need for cooperation among members.

According to the joint statement, the SCO members noted the “inadmissibility of interference in the internal affairs of states under the pretext of countering terrorism and extremism,” and the “unacceptability of using terrorist, extremist and radical groups for mercenary goals”.

The member states said it was important to build coordinated efforts by the world community to counter attempts by terrorist, separatist and extremist groups to involve youngsters. The international community should also prevent the spread of religious intolerance, aggressive nationalism, ethnic and racial discrimination, xenophobia, fascism and chauvinism while taking joint action to counter terrorist and extremist groups, the declaration said.

The member states stressed the early resolution of the situation in Afghanistan, a critical factor for the SCO region’s stability, and called for Afghanistan to be built as an independent, neutral, united, democratic, and peaceful state, free from terrorism, war, and drugs.

The Growing Role of SCO in the Global Context

The SCO Summit provided India an opportunity to underline its strategic independence by hosting leaders from China, Russia, and Iran. India, a full SCO member since 2017, had a critical platform to engage with countries outside the Western bloc while managing relationships with Beijing, Moscow and Tehran.

In an increasingly polarized world, with China and Russia wielding growing influence, the role of the SCO has become more critical. Given its significant demographic and economic potential, the SCO’s actions have substantial global implications.

However, this potential can only be harnessed fully if the member nations address existing issues, resolve bilateral disputes, and commit to cooperative action. Persistent rivalries and refusal to engage in constructive dialogue can jeopardize the progress of the bloc. India’s use of the Summit as a platform to highlight its disputes with Pakistan and China, for instance, underlined how multilateral platforms can sometimes become arenas for airing bilateral grievances.

The summit witnessed nuanced diplomatic exchanges. China and Pakistan reacted to India’s stance in their own ways. Simultaneously, Prime Minister Modi’s remarks on terrorism and affirmation of sovereignty were unmistakably directed at China and Pakistan. These intricate diplomatic manoeuvres add to the complex geopolitical dynamics within the SCO, especially following the failed Wagner group mutiny in Ukraine and Russian President Putin’s subsequent accusations against “external forces.”

The Declaration did not directly address the Ukraine war, further underlining the SCO’s delicate position in the current global geopolitical landscape – not even the kind of veiled jab from Modi seen at Samarkand when he advised Putin “this is not the era for war”.

Modi, who was in chair, was however, less sympathetic towards Pakistan as he spoke about some countries “use cross-border terrorism as an instrument” of policy, and the SCO should not hesitate to criticise them — there can be “no place for double standards on such serious matters”. While not explicitly naming Islamabad, India has often couched its accusations of Pakistan sponsoring terrorism in such a way.

The 2023 SCO Summit was undeniably pivotal, yet it also underlined the formidable challenges that the organization must surmount to reach its full potential. Its accomplishments included the broadening of the SCO’s membership, fostering closer ties among members, and rallying a collective response to shared challenges. However, these strides were somewhat overshadowed by lingering internal disputes and rivalries, which threatened the potential of concerted cooperation.

With its extensive reach both geographically and demographically, the SCO has the potential to significantly drive Eurasian growth and play a substantial role in global affairs. Yet, to tap into this vast potential, member states must actively resolve bilateral tensions, nurture an environment conducive to solid and effective cooperation, and maintain a keen focus on mutual goals and shared prosperity. The evolution of the SCO from merely a dialogue platform to a powerful catalyst of regional and global growth depends on these critical factors.

It’s vital to remember the commitment made when India and Pakistan joined the SCO — member countries agreed to refrain from introducing bilateral issues into the multilateral forum. This understanding underscores the importance of managing national disputes within respective bilateral frameworks and fostering a multilateral platform that focuses on shared challenges and collective progress rather than exacerbating existing tensions or generating new ones. This serves as a sobering reminder of the SCO’s primary purpose: to enhance regional cooperation and unity rather than to fan the flames of rivalry.

*Malik Zaeem Ul Hassan is a researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute.

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