Three Rising Powers at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit: Pursuing Connectivity and Anti-Terrorism, but Different Pathways?
This year’s summit of the Shanghai Cooperation (SCO) was held in Astana, Kazakhstan June 8-9, 2017 amidst speculation on what the induction of India and Pakistan as full members would mean for the organization. The summit took place just three weeks after China’s massive Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing which India had boycotted.
Founded in 2001 by eight states including China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, SCO’s primary concern is security cooperation and stability along its borders. Following the summit, China took over the rotating presidency from Kazakhstan.
The 2017 meeting placed declaratory emphasis on combating terrorism and extremism, but the Eurasian group, which now comprises half of the world’s population, will increasingly have to contend with the complexities of energy security, infrastructure connectivity, and trade relations-all against the backdrop of underlying regional geopolitical unease and global uncertainty.
In his speech at Astana, President Xi Jinping highlighted the importance of cooperation in times of uncertainty. He stated that “Security is the prerequisite for development” and underlined the need to fight terrorism which he viewed as a long term effort. According to him, “Recent acts of terrorism in this region show that the fight against these forces remains a long and arduous task. We should continue to give priority to the SCO’s commitment to maintain regional security and stability.” Xi pointed to China’s proposal for the SCO to draw up a 5-year implementation plan of the Treaty on Long-term Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation.
- The state-run China Daily was upbeat, arguing that the addition of India and Pakistan will make the SCO better at responding effectively to challenges confronting the world. It editorialized that the organization will not only be more representative with almost half the world’s population, it will be able to combat extremism, separatism and extremism through security coordination and provide regional stability through economic cooperation. It claimed that China, along with the member states, could create a “new model of international security relations.”
- The nationalist Global Times expressed some concern about the potential of internal conflict with the addition of India and Pakistan, though training its focus on the former. The editorial noted that “India has relatively close relations with Russia, and has kept its distance from China in recent years. How India’s participation in the SCO will influence the organization’s internal leadership has been discussed a lot.” The editorial then argued that the SCO should avoid “leadership competition,” and urged the Indian media in particular to “embrace new patterns of regional cooperation.”
- The editorial also took up India-Pakistan hostility but felt that “…the organization can create more shared interests by fostering multilateral cooperation, laying the foundations for solving divergences. It won’t be an easy job. However the organization must face such tests as it expands.” In a swipe at the US and Europe, the commentary described SCO’s differences to the “geopolitics-centered” organization NATO and argued that the SCO is built on “equal footing” and focuses on collective regional goals.
In his inaugural remarks at Astana, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that connectivity with the SCO countries was a priority for India but that projects need to respect “territorial integrity and sovereignty” of countries to gain acceptance and be successful. This was an unstated allusion to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project under China’s Belt and Road Initiative which cuts through territory located in Pakistan controlled Kashmir that India disputes.
Modi and Xi met on the sidelines of the two-day summit which was closely watched in India given the recent downturn in relations. Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar described the meeting between Modi and Xi as cordial and very positive and said, “There was an understanding that where we have differences, it is important that differences should not become disputes.” Indeed, Modi himself expressed his appreciation to China, noting that “It would not have been possible for India to become a member of SCO without China’s backing.” Modi put heavy emphasis on India’s core interest of combating terrorism, while reassuring the member states that they can count on India’s cooperation in the SCO.
- In an op-ed in the pro-ruling party newspaper Pioneer, Nalin Mohapatra, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, emphasized the significance of the SCO for India. He argues that participation in the SCO will provide India an opportunity to strategize its relationship with member states. With India’s participation, he suggests that issues will be addressed more democratically within the group, and in the process, checkmate growing Chinese clout in the SCO. Moreover, he believes India could take advantage of the SCO economically, as it pushes for further economic connectivity, including the operationalization of the International North South Transport Corridor project, linking India with Eurasia via Iran.
- Stobdan, former Indian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan penned an op-ed in The Wire, a left leaning news site, arguing that India can raise its standing in the SCO by roping in countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in New Delhi’s “effort to project Chabahar as India’s gateway to Eurasia.”He urged India to “use the SCO atmosphere for building better convergences with China and Russia as well as to minimize the intensity of China-Pakistan alignment which actually undercuts India’s direct access to Eurasia.”
- Suhasini Haidar in the center-left Hindu took a more critical stand, questioning the sustainability of some of India’s key foreign policy positions as a member of the SCO. She argues that while membership may look beneficial on a superficial level, India’s reservations on the Chinese BRI for example, contradicts the views of other SCO leaders who all endorse it. Moreover, the SCO’s reputation as the “Anti-NATO” contradicts India’s close military ties with the US.
President Vladimir Putin declared that “The expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will undoubtedly help it become more powerful and influential…” Russia had pushed for India’s inclusion whereas China had backed Pakistan’s entry. Putin identified security and stability as his nation’s priority for the summit and gave special attention to terrorism in his speech: “An unprecedented surge in terrorism and extremism all over the world has given this task special importance,” and went on to call for stepped up efforts to provide political and diplomatic settlements in the Middle East and Syria. He also suggested that the SCO work more actively to find a political resolution in Afghanistan, and specifically urged the resumption of “the work of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, which was suspended in 2009.”
From an economic standpoint, Putin stressed the potential of coordination between the SCO and the Eurasian Economic Union, Association for Southeast Asian Nations and China’s One Belt One Road Initiative.
- The state-owned news organization Russia Beyond the Headlines, put a geopolitical spin on the newly expanded SCO asserting that the induction of India could help Russia challenge China’s power within the grouping. As one commentator put it, “With India’s accession, the situation changes radically. The combined economies of Russia and India may not be as big as China’s economy, but adding the political (and military) weight, the two may form a considerable counterweight to China’s dominance.” He added that India’s participation could move forward the International North South Transport Corridor – initiated by Russia, India, and Iran – by providing connectivity via the SCO countries.