Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Iranian and Turkish Moves to Join SCO Raises Its Profile

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Held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, from September 15 to 16, the 2022 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Heads of State Council demonstrated that the SCO was continuing to evolve into a viable international political congregation independent from the West.

Beginning in the early 1800s, international organizations (IOs) began to emerge as modest arbiters of European affairs. But during and after World War II, new IOs established themselves as far more prominent actors on a global scale. The United Nations (UN), the Arab League, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and several other IOs were created to manage the affairs of their member states.

After the Soviet collapse, more IOs were created to manage the independence of new states, globalization, and regional cooperation. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), created in 1991, attempted to coordinate military, economic, and political policies between post-Soviet states. The European Union (EU) and the African Union (AU), created in 1993 and 2002, respectively, bound member states more forcefully to common economic and political norms. Other IOs, like the Arctic Council (1996) and Asia Cooperation Dialogue (2002), aimed to foster broader regional cooperation.

Most new international organizations meshed neatly with the Western-led liberal world order. But in 2001, the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was formally announced, and it established itself as an exclusionary outlier. Originally known as the Shanghai Five when it was created in 1996, it included China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, with Uzbekistan later joining when it evolved into the SCO in 2001.

The SCO was created partly to help coordinate a new era of peaceful relations between Moscow and Beijing and to manage their coalescing interests in Central Asian states. In addition, combatting the “Three Evils” of extremism, separatism, and terrorism were major priorities for the organization, which included data and intelligence sharing and common military drills among its member states.

Over time, the SCO began to embrace greater political and economic integration. Support for autocratic rule and limiting criticism of human rights violations set it apart from other Western-aligned IOs, with the SCO also overseeing the growth of joint energy projects, the fostering of trade agreements, and the introduction of the SCO Interbank Consortium in 2005 “to organize a mechanism for financing and banking services in investment projects supported by the governments of the SCO member states.”

But the organization’s most pressing vocation was facilitating a multipolar world order. Investing in an independent forum for economic, political, and military affairs outside of Western influence became a key component of Russian and Chinese attempts to reduce Western power in global affairs.

Russia and China have also developed complementary mechanisms to the SCO, which have helped decentralize its mission. Following the blacklisting of several Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) in 2014, for example, the Kremlin approved the creation of the System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) to replicate SWIFT and introduced the National Payment Card System (now known as Mir), while China created the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS).

These initiatives even proved attractive to states that were more aligned with the Western-led global order. India and Pakistan began SCO accession talks in 2015 and officially joined the organization in 2017. Despite relatively positive relations with the West, India and Pakistan have both faced Western criticism over human rights and democratic backsliding in recent years. India’s introduction of platforms like RuPay in 2012 and Unified Payments Interface, which eroded the traditional dominance of Visa and Mastercard in the country, also complemented SCO’s attempts to reduce Western economic preeminence globally.

At the 2022 summit of the SCO Heads of State Council, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev reiterated that the SCO was not an anti-U.S. or anti-NATO alliance. But the organization’s original motive to create a multipolar world was echoed in its Samarkand Declaration, the final declaration of this meeting, and continues to conflict with Washington’s attempts to maintain the U.S.-led world order. According to the declaration, the member states “confirm[ed] their commitment to [the] formation of a more representative, democratic, just and multipolar world order.”

This core stratagem continues to appeal to countries around the world. Alongside the leaders of its eight member states, the SCO invited the presidents of Belarus, Mongolia, and Iran as official observers to the recent summit. Having started its accession process in 2021, Iran signed a memorandum of understanding with the SCO to join the institution by April 2023.

The SCO would likely alleviate Iran’s sense of economic isolation stemming from Western sanctions, a sentiment shared by Iranian officials at the summit and something that was also noted back in 2007. Belarus has also found itself under increasing sanctions in recent years and enhanced its accession procedures to join the SCO in Samarkand.

The presidents of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Turkey were also invited to the SCO summit as special guests, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announcing that his country would seek full membership to the SCO. In 2012, Erdoğan joked to Russian President Vladimir Putin about abandoning Turkey’s EU aspirations if Russia would allow them into the SCO. Turkey’s renewed attempt comes at a time when its ties with the rest of the Western world are increasingly strained and could instigate other NATO states, and potentially the EU states, to join the SCO as well.

The SCO has also established strong relations with other IOs. Representatives from ASEAN, the UN, the Russian-dominated CIS, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) were invited to the 2022 summit. Notably absent were any representatives from the EU or NATO. Meanwhile, in 2005, the U.S. was rejected from gaining observer status, solidifying the SCO’s status as a bulwark against U.S. influence in Eurasia.

Like all major international organizations, the SCO faces systemic obstacles that hinder its effectiveness and long-term viability. At the recent summit in Uzbekistan, China’s Xi Jinping was welcomed to the country by his Uzbek counterpart, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Putin, however, was greeted by Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov, highlighting Russia’s strained relations with many of the former Soviet states and the growing strength of Beijing over Moscow. Unlike in the CSTO and the EAEU, Russia is not the dominant actor in the SCO, and will increasingly have to contend with China’s predominant authority.

Disputes also remain between SCO member states. India and Pakistan, for example, are afflicted with an ongoing struggle over Kashmir. China and India have their own territorial disputes and have engaged in minor violent skirmishes since India joined the SCO. Additionally, deadly clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan erupted during the recent summit, while admitting Armenia and Azerbaijan, both of which are SCO dialogue partners, will only further increase the number of members currently locked in their own territorial disputes.

But the SCO has consistently portrayed itself as a vehicle to supervise these issues. The leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan met for talks during the summit to assuage tensions. And since 2002, the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) has encouraged military coordination between member states, with the Indian and Pakistani militaries conducting RATS drills in 2021. More drills between them are planned for October, and while they are aimed primarily at countering unrest from Afghanistan, they are also part of SCO’s attempts to manage relations of member states.

China and Russia have also agreed to “synergize” the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the EAEU to help mitigate possible tension between them, with both Xi and Putin meeting on the sidelines of the 2022 SCO summit and pledging to respect each other’s core interests.

The SCO member states clearly believe the organization can, and has greater potential to, effectively manage their concerns and regional affairs, and its appeal continues to grow. Besides the additional SCO dialogue partners (Cambodia, Nepal, and Sri Lanka), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt were granted the status of SCO dialogue partners at the 2022 SCO summit. Myanmar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the Maldives were also granted the status of dialogue partners.

Russian and Chinese influence will fall as more members join, which will also dilute consensus within the organization. But it remains a Beijing and Moscow-led initiative to manage world affairs and to demonstrate that the “international community” is not just the West. With almost half of the world’s population and a quarter of the global GDP, the SCO is increasingly becoming a representative of the Global South.

By pooling together other IOs into an umbrella forum, the SCO can further its goal of challenging the wider Western-dominated IO ecosystem and prevent Washington from setting the global agenda. This will require the constructive management of Russian and Chinese ambitions and the increasingly complex needs of more member states.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Samarkand Spirit

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In mid-September 2022, the nine-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) met in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for its 22nd Meeting of the Council of Heads of State. Because China, India, and Pakistan are members of the SCO, the organization represents about 40 percent of the world’s population; with the addition of Russia, the SCO countries make up 60 percent of the Eurasian territory (the other member states of the organization are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and now Iran). In its Samarkand Declaration, the final declaration of this meeting, the SCO represented itself as a “regional” organization, although the sheer scale of the SCO would allow it to claim to be a global organization with as much legitimacy as the G-7 (whose seven countries comprise only 10 percent of the world’s population, although the group accounts for 50 percent of the global net wealth).

The keyword in the Samarkand Declaration seemed to be “mutual”: mutual respect, mutual trust, mutual consultation, and mutual benefit. There is an echo in these words of the final communiqué of the Asian-African Conference held in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, which led to the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. The Samarkand Spirit mirrors, for a different period, the Bandung Spirit with an emphasis on sovereignty and equality. Words like “mutual” are appealing only if they provide tangible benefits for the people who live in these countries.

As if on cue, eyes rolled in the Western press, which either did not give much weight to the meeting in their media coverage or emphasized the divisions between the countries that attended the meeting. Remarks by China’s President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi about their views on the Russian war in Ukraine shaped the headlines of the Western media. Certainly, the countries that attended the Samarkand meeting do not see eye to eye on each of the issues discussed, but they have built trust with each other and are interested in increasing their diplomatic and economic ties, particularly related to trade.

The SCO states contribute 24 percent to the world’s gross domestic product and accounted for 17.5 percent of world trade in 2020, a volume of activity that is enticing for poorer states in Eurasia. The locomotive of this economic activity continues to be China, which is the largest trading partner of IranKyrgyzstanPakistanRussiaIndia, and Uzbekistan. The advantages of trade among the countries—including energy purchases from Russia—anchor the SCO, which has become one of the key institutions for the integration of Eurasia.

Iran became a full-fledged member of the SCO at the Samarkand meeting. Over the course of the past decade, U.S. sanctions on Iran and Russia as well as the U.S.-driven trade war against China have drawn these three countries closer together. In April 2021, China and Iran signed a 25-year agreement on trade, which Iran’s ambassador to China Mohammad Keshavarz-Zadeh said “is not against any third country,” meaning the United States. Similar sentiments, but with a stronger anti-Western tone, could be heard at the seventh Eastern Economic Forum held in Vladivostok, Russia, in September 2022, where Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said, “the West is failing, the future is in Asia.”

The SCO is not merely the consolidation of Asian countries heavily sanctioned by the United States and the European Union. India, an SCO member, is a non-sanctioned state, and Türkiye, another non-sanctioned country, is seeking to join the SCO, belying such an easy dismissal about the reason for the existence of the organization. India is a full-fledged member of the SCO and has taken over the presidency of the organization till it hosts the next meeting in 2023. India’s Modi played an active role at the Samarkand meeting, and, according to an op-ed written by India’s former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal, he suggested that India’s membership to the SCO is part of “our commitment to a multipolar world.”

Türkiye, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), is a dialogue partner of the SCO and is now seeking to upgrade its status to become a member of the organization. In 1987, Türkiye applied to join the European Union and “was declared eligible to join the EU” in 1999. Told that the process is necessarily slow, Türkiye’s senior officials watched with dismay as Ukraine applied to join the European Union in February 2022 and then was accepted as an EU candidate in June, jumping far ahead of Türkiye, whose candidacy has not moved forward and the accession negotiations have “effectively frozen.” The Samarkand meeting was the first SCO meeting that was attended by Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who spoke about the SCO region being the “ancestral homeland” of the Turkish people and a natural fit for his country. India’s leadership in the SCO and the possibility of Türkiye’s entry into the organization show that the SCO is increasingly becoming an instrument for Eurasian integration.

“The situation in the world is dangerously degrading,” noted the Samarkand Declaration. “[E]xisting local conflicts and crises are intensifying, and new ones are emerging.” As the SCO met, Azerbaijan attacked Armenia—replaying the conflict of 2020—opening further tension between Russia (which is in the Collective Security Treaty Organization with Armenia) and Türkiye (which is a close ally of Azerbaijan). Adding to the confusion, clashes broke out at the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with Putin hastily calling the presidents of both countries to settle their differences. Modi and Xi met at the Samarkand meeting for the first time since the May 2020 clash between Chinese and Indian troops in the high mountain region of Ladakh. No real progress has been made on the decades-long border dispute between these two large Asian powers. Such existing local conflicts not only threaten the security of the people who live in those countries but also pose a challenge to the SCO becoming more than a regional organization.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.