Regionalism and Potentials of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)

By Roashan Taj

Geographic contiguity is a crucial factor for harvesting the fruits of liberalization. Similarly, regionalism is defined in terms of “regional groupings which offer the benefits of providing a stronger platform for operating and negotiating in the global economy. Regional organizations also offer potentially congenial ways of arranging economic relations between dominant local economic powers.”[1] It means when smaller economies are grouped into regional blocs, the sum of their global interactions is far greater than their individual status. Similarly, Sheila Page, renowned scholar, is of the view that “political or social sympathy may be greater among those who are near than among those who are at more distance.”[2] The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is one such example of regional cooperation that is worth mentioning.

SCO’s uniqueness lies primarily in the fact that it is the first Eurasian international organization with a truly integrated nature under the geo-political and geo-economic conditions of the post-Cold War era. Since its establishment, in Shanghai on 15 June 2001 by six countries namely, People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it brings together heads of states to discuss regional security issues and inter-regional cooperation. More recently, on June 2017, the SCO expanded by making India and Pakistan as its full permanent members. Expanding from six to eight members, the SCO has broadened its outreach to multidimensional issues ranging from economic, political and cultural. In short, the SCO is a comity of nations for mutual interests.

In 2003, the SCO drafted its charter which outlines the core objectives, structure and goals of the organization. Nevertheless, it strictly complies with the United Nations (UN) Charter which stands for equality of all members and dispute resolutions through negotiation. The main thrust of SCO’s objectives is underpinned in addressing economic and security issues confronting the member states. An important component of the SCO is to mobilize resources and a mechanism to develop closer economic cooperation by removing barriers in trade, movement of capital, and enhancing overall logistics infrastructure. Another economic advantage of the body is that it provides financial platform for financing projects like Eurasian Economic Union (EARC), the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and CASA-1000. The body is also aiming towards enhancing people to people contacts, exchange education programs, healthcare, sports, tourism and environmental protection. In terms of security cooperation, the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) is a permanent body devoted to the fight against terrorism, separatism and extremism in the region.

The Russian and Chinese motive to create the SCO appears to have been threefold; Firstly, both the regional powers sought an organization dedicated to providing security and stability to the former Soviet Republics (also known as the Central Asian Republics, or CARs).Secondly, they wished to foster stronger economic ties with the oil and natural gas rich CARs. Finally, both favored stemming the influence of the external powers notably the United States (US). The CARs motive to join the SCO emanates from its security and economic needs. Likewise, Pakistan’s desire to join the SCO is motivated by establishing peace and stability in the region. Beyond that, the Indian motivation is driven by promoting and protecting its own national interests; mainly its access to the Eurasian region. At stark contrast, the Indian opposition of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects is against the prime objective of the SCO. Both India and Pakistan, interests diverge in many ways but as responsible member states they can make an effort to segregate the politics from the economic activities, regardless of the fact even if their bilateral ties touched its lowest ebb. Within the auspices of SCO some positive developments are expected to take place between Pakistan and India. Islamabad has always strived for good relations with New Delhi. Hence both the countries’ involvement with the SCO provides them with an opportunity to reduce bilateral tensions in rational manner.

Although the SCO has achieved steady development during the past decade, it is still relatively young, with daunting challenges ahead. Historically, Moscow regards the former Soviet states as part of its sphere of influence, with China also showing keen interest in the region due to the latter’s energy riches. China’s stature as one of the biggest economies in the world poses a threat to CARs, who might find it hard to create a win-win cooperation scenario with Beijing. However, because of their landlocked proximity, the CARs have limited options when it comes to finding prospective investors for their energy sector.

SCO’s further expansion also poses its own challenges. Uzbek President Islam Kari­mov has already shown concerns regarding the inclusion of two arch rival nuclear powers (India and Pakistan) into the group, which will prevent it from truly operating as a cohesive unit[3]. With Central Asia declared as nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ), it suddenly finds itself in a club with four nuclear-armed countries.

There are other concerns, not only limited to Indo Pak tensions, when it comes to full functioning of the SCO. China may not allow India to get any significant economic benefits from joining the body. China has also opposed India’s bid for permanent membership at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG). Beyond India’s interests in Central Asia, acces­sion to the SCO is also part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strategy to contain China in cooperation with the US. The growing Indo-US strategic partnership and the emerging US pivot to Asia Strategy is a matter of concern; mainly for China and Pakistan. Thus, the region is exposed to strategic imbalances.

Pakistani and Indian interests also diverge ranging from the Kashmir issue to India’s military overtones in the Central Asian region. A major dispute erupted a few years back over the Ayni Air Force Base in Tajikistan was financed with an Indian loan. India clearly views Central Asia as a strategic clamp with which to exert pressure on Pakistan. Pakistan has always remained apprehensive of India’s increased presence in Afghanistan to threaten regional stability. Perhaps it is one of the reasons that India has never been part of any peace process between the Afghan Taliban and other regional stakeholders.

Moreover, both nations as energy deficient and need ac­cess to the oil and gas rich CAR’s. Notwithstanding, any planned oil and gas pipeline from Central Asia to South Asia, including the TAPI project, must go through Afghanistan which further accentuates the geostrategic cen­trality of Afghanistan. Given these imperatives, reconciliation between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan would be a great challenge for the SCO.

On the other hand, the SCO is looked upon with suspicion as a counter­weight to the North Atlantic Treaty Organi­zation (NATO) by the US and its western counterparts. The SCO confronts challenges as it tries to coordinate with Washington and NATO on their different security concepts. However, both Russia and China claim that building a military bloc is against its own interest. The organization believes in resolving regional issues without interfering in domestic problems of other states. Therefore, the existence of the SCO does not directly serve the US interests, but it also does not necessarily hinder them.

In conclusion, cooperation in the SCO has discarded the Cold War thinking and transcended ideology; providing a good example of harmonious coexistence among nations of different religions and cultures. To realize the full potential of SCO, all stakeholders must work together, build trust and share their point of views with greater transparency. Regional blocs also create a greater market, which attracts foreign direct investment like the OBOR initiative, the CPEC, TAPI and CASA 1000 etc. Another economic advantage is that it provides opportunity for deeper integration involving issues like domestic competition, intellectual property rights or labor standards etc. The idea suggests that due to common economic interests, the political tussles and rivalries are minimized gradually making way for political reconciliation. Finally, greater engagement and cooperation between members will help build trust, generate momentum and confidence.

[1] Bary Buzan et al, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (USA: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998).

[2] Sheila Page, Regionalism Among Developing Countries (New York: St. Martin Press, 2000).

[3] Galiya Ibragimova, “What are the implications of India’s and Pakistan’s accession to the SCO?”. The Rus­sian Direct, 2015, what-are-implications-indias-and-pakistans-accession-sco (Last visited: March 3, 2018).

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