Bloc set to further benefit regional stability and economic growth, but major challenges remain
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is an intergovernmental organization established on June 15, 2001 with China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as founding members. India and Pakistan joined as observer states in 2005 and became full members at the 17th summit of the SCO held in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, in June 2017.
With the inclusion of India and Pakistan, the potential for the SCO to reap the benefits in terms of enhancing regional peace and stability, and strengthening cooperation in military alliances, and economic development and integration, has increased manifold.
The geostrategic location of Pakistan provides the SCO a cushion to benefit all member states, especially in terms of maintaining regional peace and stability and enhancing economic development vis-a-vis Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics.
Despite ongoing tensions in bilateral ties, both India and Pakistan are still dedicated to their roles in the SCO.
Further, Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that with the entry of India and Pakistan, the SCO has gained more potential for cooperation and more expectations from the international community.
Amina Mohammed, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, said at the 18th summit of the SCO that the world now needs a recommitment to multilateralism. And with the SCO assuming even greater importance through India and Pakistan’s involvement, she said, the expansion of the organization’s activities will have major implications for peace, stability, and prosperity across the globe.
The SCO represents more than half of humanity and plays a vital role in shaping the global agenda, which is based on two important terms: cooperation and dialogue.
The SCO is making a positive contribution toward shaping the regional dynamics of Central Asia and promoting closer interactions between different countries. Mega projects under the SCO umbrella — for instance, the Belt and Road Initiative — enhance connectivity, economic prosperity and diplomatic ties across the region.
In recent years, major joint infrastructural projects have been completed in SCO member states, improving conditions for cross-border cooperation and boosting the development capacity of member states. Examples are the Peshawar-Karachi motorway project in Pakistan and the Astana light rail project in Kazakhstan.
The SCO provides an opportunity for member states to improve bilateral and multilateral relations with regional countries and address economic and developmental concerns through cooperation. It is the best opportunity to tap Central Asian markets that are still unexplored in terms of natural resources, primarily minerals and hydrocarbon reserves, i.e., coal.
According to Xi, “numerous challenges remain, including the ‘three evil forces’ plus drug smuggling and cross border crimes, which are the biggest threat for the region. SCO members have to handle these issues properly through correct judgments”. The “three evil forces” refer to terrorism, separatism and extremism.
After nearly two decades, the SCO now has eight full members, four observer states and six dialogue partners with a permanent secretariat in Beijing and a security station in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. And it is expected that the organization will expand its domain, both in terms of memberships and area of actions.
Although China is the driving force of the SCO with a major influence on decision-making, the organization’s trajectory, achievements and enduring challenges, every member state still enjoys equal status with their sovereignty intact.
The historical analysis of the SCO reveals that the organization holds immense significance for both China and Russia — the two largest and strongest founding members. The effective consensus upon nearly every issue is the strongest norm of the SCO.
Nevertheless, many of the organization’s initiatives, although aspirational, are still unfulfilled. Keeping that in view, much more needs to be done on the part of the organization as well as the member states, particularly in the economic and energy sectors.
Both India and Pakistan simultaneously achieved a milestone by becoming full members of the SCO, which will benefit both countries in terms of economic cooperation, and political and military assistance through collaboration.
On the other hand, the SCO faces several challenges in areas like trade and economy, investment, transport and communications, science and technology, tourism, anti-state elements, terrorism and extremism.
The following are some recommendations that may help address various issues:
• The SCO is expanding and member states are cooperating to provide ample opportunities for new and existing projects and investments, but there is a need for a sustainable framework for smooth trade and cooperation between SCO member states;
• Member states must set aside historic differences and tensions for the sake of regional development and humanity, and fight terrorism, separatism and extremism by implementing the SCO Development Strategy 2025;
• Pakistan is the main country in the SCO that can help member states jointly fight drug trafficking that originates in Afghanistan;
• There is a need to develop a comprehensive strategy for all member states to fight terrorism in the region, and the newly inducted member states — India and Pakistan — can play a major role in bringing stability to the region;
• By utilizing the forum of the SCO, member states can develop a strong intelligence-sharing mechanism under the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure or RATS to ensure an adequate level of cooperation and coordination to mitigate cross-border issues, such as terrorism, human trafficking, drug trafficking and extremism;
• Pakistan can benefit the SCO member states by giving the landlocked countries — through mega projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Belt and Road Initiative — access to international markets via its sea and land routes;
• Member states must develop a comprehensive strategy for building roads and an infrastructure network to have better linkages to provide easy access from one state to another.
The author is a retired lieutenant colonel and executive director of the Center for Global & Strategic Studies, a non-profit institution based in Islamabad.