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Why the Shanghai Cooperation Organization matters


Why the Shanghai Cooperation Organization matters

Foreign ministers and SCO officials meet in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on July 14, 2021. (Reuters)

Established in 2001 as a successor to the Shanghai Five, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is the largest regional grouping in Eurasia, covering approximately 40% of the world’s population and 30% of the world’s economic output. Due to its impressive security and economic cooperation profile, the SCO has gained enormous traction across Asia. It is no surprise that a number of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries are lining up to join as dialogue partners, observers and members.
The SCO currently comprises eight member states (China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), four observer states (Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia) and six dialogue partners (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey). At the annual SCO heads of state summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 15-16, Iran will become full members of the organization, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt will become dialogue partners.
In addition, Belarus will start the accession process; Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia and Nepal will become observers; and Bahrain and the Maldives will begin the accession process as dialogue partners. The UAE would like to join the SCO as a member, bypassing other membership requirements. Syria, Iraq, Israel, Bangladesh and Vietnam also hope to join the dialogue as partners or observers.
Since its establishment, the SCO has forged close ties with several international institutions and regional organizations, including the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the Asian Development Bank, the Association of Southeast Asia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. A memorandum of understanding between the SCO Secretariat and the General Secretariat of the League of Arab States was also reached at last year’s SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
The SCO was first branded by the United States as a hostile bloc, led by China and Russia to challenge its post-Cold War global supremacy. On the contrary, its evolution conforms to the familiar pattern of “new regionalism” in the developing world, which has produced viable regional organizations, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and ASEAN. All are intergovernmental organizations with similar structures, defying the supranational mode of integration in the EU.
The SCO also shares important similarities with the GCC and ASEAN in terms of origin and evolution. It was created to fight against the three evils of terrorism, extremism and separatism. The GCC and ASEAN also came into being to deal with the security threat from Iran and communism, respectively. While regional security remains a common concern for both organizations, their real success lies in economic integration: the GCC Common Market versus the ASEAN Economic Community.
However, the SCO’s comparative distinction derives from its rapid progress in establishing close security and economic collaboration. The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure is its key institution to counter the three evils. Security cooperation is reinforced by military exercises, qualified as peace missions, and counter-terrorism exercises organized periodically in the Member States. It has produced tangible results in the fight against terrorism, in particular.
The economic value of the SCO derives from the fact that it is led by China, the world economic power, and includes Russia and India as major international players, as well as the states of Central and South Asia. Caucasus, which have largely untapped oil and natural gas resources. Although the SCO has not yet established a free trade area, it has made significant gains in expanding intraregional trade and investment and regional share in world trade.
China dominates SCO’s business and investment activities. Recent reports estimate that its trade with other member states increased 20-fold between 2001 and 2020, reaching $245 billion in 2020 from $12 billion in 2001. Until last year, China had invested $85 billion and contracted additional development projects worth $280 billion in other countries. Member States. The total trade volume of SCO member states also increased from $668.09 billion in 2001 to $6.06 trillion in 2020; and the share in world trade has increased from 5.4% in 2001 to 17.5% in 2020.
China and Russia have competitive interests in the SCO, including trade and development versus energy and security, respectively. But their overarching goal is to create the Greater Eurasia Partnership by synergizing SCO’s development activities with multilateral integration projects in Eurasia, including China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the Eurasian Economic Union. in Russia.
This strategic mission of the SCO makes it the best option for the GCC, as it seeks to diversify geoeconomic ties in Asia without undermining the geopolitical partnership with the United States. These two paths are not contradictory, one ensuring economic prosperity and the other guaranteeing security. There are also other reasons.
So far, Gulf countries have sought bilateral free trade agreements with China, India and Pakistan, but with limited success. Their relations with the states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, despite the community of hydrocarbon wealth, are still minimal. With ASEAN too, successive rounds of ministerial meetings have failed to deepen trade and economic relations.
That Saudi Arabia and Qatar are about to become dialogue partners of the SCO is therefore an encouraging development. Bahrain will join the club in over a year. It would be great if the United Arab Emirates also joined the accession process. Along with Egypt, Turkey and other Middle Eastern aspirants to partnership with the SCO, the oil-rich Gulf countries have the means to act as a catalyst for Eurasian regionalism, alongside China, Russia and resourceful members of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Saudi Arabia can use its formidable economic clout to shape the SCO’s progressive agenda in its own way.

Ishtiaq Ahmad

That’s why they don’t have to worry about Iran, because it’s about to join such a big regional organization as a full member for the first time since 1979. After all, the big rivals India and Pakistan have been members of the SCO since 2017, without disturbing its institutional effectiveness. Members of the GCC are undoubtedly late entrants to this central regional body. But better late than never.
In fact, as China’s largest trading partner and recipient of the bulk of Chinese investment under the Belt and Road Initiative, Saudi Arabia can use its formidable economic clout to shape its way the progressive agenda of the SCO. In this regard, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was invited to attend the Samarkand Summit, can play a pivotal role by sharing the Kingdom’s exceptional expertise in renewable energy with the SCO. This is an area he has reached the least.

  • Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist who served as Vice-Chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at Oxford University.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the authors in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News