In pursuit of its vision for peace, prosperity and development in the Asian region, the 23rd Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit under India’s first ever presidency chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi this month presented India’s attributes of shared heritage through a concrete expression- ‘the world is one family’- “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”. Strengthening the theme and vision of SCO ‘SECURE’ – which stands for Security, Economic development, Connectivity, Unity, Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and Environmental protection – India established five pillars of cooperation within the SCO region; Startups and Innovation, Traditional Medicine, Youth Empowerment, Digital Inclusion, and Shared Buddhist Heritage.
During the SCO summit, PM Modi said, “We do not see the SCO as an extended neighbourhood but rather as an extended family. Security, economic development, connectivity, unity, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and environmental protection are the pillars of our vision for the SCO”.
The virtual meet was attended by the Presidents of Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Heads of State of SCO Observers namely; Iran, Belarus, Mongolia and Turkmenistan participated as guest chairs. Heads of two permanent standing bodies of the SCO, Secretary General of SCO and Director, SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), plus Heads of international and regional organizations including the UN Secretary-General; Heads of CICA, that is Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia; CSTO, Collective Security Treaty Organization; CIS, Commonwealth of Independent States, and Eurasian Economic Commission.
The SCO meeting was an important occasion to discuss and conduct effective ways for creating conditions to identify the complexity of the problems related to security and guarantees in the SCO region, trade and connectivity, economic development, sovereignty and territorial integrity through multilateral initiatives to advance peace and security and sustainable development.
The SCO grouping comprises China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan(new member Iran), was founded in 2001 to focus on regional security and cooperation as an instrument for the implementation of security concerns for a solid and sustainable solution in the SCO region.
Today, where power relations have become unclear, where impunity and unpredictability tend to prevail and conflicts multiply, new divergences are emerging and importantly these differences are now more and more interrelated, it is pivotal to reaffirm commitment among the SCO countries to improve peace and security architecture and economic development. If one looks at the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia among others, mapping the capacities of the SCO and bringing the SCO countries together into an integrated platform will enable peace and security dimensions. Rallying the important concerns on a central platform like SCO, it is important to stress multipolar order, common approaches to solving regional and global problems, address the problems of international and regional development, and countering security challenges and threats.
What are the pressing issues concerning the SCO region this year?
The world is facing major threats of terrorism, humanitarian crisis, displacements, border disputes, climate change and others. At this crucial time, all the countries coming together can chart a safer and more stable course that will bring a meaningful difference in addressing the pressing concerns.
Terrorism and Why Afghanistan is Important in the SCO Agenda?
Terrorism emanating from Afghanistan has been an immediate concern and a common threat to Central Asia, China, Russia, Iran and India in the aftermath of the Taliban gaining power in 2021. Within Afghanistan today there are many terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, ISIS, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) besides others that have increased their influence in the region.
Terrorists’ activities in Afghanistan in 2022 indicate that these jihadi groups in the country with their organizational structure and a well-established propaganda machinery, have been able to exert their influence in almost all 34 provinces of Afghanistan and have continued to carry out attacks in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan in 2022. Globally, branches of jihadi groups in Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, the Philippines, Yemen, and Somalia continued with their attacks in 2022 to bring about global jihad.
The rejection of inclusivity, women’s education issues, and continuing Islamic forms of punishments like public lashing etc. raise questions about the Taliban’s long-term intentions and commitments. Taliban had concluded the Doha peace deal in 2020 with the US, assuring security guarantees including delinking from Al-Qaeda, not allowing other terror groups to operate from the Afghan soil etc. The promises, however, have not been fulfilled yet.
Going by the actions of some countries like China and the US, it is not clear if these countries would legitimise the Taliban and recognise the terror group-led regime. If in the process they impose conditions, will the Taliban implement them? The chances are rather bleak, considering their performance and continued links with Al Qaeda and other terror groups in the last two years. It may therefore be appropriate to conclude that the Taliban is unlikely to keep up its word and may continue to harbour its ambitions for progressing Jihad beyond the borders of Afghanistan and may support the other terror groups in executing it. The Taliban have appointed Sirajuddin Haqqani, Amir of the Haqqani network, a nominated terror group as their home minister. There is also an internal dispute between the Kandahari Group and the Kabul Group. The United States is trying to find a base in Afghanistan to contain China and Russia through Central Asia. On the other hand, the Chinese are appeasing the Taliban hoping they will not give any base to Afghanistan.
It is unlikely Afghanistan will remain stable and inclusive under the present Taliban dispensation. This implies that there will be instability in Afghanistan which is not in the interest of the regional countries. The Central Asian countries are concerned about the Taliban linking with the jihadis in Fergana Valley and influencing the Central Asian population to pursue Jihad. Breaching of the buffer Central Asia by terror groups and establishing their bases in the region is a matter of great concern for Russia and China. Constant efforts by the US to establish a base in the neighbourhood of Central Asia including in Afghanistan and Pakistan to take forward its geopolitical ambitions and ‘regime change efforts in Kazakhstan in 2022 are matters of serious concern which will turn Afghanistan and Central Asia as the terrorists’ battleground.
The SCO countries are required to establish effective defensive measures by preventing the flow of weapons, finances and movement of terrorists from across the borders and emphasize that the country should not become the hub of global terrorism, should not nurture terrorists, should not fund them, should not arm them, should not attack neighbouring countries or create conditions of terror in the region.
Connectivity plays an important role in the Eurasian region to enhance trade and economic development. Central Asia- ‘Silk Road’- an access point between Europe and Asia creates enormous potential as a connectivity hub for East Asia, South Asia and West Asia.
Notwithstanding the evidence, the ‘Silk Route’, an important trading route in the world and made impressive strides for decades, trade between Central Asia countries remains low with enormous potential for success. Improved connectivity with the Central Asian countries would create significant opportunities for intra-regional trade and the development will result in substantial gains for all the people of the region.
The Ashgabat Agreement, International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), and Chabahar port projects will provide an opportunity to India to connect with Europe and as well as Russia.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been consistently opposed by India as the key part of it passes through the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Resonating the same sentiments, India did not endorse the BRI at the summit. It is expected that in October 2023, China will be holding the BRI conference for which they have invited Russia, in parallel, Russia is not a part of BRI. China opened a 1940 miles land cargo route across Central Asia to Afghanistan on July 6. These connectivity projects are likely to drastically improve trade between China, Central Asia and Iran.
The US actions and in pursuance of its geopolitical interest is inter-combined creating an aggravating situation in which people are displaced and conflicts are intensified as what happened in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria under the guise of war against terrorism.
Second, the issues ofUS-imposed sanctions have crippled the world economy to an extent. The sanctions have restricted the output of oil and gas of Russia, Venezuela, and Iran to the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) plus countries and as a result, the supply chain has caused damaging effects. The second aspect is currency, US has confiscated the currencies of Russia, Iran and Venezuela though it has done tremendous harm to the US dollar itself. Besides, the countries which have been maintaining the reserves for at least purchasing oil and their export and import are in limbo.
The alarming risk of disputes in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh remains a longest-standing issue in front of India because these two territories which China claims and its continued pursuit to capture these areas is a bone of contention for military escalation. SCO is an effective and strengthening forum to raise Pakistan and China problems though SCO is not meant to address bilateral issues. Similarly, the maritime disputes in the South China Sea with littoral countries are destabilising the region.
Is the agenda of SCO weakened?
Aimed at taking stock of cooperation experience in various fields, and envisioned future cooperation directions, President Xi Jinping chaired the inaugural China-Central Asia Summit in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province on May 19, 2023. Why did China have to have a separate dialogue with Central Asian countries in Xian? It seems China is aiming to weaken SCO. If Central Asian Countries, China and Russia are out in a separate grouping, what is left of SCO-India, Pak and Iran? Is the SCO a viable grouping then? Is this not an attempt to dilute SCO? This is one of the factors, today, that undermines the SCO. It is a sign of weakening the SCO. The SCO members’ in-person meeting is important as it is a central platform where the leaders can sit and constructively discuss important issues.
To an extent, SCO has been diluted because of China and Russia even though Russia did not attend the Xian meeting, China met with the Central Asian leaders. The total members of SCO are Russia China, India, Pakistan and Iran. So, only India is left out so to that extent I think some or others even Russia and China are interested in diluting the SCO as compared to their interest in BRICS.
The Significance of SCO
The importance of SCO lies in the fact that it covers around 40% of the world’s population, almost 20% of the world’s GDP, and 22% of the global landmass. It includes some of the world’s leading energy-rich nations. It is critical to reflect on the challenges of the SCO region which represents approximately 40 percent of the world’s population and nearly one-third of the global economy.
The first aspect of the SCO region is the strategic location of Central Asia is viewed as a Eurasian bridge, connecting countries of Asia to Europe. Central Asia is bordering China, Afghanistan, Russia and Iran. The potential of the Central Asian countries in the SCO region promotes economic development and is located centrally this region’s connectivity is important and it has a potential to become a connectivity hub. Bordered by the Caspian Sea Kazakhstan is endowed with second largest reserves of minerals and second-largest gas deposits. Kyrgyzstan has plentiful water resources making hydropower the most important energy source; it also has significant deposits of coal. Uzbekistan has one-third of all Central Asia’s mineral resources, and significant uranium deposits and in terms of gas production it is among the world’s 20 leaders. Given the regional geography, a multilateral institution like SCO has the potential to foster economic development. Overcoming the present impediments through the SCO forum, the countries need to create a conducive environment promoting connectivity, growth, and infrastructure development to bridge the aspirations and achievements of the SCO charter.
Central Asia is becoming a hot spot, though China and Russia have separate interests in the region. The Central Asian countries are positioned at such a place which is accessible as a buffer to both China and Russia. Jihadis from Afghanistan, both Al Qaeda and IS-linked are looking to establish themselves in Central Asia. The US on the other hand wants to effect regime changes in the region to have its puppets with a view to containing both Russia and China.
The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project work has remained low with the changing geopolitical dimensions. Pakistan did not allow it to pass through its territory to India. Due to geopolitical differences between India and Pakistan, the TAPI project is unlikely to materialize, so it ought to be from Turkmenistan to Iran through the undersea route to Mumbai.
Improving governance, and improving confidence between governments and people, is essential and it is a condition to improve the confidence in the relations between countries. SCO is a major forum and the issues should be discussed to have consensus among the SCO countries to project the same at the international forums like G20, BRICS, and UNSC.
Finding joint approaches through a forum like SCO will help represent the region even though a consensus may not be arrived at, nevertheless, it could dismantle informal barriers and build trust and it can be the basis for discussion for other international forums such as UNSC, G20 etc. under a multilateral system framework. The SCO is a regional forum which needs to formalize its thoughts on certain issues affecting the world so that it can be projected in multilateral forums such as the UN, BRICS, and G20 etc. The SCO needs to decide what sort of policy to be developed in the region, the matter needs to be discussed amongst all the countries and a uniformed decision can bring prosperity to this region which is fundamental to promote development and security.