The world has trekked from a hegemonic uni-polarity towards bipolarity and now the phenomenon of globalization has given rise to a multipolar world in current international relations which indicates that more and more countries are having influence over world politics, economy and security as opposed to past. The scales of global politics are now tipping in the favour of regionalization and multilateralism. Eurasia and especially Central-Asia has emerged as the most important region in respect of strategic location, natural resources, man power and economic potential in recent times.
Such speculations about Eurasian region are not newly found.A cursory glance at the map purposes that supremacy over Eurasian region would guarantee supremacy over African continent, Western hemisphere, and its peripheries. Currently, Eurasia has about 75% of the world’s population and about three-fourth of the world’s energy sources. It was perhaps the realization of the potential of Eurasian region that prompted the countries in this region to formulate Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). SCO was formulated to enhance regional cooperation between these countries to optimize mutual benefits and minimize shared threats.
SCO is the world’s largest organization in terms of member countries having largest portions of world’s overall population and world’s total energy resources. Currently SCO has eight permanent member countries out of which four members are international nuclear powers. Furthermore, SCO member countries have 18% of the total of world’s road network. The charter of SCO was signed in 2002 by founding countries including China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to mark the establishment of the organization. Pakistan and India were accepted into organization as members in 2017. Additionally, Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia has been given the status of observer states. United States’ request of observer state membership was rejected by the organization. The possible reason of rejection is the presence of US forces in the central Asian member countries of the organization which is in conflict with the regional cooperation goals of the organization. Furthermore, the cooperation of member countries over terrorism and security will most likely curb US interference in the region and will accelerate economic and trade exchange in the region.
The objectives and accomplishments of SCO is to ensure regional cooperation in politics, economy and security as a priority and expand that cooperation to culture, health, education, tourism, technology, media and sports and to mitigate the evils of terrorism, extremism and separatism in the region. SCO has signed multiple MOUs (Memorandum of Understanding) with different international and regional organizations to achieve its objectives. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the United Nations and SCO to prevent human trafficking, drug smuggling, and organized transnational crimes. SCO signed a MoU with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to cooperate over issues of arms trafficking, money laundering and transnational terrorism in the region. Furthermore, CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) and SCO signed a memorandum to combine efforts to maintain regional stability, security and counter terrorism. To increase cooperation over trade, economy, transportation and infrastructure, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between ECO (Economic Cooperation Organization) and SCO.
All members enjoy equal status when it comes to decision making process. Decisions can only be made through consensus. This structure ensures that all countries have their concerns met at this platform regardless of the opportunities or potential they have to offer. This structure is unique to the organization and has met with appreciation as well as criticism from the international forums. Experts seem divided over the fact whether the structure will promote or demote regional cooperation. It is assumed that the extent of diversity in the countries involved can make it difficult to reach consensus. However, it is important to note that these countries have shared concerns over security and economy which has gathered them over the platform of SCO in the first place. It is the realization of the fact that only regional connectivity can capitalize the potential of this region that has prompted these countries to form this organization. Consensus based decision making process will tap into the resources and potential of all countries and prevent exploitation of smaller countries to pave the way of regional connectivity that is stable and long term in nature.
Member countries of SCO have already started projects that are connecting the region for trade and economic exchange. These include One Belt One Road (OBOR) or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project by China. This initiative plans to build roads and infrastructure that will connect China to Europe through Central and South Asia through Silk Route and simultaneously linking China to Southeast Asia, gulf countries and North Africa. This project has already started and its objective is to not just build road but overall infrastructure that will help the growth of mutual trade and economic exchange by connecting the region. The advanced phase of BRI involves construction of trade zones, industrial parks, and energy sources in the connecting countries along its way. The project also aims to achieve regulating the industry standards across the region, standardizing trade rules, hassle free currency exchange and sharing credit information.
Through the platform of SCO, BRI project and EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union) are linked and different agreement between China and Russia have been signed to ensure cooperation in this regard. This link will enable BRI and EAEU to reciprocate each other in achieving their goals. The materialization of conflict between Russia and China was a real possibility because of contrast of interests in the region. However, SCO has eliminated that possible threat to regional connectivity in Eurasia by joining both the countries on its platform.
Other projects of trade and transport connectivity in the region have found integration with BRI through the platform of SCO. These include INSTC (International North-South Transport Corridor) by India and Nurly Zhol project by Kazakhstan. INSTC is a project of launching freight from India to Europe through central Asia and Nurly Zhol is a project of building transportation infrastructure in Kazakhstan. SCO has facilitated the smooth amalgamation of these projects with BRI by gathering the concerned countries on a platform that gives them equal say in the process of making any decision related to Eurasian region. It does not only help economic development in the region but accelerates transnational relations by creating a sense of security among the member countries. Additionally, it preventing exploitation of smaller regional countries through consensus based structure.
Furthermore, SCO will also strengthen culture ties through new visa opportunities. Road transport licensing will increase cross border trade and tourism from Pacific Ocean to Baltic Sea in the region. Furthermore, transportation by road will only require single entry permit and the transnational transportation activities will be observed by joint commission of the member states of SCO.
This comes as no surprise that like any other international cooperation organization, SCO has some challenges that may hinder the process of achieving greater regional connectivity in Eurasia. Afghanistan is a destabilizing factor in the whole region that may pose a threat to achieving stability in central Asia. Although, Afghanistan has obtained the status of observer state in SCO, it needs urgent attention of the organization for its infrastructural reconstruction. The traditional hostility among India and Pakistan may also find its way into the organization in future and form opposing blocks in the organization. However, until now, there have been no such conflicts. Additionally, China and Russia may find themselves locking horn over creating their hegemony in the region in future.
The overall history of achievements by SCO makes the challenges in the region seem important but resolvable. Still, the dream of greater regional connectivity in Eurasia is still to be achieved and SCO is just the first step towards it. SCO is a good start towards regional cooperation as a platform and all factors point to an optimistic future of the organization in achieving regional connectivity.
The writer is a Foreign Policy Analyst and Research Head at a think tank based in Islamabad. She has done Master of Philosophy (M.Phil.) in Governance and Public Policy. Her areas of research incorporate regional as well as extra regional subjects especially United States, Russia, China and Central Asian Republics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ljubljana, 8 February 2019