Unlike last year in Qingdao, when the streets of the Chinese east-coast city were suspiciously quiet during the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the streets of Bishkek were buzzing. The two-day summit of the SCO caused a traffic apocalypse in the capital of Kyrgyzstan and kicked the summer off in the country in an unusual fashion. The list of attendees was impressive. Leaders from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia gathered in Bishkek under the aegis of the SCO. Yet, notable delegations notwithstanding, it still remained unclear whether the SCO in its current format can deliver concrete solutions.
The admirers of the SCO continued boasting about the reputation of the organization, its potential, and scale, since member-states represent nearly half of the world’s population, one fifth of the world’s territory, and one fourth of the world’s GDP. Nonetheless, in essence, the achievements of the SCO are relatively modest. The organization itself is rather small with an operational budget of approximately $5 million per year allocated mostly for running its secretariat. Practically since its establishment in 1996, the SCO has been plagued by accusations of lacking any purpose and direction.
It is fairly understandable why the critics of the SCO accuse the organization of not living up to the expectations. Upon the establishment of the organization, the SCO was presented as a permanent intergovernmental institution that will strengthen trust between member-states, promote peace, and advance cooperation in the areas of tourism, economy, education, and culture, among many others. For more geopolitically-minded observers, the SCO represented a new instrument for China and Russia to resist the American influence in Central Asia. There are also those who believe that the original goal of the SCO was to entangle China in a system of ‘friendly commitments’ to balance out China’s propensity for unilateral activism in the region. The accession of India to the SCO as a fully-fledged member is an indicative example of such efforts, spearheaded mostly by Russia.
In either case, the SCO did not meet such expectations and failed to evolve beyond its current form of a high-profile discussion club. The SCO’s noble declarations remained mostly declaratory. The US engagement in Central Asia was diminishing on its own without any significant multilateral resistance from the SCO. The entanglement of China did not prevent Beijing from unilateral engagement either.
Ahead of the summit in Bishkek, there were already talks that leaders of the member-states will discuss cooperation in the areas of security and economic development within the framework of the SCO. At the summit itself, heads of states signed 15 documents and are expected to sign 7 more. These documents, and the Bishkek Declaration of the SCO’s Heads of State Council in particular, reinstated that the SCO is an effective and reliable mechanism for multilateral cooperation in the interests of creating a polycentric world order that respects principles of international law and a vision of creating a community of shared future.
Accordingly, member-states reassured that they will continue adhering to the values of the Shanghai Spirit in addressing topical matters such as promoting regional stability and fighting drug trafficking. Leaders of the member-states advised that they will expand joint efforts in ensuring sustainable development and will fight together against all forms and manifestations of terrorism and extremism. Member-states also further committed to deepening collaboration in science, education, healthcare, sport, tourism, and culture, in addition to expanding partnership in finance, trade, investment, and high technology.
Yet, how ground-breaking are these discourses really? Does the Bishkek Declaration of 2019 significantly differ from the Tashkent Declaration of 2016 or the Dushanbe Declaration of 2014? At every summit, leaders of the member-states get together to proclaim that the modern system of international relations is undergoing a difficult period marked by heightened security threats and economic and political turbulence. Thus, they need to intensify their efforts in advancing lasting peace and good neighbourly relations. Nevertheless, is there any evidence that proclaimed intentions transform into concrete actions? There are few tangible achievements such as the creation of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS). However, overall there are not that many success stories.
To be fair, there are a number of reasons why the SCO fails to move beyond discourses. To name a few, the SCO is not a supranational entity and has limited mechanisms to enforce joint agreements. Member-states have intrinsically divergent views on strategic development of the organization and on some topical issues, such as the heightening of cooperation in economic sphere as the SCO’s twin-priority. Furthermore, most member-states of the SCO are parties to other regional organisations and integrationist projects, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The agenda of these organizations quite often duplicates some existing and potential areas of the SCO’s involvement, thus making the reorientation or specialization of the SCO in certain directions redundant.
That said, it may be the right time to reassess both expectations and perceptions of what the SCO really embodies. It is apparent that the future of the SCO depends much on how it will define itself in the region. The SCO has neither become a geopolitical powerhouse nor it has evolved into an effective regional institution. Therefore, the SCO should be simply, or rather honestly, viewed just as what it is at the moment – a high-level discussion forum and a club of all regional leaders. From that perspective, the SCO can be quite a successful mechanism to garner heads of states to discuss pressing issues, raise urging concerns, and run behind-the-scenes politics, but without any pressing expectations. By and large, this is what the SCO is currently preoccupied with anyway.