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Foreign Policy

SCO Needs to Coordinate Disparate Views

Jul 09, 2024


President Xi Jinping attended the 24th meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s Council of Heads of State in Kazakhstan. Since its establishment in 2001, the SCO has undergone continuous membership expansion. China, Russia and the four Central Asian nations will attend. Belarus will become the 10th member country at this year’s summit, following India, Pakistan and Iran. As it assumes the SCO’s presidency next year, China will need to have a clear idea of the organization’s key priorities and the issues it faces, and make comprehensive arrangements for coordinating the demands of member countries, as well as its own.

The first subject facing the SCO will be its power structure and decision-making mechanism. As is widely understood, China and Russia have been the twin engines of the SCO. The trouble with this structure is that there are various factors of instability in the model of the two countries sharing leadership, while the participation of India, which thinks highly of itself, has also had an impact on the dominant positions of China and Russia.

Before expansion, in the relations between China, Russia and Central Asia — and even though Russia had greater influences on Central Asia — it was still possible for the SCO to preserve a relative balance there. The SCO power structure is changing with India, Pakistan and Iran’s participation, resulting in a dual-layer structure: China, Russia and India in the first layer, and China, Russia, India plus Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan in the second layer.

Chinese scholars believe that China, Russia and India have four possible modes of interaction within the SCO — a strategic triangle, China-Russia joint leadership, bipolarization and Russian dominance. The strategic triangle refers to China, Russia and India forming a relationship of mutual coordination in the organization; China-Russia joint leadership refers to the pre-expansion twin-engine mode, with India participating as an ordinary member; bipolarization refers to Russia-India and China-Pakistan forming a relationship of confrontation in the SCO, checking and balancing each other; Russian dominance refers to both China and India being marginalized and Russia becoming the center. The ultimate mode of interaction is yet to emerge at this point. Whether or not India’s stance on certain significant issues is constructive will be of critical importance.

Decision-making — that is, who is to decide and how to decide — is of fundamental importance for an international organization’s existence and operation. As the SCO Charter stipulates, resolutions of all SCO institutions are to be passed via consultation without voting. A resolution would be considered approved if no member country expresses opposition during consultation.

This form of decision-making sees all members as equal in status and will. It never allows the big and strong or the majority to bully the small, weaker minority. It preserves the organization’s unity and cooperation to the greatest extent, thus embodying the SCO spirit. But the trouble is that proposals about pragmatic cooperation are often subject to endless foot-dragging, especially initiatives of economic cooperation proposed by China.

In view of this, Chinese scholars advocate that, while adhering to “consultation-based unanimity” on major subjects, the SCO needs to adopt the principle of simple majority to avoid undermining efficiency. But the Russian side doesn’t agree, emphasizing that “Oriental” nations’ ways of expressing opposition is implicit. They often won’t say no even when they disagree and would rather employ positive expressions that are murky but with negative implications. This has become a part of their political culture.

Russian scholars have made it clear that strong opposition and fierce open disputes should be avoided within the SCO as much as possible. If member countries have different opinions on a certain topic, the issue will remain on the agenda for a long time, so making any substantial progress is virtually impossible. An obvious example: Russian opposition has indefinitely suspended the establishment of a SCO development bank. 

In essence, different Chinese and Russian attitudes toward SCO decision-making mechanism are motivated by both their pursuits of control over the organization’s agenda and their respective say within it. The principle of consultation-based unanimity has thus become a useful card for influencing SCO decision-making processes.

The second subject for the SCO to determine is whether it should prioritize security or economy when it comes to organizational functions. The SCO itself was derived from concerns over regional security, and it then made strenuous efforts to promote economic cooperation. However, economic cooperation has lagged far behind security and political cooperation. This has become a cliche topic.

Russian scholars have also conceded that but for Russia’s opposition to establishing the SCO development bank and resisting intra-SCO economic cooperation, China might have been content with the potentials and might not have blazed another trail by proposing the Belt and Road Initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Foundation. The Russian mindset isn’t hard to understand: China has greater potential and say on economic subjects, so letting the SCO agenda tilt away from security toward economic fields would mean Russia ceding leadership to China.

Meanwhile, Central Asian nations have raised newer, more specific requests to the SCO regarding economic cooperation. More developed members are in favor of cooperation in such areas as innovation and startups, sci-tech gardens, energy conservation and environmental protection. Less developed nations want the SCO to build corresponding mechanisms for poverty-alleviation, transportation infrastructure and suppressing economic crimes. They also want assistance in domestic development. Therefore, clarifying priority areas, coordinating stakeholder interests and facilitating pragmatic cooperation is an imperative task for the SCO.

The third subject to which the SCO must respond is regional limits. From its inception until its expansion, SCO members were China, Russia and four Central Asian nations, and its regional characteristics were quite obvious in Central Asia. With India and Pakistan joining, the SCO has broken through the geographical boundaries of Central Asia, and its basic topics cannot avoid South Asia. From a geostrategic perspective, the SCO not only covers the heartland of the Eurasian continent but has also extended to the Indian Ocean.

Admitting India and Pakistan is a critical step for expanding the organization’s global influence, which better serves Russia’s purpose of taking the SCO global. After expansion, Central Asian nations worry they may be marginalized, so they insist on the SCO’s Central Asian nature and wish the SCO agenda would focus on that region. China is more in favor of expanding the SCO from Central Asia to Central Asia-related Eurasia, and its membership expansion would not highlight confrontation with outsiders. By contrast, Russia is more interested in turning SCO and BRICS cooperation mechanisms into tools for getting rid of international isolation and confronting the West.

To sum up, the SCO is an important platform for China and Russia, Central Asia and South Asia, and China should and could more explicitly develop and express its own positions, especially on matters concerning the organization’s future development. China’s participation in global governance is very much consistent with the SCO’s purpose and growth, and it should continue playing its role as a core member. It should guide the orientation of the organization, coordinate relations between old and new members from the perspective of a new-type of international relations and make the organization more energetic, attractive and functional. 

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