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Foreign Policy

SCO’s Astana Summit: A Path to Transformation

Jul 09, 2024
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences


Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the 24th Meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at the Independence Palace in Astana, Kazakhstan, July 4, 2024. Photo: Xinhua

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has enjoyed stable development since its inception in 2001. As of July this year, it has grown to include 26 official member states, observer states and dialogue partners, encompassing nations in Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South Caucasus, and the Indochina peninsula. Following the summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, membership in the regional organization will grow from 26 to 29. With an ever-expanding scale comes an urgent need for the organization to reform the governance philosophy and structure that was established in its early days. The Astana Summit is expected to provide an opportunity for internal transformation. 

Need to transform 

A review of SCO’s past and present status reveals significant changes in the organization’s principle of multilateralism. Its focus has expanded from strengthening mutual trust and enhancing good neighborliness among member states to forging inclusive dialogue and cooperation for the sake of sustainable development and greater prosperity.

This transformation is driven by two factors:

First, the SCO is expanding its geographic reach. At present, SCO member states account for one-third of the world's GDP, 60 percent of the Eurasian landmass and 42 percent of the world’s population. Given different political systems, levels of economic development and perceptions of security and cultural background in the member states, observer states and dialogue partners, there is a need to adopt inclusive and open multilateralism to achieve a win for all.

Second, pressure from the international system enhances the appeal of the SCO. Because of the strategic advantage of the United States in the international system, American leaders are increasingly reluctant to recognize the needs of other countries. They often act aggressively to maintain their country’s advantage by, for example, suppressing and isolating others. If U.S. leaders can’t move beyond the self-centered approach in international affairs and learn to treat other nations as equals, they may never understand why the SCO appeals to many: They are seeking a counterbalance to the pressures exerted by Washington in the international system. 

Direction of change 

The effective implementation of cooperation projects is essential for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to generate dividends of cooperation. These hold the key to the enduring vitality of multilateral mechanisms. In this context, I believe that the transformation of the SCO should include the following aspects at least:

First, it should maximize collaboration and optimize working mechanisms and decision-making procedures. It should also bolster decision-making efficiency and execution. The organization needs to emphasize the leading role of its summits and strengthen the supervision and execution capabilities of the Council of Heads of Government (prime ministers) to ensure the effective implementation of cooperation projects.

The Astana Declaration, which expected to be published at the end of the summit in July, will contain suggestions for improving the organization’s efficiency in deliberation and decision-making. As Secretary-General Zhang Ming said, the Astana Summit will become a milestone in the history of the SCO.

Second, it should strengthen the development of the core area. At the 2023 summit in New Delhi, the heads of member states unanimously agreed that Central Asia is the core area of the SCO. In fact, the organization’s development depends on the support of countries in this area, and now these countries need to address the ongoing challenge of marginalization associated with the SCO’s geographic expansion.

Third, it should devote resources to green multilateralism. At present, issues of traditional security and economy remain the main areas of cooperation within the SCO. Going forward, the member states need to reach greater consensus in more areas, such as climate change, emissions reduction and green transformation. Cooperation in these sectors has the potential to become the locomotive for the transformation of the SCO. 

Challenges to transformation 

Internally, the SCO follows the Shanghai Spirit; externally, it adheres to the principles of non-alignment, non-targeting of third parties and openness. However, because of shifts in the relationships between the United States and some SCO member states — such as China, Russia, Iran and Belarus — the SCO is often labeled anti-American or anti-Western, which poses many challenges to its transformation efforts.

First, the SCO’s expansion has led to the shrinkage of the buffer zone. With Belarus set to join the organization as a formal member at the Astana Summit, the organization’s reach will expand to the eastern flank of NATO’s sphere of influence and overlap with its buffer zone.

Second, divisions in efforts to rebuild world peace may intensify as the SCO increases its strategic autonomy. In addition to the Astana Declaration, this summit is expected to adopt the Initiative on World Unity for a Just Peace and Harmony, which is seen as a response to the G7 Leaders’ Communique released at the summit in Apulia, Italy.

Third, the rise of a new cold war mentality has increased global strategic instability. This mindset stems from domestic political pressure in the United States, rather than from external security interests. According to most American political elites, the United States and its Western allies must unite to contain China and Russia because Russia is destroying the international system established by the West after World War II (rebuilt at the end of the Cold War) and because China-Russia relations threaten to challenge the security interests and values of the Western world. Obviously, this mentality is likely to slow the pace of transformation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Every transformation of international organizations is shaped by interactions in the international system. Within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the need to transform into a constructive force for regional peace, stability, prosperity and development aligns with the need for development, now and in the future.

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