Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Opportunities and Challenges

While commenting on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), during a press interaction held after the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers’ meeting held at Tashkent, Uzbekistan (July 28-29, 2022) Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov said that SCO is unlike western dominated multilateral organisations. Said Lavrov in a media interaction: 

“The SCO is not divided into leaders and followers. It is not like NATO where the US and its closest allies simply impose a decision on the other alliance members…..”

There is no doubt, that the SCO as an organization has witnessed significant expansion in recent years. Iran, which currently has observer status, will become a full fledged member of the organization during the SCO summit, to be held at Samarkand (Uzbekistan) next month. Belarus currently an observer country at SCO has also applied for membership. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov while commenting on the issue said that: “I emphasize that there is a consensus to start the accession of Belarus [to the SCO] as a full member.”

Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will get dialogue partner status during the SCO Summit next month, while Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia and Nepal will get observer status.

Differences between India and Pakistan with regard to regional connectivity

The differences between India and Pakistan in the context of regional connectivity came to the fore during the SCO meeting. 

India reiterated the importance of the Chabahar Port Project, which is important for India, since it is a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia (this project is all the more important, since Pakistan has repeatedly declined to give India land access to Afghanistan). An Indian company, India Ports Global Limited (IPGL), through its wholly owned subsidiary, India Ports Global Chabahar Free Zone (IPGCFZ), took over the operations of phase 1, referred to as Shahid Beheshti Port, of the Chabahar project since December 2018. India has also been pushing for Chabahar to emerge as an important pivot of the International North South Transport Corridor /INSTC (an agreement signed between India, Iran and Russia in 2002) to improve connectivity not just with Central Asia, but also to reduce transit time and costs for Indian shipments to Europe significantly.

Many have dubbed the Chabahar project as India’s answer to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Project – though Iran has asked China, Pakistan to also participate in the project.  During the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers meeting, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar underscored the importance of the Chabahar Project for achieving SCO’s economic objectives.

While India highlighted the importance of the Chabahar Project, during the SCO Foreign Ministers’ meeting, Pakistan pushed for extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan. During the 3rd meeting of the CPEC Joint Working Group (JWG) on International Cooperation and Coordination (JWG-ICC), last month, co-chaired by Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Sohail Mahmood and China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Wu Jianghao both sides had decided to welcome third party participating in CPEC saying that it was an  ‘inclusive’ platform. 

The idea of extending CPEC to Afghanistan was first proposed in 2017, senior officials in the Taliban dispensation have also said that Afghanistan is keen to join CPEC, while in recent weeks too this point has been discussed. Last month, Pakistan Foreign Secretary Sohail Mahmood met China’s Special Envoy on Afghanistan Ambassador Yue Xiaoyong and during this meeting, bringing Afghanistan onboard  CPEC was discussed.

On the side lines of the SCO Summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had spoken about extending CPEC to Afghanistan. Said Wang Yi, “China hopes to push the alignment of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the development strategies of Afghanistan, support the extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan, and share China’s development opportunities.” 

It is not just Afghanistan, Pakistan has also been seeking to get Iran onboard the CPEC project. India has objected to Pakistan’s invite to third countries saying that it would oppose any CPEC projects “which are in the Indian territory that has been illegally occupied by Pakistan. Such activities are inherently illegal, illegitimate and unacceptable, and will be treated accordingly by India.”

It is not just different visions of regional connectivity, which underscored the fact that SCO cannot escape the geopolitical rivalries within South Asia, but this was evident even in optics/symbolism – India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar,  did not have a bilateral meeting, on the side lines of the SCO meeting, with the  Foreign Ministers of China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

While there was no sign of any thaw between India and Pakistan during the Foreign Minister level SCO Summit, there is a likelihood of Indian PM Narendra Modi and Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif meeting on the side lines of the SCO meeting next month. Modi had met with Shehbaz Sharif’s brother and then PM Nawaz Sharif on the side lines of the SCO Summit — at Ufa, Russia — in 2015. This meeting had resulted in breaking the ice  between both countries to some extent, Modi had even paid an impromptu visit to Lahore on his return from Afghanistan in December 2015, though from 2016 relations between both countries began to witness a downward spiral after the Uri terror attack. 

There is no doubt with regard to the growing interest in the SCO —  the list of new members as well as observers reiterates this. The recent Council of Foreign Ministers’ meeting however underscores the fact that while India is willing to work with Russia, its strained relations with both China and Pakistan will impede any meaningful cooperation in the areas of regional connectivity or trade.

[Photo by Press Service of Kazakh Foreign Ministry]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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