China has taken over the rotating presidency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and is scheduled to host the next summit in June 2018 in China. Earlier this month, the addition of India and Pakistan as full members increased this organization’s reach to South Asia from Eurasia and Central Asia for the first time.
While cooperation opportunities lie ahead, the entry of the two countries into the SCO will also perhaps bring some challenges for the organization. First, there’s a fundamental difference between the six old members and the two new ones. Leading the old SCO and achieving short-term goals was relatively easy, given the strong central leadership in the original member countries. The two new countries are democracies, one of which is very fragile. Achieving both short- and long-term goals may not be as easy as it was for the old SCO. As a China watcher for 30 years, I know for a fact that China is in no hurry.
Second, India has a population of 1.3 billion, nearly matching China’s 1.4 billion, and it may perhaps move beyond it by 2022. India also boasts fast GDP growth and will be a candidate for regional and global leadership. Managing the relationship with India under the SCO and the BRICS will require a balancing act for China. There is also the issue of the existing differences between the two countries, such as India’s objections to the Belt and Road initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which India says passes through disputed territory.
Third, the SCO’s biggest challenge will come from Pakistan. According to agreements such as the Treaty of Long-Term Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation between the Member States of the SCO, the second-most important document after the SCO Charter, neighbours should resolve their issues through peaceful dialogue. However, only a day after the Astana Summit, Pakistan’s army chief visited troops after reported violations along the Line of Control (LoC), and the Pakistan Foreign Office summoned the Indian deputy high commissioner to protest about the ceasefire violation. It was against this backdrop that in spite of being under one roof, both Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi could not go beyond a customary greeting and have a one-on-one or bilateral meeting.
The Pakistan challenge is compounded even more when seen in the light of domestic politics. Prime Minister Sharif’s four years in office have been marred by domestic wrangling and he has limited influence over some of the more significant issues facing Pakistan, such as regional aspirations or ties with neighbours, as Pakistan’s foreign policy is run by powerful military interests.
Another question is what will the SCO’s role be? I tend to think that the SCO and China are the new leaders of the emerging world order, connecting and impacting people and leaders in Asia-Pacific, East Asia, South Asia, West Asia and the Eurasia regions. Security is the single biggest challenge. The three forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism are at play in most parts of the developing world.
In Astana, President Xi Jinping echoed what he said at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing: Peace before prosperity. Security is the prerequisite for development. “Without security, there will be no development to speak of,” Xi was quoted as saying by the Xinhua News Agency during the SCO summit. He also said the SCO “can contribute to finding political settlements to hotspot issues.”
This could be China’s biggest achievement in a troubled world. Whether it is Syria or Afghanistan or Kashmir, the world needs peace to become a better place for future generations.
An important SCO pillar is increasing people-to-people bonds, among the youth in particular. China spent much of the last century as a self-contained country, but it is now opening up to the world for a two-way understanding. China aims to launch a China-SCO cooperation program in human resources development, under which China will invite representatives from SCO states to seminars and workshops in China, while also sending Chinese experts to SCO states to give policy advice, carry out local training programs and provide government scholarships.
This indicates that the SCO is not only focusing on security, terrorism and trade. It has a long-term plan to influence the next two generations and unite them under China’s leadership.
Wali Zahid is president of the Institute of Media & Communication in Pakistan and a long-time China-watcher.