Toward a Silk Road consensus
It is the beginning of a "Silk Road Consensus." On June 10, the 18th Meeting of the Council of Heads of Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Qingdao crystalized a multilateral organization that can effectively coordinate policy to implement the Belt and Road Initiative.
The BRI as a concept and vision has some 70 memorandums of understanding between China and other nations. The memorandums share a vision or set of principles. However this past weekend we could see the SCO emerging as the coordinating body for regional policy to make BRI a reality.
The SCO first began as the "Shanghai Five" in 1996 when China, Kazakhstan, Kygyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan signed an agreement to resolve border issues and increase military cooperation on security. The "Shanghai Five" re-congregated as the "SCO" in Shanghai in June 2001, with Uzbekistan joining. A decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, against the backdrop of failed shock therapy and western academic formulas for market fundamentalism, Shanghai was China's showcase demonstrating how a merged market and planning could be used in tandem as tools for sequenced and coordinated growth. China's pragmatic approach was proving to be a viable alternative.
However, in October 2001, the American invasion of Afghanistan began a process of security destabilization in the region that has continued to present. At that time, many speculated that the fledgling SCO would as an organization be shadowed by the military and political interventionist policies of Washington in trying to re-fashion the region according to its model.
But the invasion of Afghanistan, heralded as a war against terrorism, ended up incubating more extremism, underscoring the urgency for another approach. No wonder regional security and stability topped everyone's agenda at Qingdao this weekend. Tajikistan's President Emmomalii Rahmon raised the issue of Afghanistan posing a regional security problem to all in the room, and the need to address conflict at the root of the problem rather than its effect, that root being poverty.
In addressing the opening session of the SCO, China's President Xi Jinping clearly observed, "While various traditional and non-traditional security threats keep emerging, the force for peace will prevail…security and stability are what people long for." Consensus in the room was that economic disempowerment and the marginalization of people's identity is the root cause of conflict and even terror.
Development of the transport network proposed under the BRI, with emphasis on economic corridors to assure development, will begin to address poverty. Enhanced cultural exchange and cross-cultural education was emphasized as a means of reducing misunderstanding and forging a community on the new Silk Road. Agreements signed in Qingdao this past weekend emphasized cooperation in the fields of education, science, technology, health, tourism, sports, culture, economics and environment.
There was no one in the room who believed that conflict, violence and terror are about the "clash of civilizations," a common theme of western think-tank and media analysts. "While we keep hearing such rhetoric as the clash of civilizations or the superiority of one civilization over another, it is the diversity of civilizations that sustains human progress," President Xi remarked. In the spirit of promoting such diversity of civilizations, Kyrgyzstan President Sooronbay Jeenbekov announced that Kyrgyzstan will host a regional conference on religion to promote cross-cultural cooperation and understanding.
Regardless of the religions, or rather philosophies, of the region: Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Islam, Bon, Shaman, each emphasizes several key principles and responsibilities. Among them are alms giving, that is the rich or those who have material comfort, also have as their responsibility to help others, as we are all part of an integral community. Such a view may be understood popularly in the west today as "corporate social responsibility." It is a core value in each of these philosophies of our region.
Another aspect of these philosophies is the importance of community first rather than emphasizing the individual, a notion that may be viewed as selfishness or egoism. Moreover, the importance of realizing man as only an aspect of the greater universal hologram, not a conquering nature, but rather finding harmony with nature and one's own surroundings – whether these be environmental, community, or the community of nature. From these a growing set of shared universal values among SCO member and observer nations arises.
We must remember however, that across this region of the Silk Road that different ethnic and religious communities have lived in juxtaposition with each other for millennia. Much of the religious and ethic conflict has arisen from colonial and post-colonial external interventions. The India and Pakistan relationship, with the China and India border issues, are historic carry-overs from colonial interventionism in the pre-colonial regional order. The fact that India and Pakistan joined the SCO together in 2017 and took their place at the table in Qingdao is a huge breakthrough for regional stability, development and peace.
In Qingdao last weekend, as a pragmatic step forward to overcome barriers, Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain called for a special business visa protocol to allow for easy travel between SCO countries. Individual travel visas are cumbersome and time consuming, even between member nations of SCO. President Hussain's suggestion allows one to imagine even Kashmiri traders freely crossing the line of control between Pakistan and India, enhancing business ties, as well as peace on both sides. As straightforward as it sounds, this is a breakthrough proposal that could drop barriers to trade and investment, as well as tourism.
New financial mechanisms and institutions will be key to the success of the BRI and SCO cooperation. The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, (BRICS) New Development Bank, and the Silk Road Fund are financing institutions that will help build the financial architecture of the BRI. It was tabled that a new organization, the SCO Development Bank, will join these institutions. President Xi announced that China will set up a 30 billion yuan special lending facility to operate within the framework of the SCO Inter-bank Consortium. Through cross border swaps and inter-bank clearing, the yuan may very well become the regional trade and clearing currency. When it becomes the reserve currency for SCO and BRI countries is when real global tectonic change will have happened.
In this respect, the SCO could very well emerge as the alternative to old "new world order” systems such as the G7, which ironically became the "G6 against 1" just days before the SCO summit. As western world leaders squabble amidst impending unilateral trade wars, the need for a collaborative and pragmatically constructive approach to global affairs is every more urgent. "While unilateralism, trade protectionism and backlash against globalization are taking new forms, in this global village of ours where countries' interests and futures are so interconnected, the pursuit of cooperation for mutual benefit represents a surging trend," President Xi suggested in his opening speech at Qingdao.
In the context of global geo-politics we have the emergence of two worlds now: one that is unilateral, protectionist, interventionist and obstructionist in the interest of one nation first; another world that is multi-lateral, globalist, non-interventionist and seeking to build bridges (if not high speed rail and telecommunication networks), in the interest of a community with a shared future for mankind.
Nothing underscores this sharp juxtaposition than the breakdown of G7 when President Donald Trump refused to sign the traditional statement of solidarity with G7 allies launching a barrage of angry tweets and insults against Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for saying, "as Canadians we are polite and reasonable, but we will not be pushed around".
In addressing the SCO this past weekend, President Xi noted, "While hegemony and power politics still persist in this world, the growing call for more just and equitable international order must be heeded. Greater democracy in international relations is an unstoppable trend of the times." That means multi-lateral and not unilateral approaches as an overarching shared vision of the SCO, especially as it expands its members.
SCO is now the largest regional organization in the world in terms of geographical coverage and population. Existing members account for 20 percent of the global economy and 40 percent of its population. Its influence is certain to expand as observer countries, such as Iran, Nepal and Mongolia, formally join in the years ahead. It represents a new Silk Road.
For thousands of years the Silk Road was the economic order of the day. A network of connectivity built on trade that led to the expansion and integration of culture, ideas and philosophy. In the broader historic context, it was broken only temporarily during the colonial and post-colonial periods by the invention of ships that could sail the high seas making transport faster there, putting the camel and horse caravans to disuse; and the enhancement of gunpowder as firearms that facilitated the process of colonizing, and later the introduction of a single global reserve currency that assured control over the financial independence of nations. But now with new technologies of high-speed trains, communication systems and the introduction of a new financial architecture within the context of mobile banking penetration into some of the most remote and isolated regions, the Silk Road is back. Now with the SCO, it is time for a Silk Road Consensus.
The author is founding director of Himalayan Consensus and an international research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization.