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SCO is 20 and building on Sino-Russian ties

By Alexander Lukin | China Daily | Updated: 2021-06-08 07:50
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The Shanghai Cooperation Organization turns 20 this year. On June 15, 2001, the leaders of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan signed the SCO into existence. One day earlier, former Chinese president Jiang Zemin met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Shanghai to discuss bilateral relations and the goals of the SCO. Interestingly, the Chinese and US leaders had signed the Shanghai Communique in the same metropolis three decades earlier. That made the 2001 meeting deeply symbolic.

It showed that Russian-Chinese strategic cooperation formed the basis of the SCO and the two countries had put the Cold War years behind them, and were driving the shift away from a unipolar or bipolar world toward a more balanced and multipolar world.

In fact, the SCO is both one of the main results of this shift and a major driver behind it. It has come a long way in its 20 years of existence and now holds great interest for the world-an interest that, in some ways, even outweighs the real achievements of the SCO.

What accounts for this heightened interest? The SCO is essentially an association of regional cooperation, making it a potential center of the emerging multipolar world and a possible alternative-or counterweight-to the United States and its allies.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union triggered a radical change in the global balance of power. And although not all countries looked favorably at the Soviet Union, its disintegration increased the external threat for many of them, especially for the larger states.

The West, especially the United States, increasingly tried to assume the role of international arbiter, and strove to enforce its own decisions, in violation of international law, on other countries. Countries dissatisfied with this situation began establishing closer contacts. But their intention was not to band together against the West. Indeed, many of these countries were integrated into the Western system and valued their participation in it.

Yet they looked for ways to coordinate their positions on what they saw as problem areas of the emerging world order. This led to the creation and/or strengthening of organizations and groups such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the SCO, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States and, of course, BRICS.

The SCO focuses on three areas: regional security, the economy and culture, with the greatest progress made in the first. In the area of security, member states have concluded a number of key agreements and regularly hold joint military exercises. Coordinated efforts by member states to counter international terrorism hold particular importance because each has suffered terrorist attacks-a threat that might increase due to US President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan.

The SCO also addresses other security-related issues such as drug trafficking, information security and illegal migration.

The SCO members have had more difficulty in achieving success in economic cooperation. For many years, experts and politicians of the member states have been calling for the establishment of an SCO development bank to finance multilateral interstate economic projects. But this proposal has not advanced beyond a conceptual framework, and the only multilateral projects implemented primarily concern transport and logistics.

Cooperation on education and culture is especially important now as the Eurasian states seek to highlight their unique culture and values as a basis for regional integration. The SCO has made few efforts in this direction, however. Perhaps the only major achievement in this area has been the creation of the SCO University offering network studies-but its activities remain underdeveloped.

One great success of the SCO has been its expansion to include major countries such as India and Pakistan as full members. They have added a new dimension to the organization and expanded its global influence despite the organizational problems the process entailed. However, not only members, but also observer states and dialogue partners have helped carry out the work of the SCO.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many countries to prioritize national interests at the expense of international cooperation. This, of course, has diminished the role of international organizations. But the SCO member states have demonstrated strong solidarity and mutual support in the face of the pandemic.

As SCO Secretary-General Vladimir Norov said in December 2020, the organization has reformatted its mechanisms for sectoral cooperation and prepared a raft of documents to regulate important political and economic decisions. During the first part of this period, the rotating chairmanship of the SCO fell to Russia, which played a significant role in the reformatting effort.

The SCO also interacts with the public. Several international public and business structures have been established around the organization to help with its work. These include the SCO Business Council, the SCO Youth Council and the SCO Interbank Consortium.

Probably, all major international organizations today make use of a "second track" comprising think tanks and experts to analyze its work and make recommendations for its improved functioning. The SCO Forum performs this role for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It was formed at a meeting called for that purpose in Moscow in 2006.

In the same year, Putin wrote in an article titled "The SCO-a New Model of Successful International Cooperation" that, "The SCO Forum that was created not long ago and unites representatives from various professional and academic circles is destined to become a unique nongovernmental mechanism that unites experts from the Organization's member states."

The forum now comprises eight national research centers and holds regular meetings. It has held such meetings via video link during the pandemic.

It is an encouraging fact that the SCO has become an influential international organization, one of the pillars of the multipolar world. Its main challenges include finding its unique role in the emerging system of regional cooperation in Eurasia and strengthening economic and cultural ties. It seems the member states have the potential to succeed in meeting these challenges and further develop the unique Shanghai spirit of win-win cooperation based on an ancient Chinese principle of harmony, but not uniformity.

The author is the director of the Center for East Asian and SCO Studies at MGIMO-University-the Russian National SCO Research Center; head of the Department of International Relations at HSE University in Moscow; and chair professor at Zhejiang University in China.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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