In early September, Russia hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) annual meetings of defense ministers (September 3–4), ministers of foreign affairs (September 9–10) and security council heads (September 15) (Sectsco.org, September 5, 10, 16). The regional grouping includes China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. These ministerial-level meetings usually precede annual heads of state summits and are meant to finalize all plans and agreements to be signed by the leaders. This year’s summit is scheduled for November, and will be held via video-conference due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Kremlin.ru, September 9).
The recent flurry of diplomatic activity, however, disguised the growing dysfunction and stalemate within the SCO, one that started even before the fateful accession, in 2017, of the two South Asian arch-rivals India and Pakistan. Poorly hidden Russian-Chinese disagreements regarding the priorities and future development of this organization are also becoming increasingly conspicuous (Infoshos.ru, September 2, 2016).
Russia has long feared Chinese domination of the SCO and, fully aware of its economic weakness vis-à-vis China, has consistently resisted the institutionalization of economic cooperation within its framework. For instance, Moscow blocked Beijing’s initiatives to create an SCO Free Economic Zone, an SCO Development Bank and an SCO Development Fund, fearing that these new structures would overshadow Russia’s regional agenda of incorporating all of Central Asia into its own geopolitical project, the Eurasian Economic Union. Thus, Russia has consistently worked to weaken the SCO’s Central Asia–centric agenda and has been the main proponent of its expansion by including new members from other regions (Carnegie.ru, June 12, 2017; EADaily, July 14, 2019).
Those disagreements with Russia appear to have weakened Chinese faith in the continued usefulness of the SCO. A serious change in Beijing’s attitude toward the organization can be seen, for example, in the absence since 2018 of an officially appointed “special national coordinator” for SCO affairs; this position has been downgraded and is currently performed by a diplomat with the rank of head of department at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Sectsco.org, September 10, 2020).
The SCO’s enlargement in 2017 further aggravated the situation. The antagonism in relations between India and Pakistan, as well as between China and India, negatively affects the negotiation processes within the organization. These bilateral frictions routinely materialize as mutual “blocking” of initiatives and proposals inside the SCO (India Times, June 22). India is particularly irritated by Chinese-Pakistani attempts to promote the implementation of road projects that pass through the disputed Kashmir region, as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This actually led to the paralysis of the SCO’s wider work in the transport sector over the past three years (The Hindu, September 10, 2019). To Central Asian governments’ dismay, routine statements by Indian and Pakistani officials regarding their interest in using the huge potential of cooperation in the SCO, including with Central Asia, are never followed up with any specific proposals or concrete steps (Gazeta.ru, September 16; The Hindu, September 3).
In turn, the “Russian-Chinese tandem” has ceased to serve as an engine for the development of the SCO. And the difficulty of replacing it with a “troika” consisting of Russia, China and India (RIC), which Moscow was counting on, is becoming obvious. In fact, it will be increasingly untenable for the Kremlin to maintain “balanced ties” with both of its strategic partners if it continues to profit from their conflict-prone relations by supplying military equipment to both sides (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 10).
In the medium term, the SCO members will be preoccupied with rebuilding their economies following this year’s COVID-19 induced collapse (Review.uz March 23). But the absence of SCO mechanisms for economic and financial cooperation might dampen the Central Asian states’ further interest in this organization. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, SCO member states demonstrated an inability to develop common approaches to responding to the crisis. The restrictive measures introduced by individual member states, related to trade, transport, customs and phytosanitary regulations were not coordinated, which negatively affected economic relations among these countries. The SCO’s response to the pandemic, in fact, was limited to a number of formal statements that were not followed up by any practical measures (Sectsco.org, July 24). Notably, in matters related to providing aid to other SCO member countries affected by the pandemic, China has preferred to channel its assistance through the One Belt One Road Fund, rather than via SCO structures (Podrobno.uz, August 19).
All documents signed during the SCO’s annual summits are becoming declarative in nature, with little follow-through and wholly dependent on the goodwill of the member states. Moreover, most of the agreements remain unfulfilled due to the lack of mechanisms for monitoring their implementation (Ia-centr.ru, September 1).
At the same time, Central Asian countries are finding it difficult to bring to the SCO’s agenda issues that are relevant to their immediate interests, such as alleviating their debt burdens during the period of the pandemic (Kloop.kg, September 14). Instead, the SCO’s agenda is increasingly dominated by issues related to great power politics and anti-Western rhetoric (Regnum, September 16; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 15).
Russia’s routine efforts to frustrate Chinese initiatives toward the Central Asian countries within the SCO have pushed these Central Asian governments and Beijing to launch a new platform for dialogue—one similar to the 5 +1 formats initiated in the region by the United States, South Korea, Japan and the European Union. The first session of this China plus Central Asian five format, meeting at the level of foreign ministers, took place on July 16, 2020 (Uza.uz, July 17; Vestikavkaza.ru, July 20). When Chinese Foreign Minister Wan Yi separately met with his Central Asian counterparts on the sidelines of the SCO foreign ministerial in Moscow, all of his Central Asian interlocutors pointed out the importance of the Central Asia–China forum “to form a zone of security, stability and prosperity in the region and to take practical measures to continue the implementation of joint investment and infrastructure projects” (Infoshos.ru, September 11).
The current political crisis that engulfs the SCO is largely of Russia’s own making and has become more conspicuous during Moscow’s chairmanship of the organization. A weak, divided and increasingly ineffective SCO might be more to the Kremlin’s liking. But as the launching of the China–Central Asia forum illustrates, a weakening SCO will not hinder Beijing from robustly pursuing Chinese interests and cooperation with its Central Asian neighbors (Ritmeurasia.org, July 7).