Source Responsible Statecraft
WASHINGTON, U.S.--Even as the Ukraine war enters a new phase with significant Russian losses in the Donbass, the center of diplomatic gravity this week will be in the historic city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan, where the annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is taking place.
Today’s meeting between Presidents Putin and Xi will be among the event’s highlights, as Beijing takes stock of developments in Ukraine that could challenge its relationship with Moscow. But the churnings within the SCO are of almost equal significance and deserve major attention.
While we hear about NATO almost daily in the mainstream media, the SCO is a much less-known entity. With 40 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of its GDP, it shouldn’t be. Founded in 2001 and headquartered in Beijing, the SCO, while expressly not a military alliance, is today the premier regional organization spanning Eurasia.
The border settlement talks continued even after the three republics gained independence upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, eventually leading to a comprehensive settlement. Settling the vexed question of territory enabled the five states, joined by Uzbekistan, to lay the groundwork for a new organization.
But the SCO did not stop with Central Asia. More recently, it has kicked into expansion mode. In 2017, India and Pakistan were admitted as full members.
The SCO also has a set of dialogue partners (the step below observer status), namely Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. According to the Kremlin, three new states -— Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar — will join this list in Samarkand, and the process for adding Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Maldives, and Myanmar as dialogue partners will also begin.
Of course, more members do not necessarily mean more coherence. In fact, it can often mean less — just look at the EU’s ups and downs. Nevertheless, the fact that an organization which at its core is founded by a group of illiberal states is attracting so much interest well beyond its original geography is more than noteworthy.
Embedded at the core of the SCO (and notwithstanding the irony of Russia’s territorial violations), are principles of “sovereignty and territorial integrity, equality and mutual benefit, resolution of all issues through mutual consultations, non-interference in internal affairs.” The organization has also traditionally laid stress on combating terrorism and extremism, with multiple joint military exercises in this arena.
But the unstated but clear motivation of the SCO is to form a parallel structure of geopolitical like-mindedness to U.S.-led coalitions that dot the global landscape. In attracting major states of the Global South such as India, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, and Egypt, the expanding SCO is sending a message of a gathering of East-South convergence.
What does all this mean for the Putin-Xi meeting? This is a significant visit for Xi, being his first visit outside his country since the pandemic.
Ironically, even as Russia and China are expanding the SCO with new and old fans in South Asia and the Middle East, core states in the organization such as Kazakhstan are increasingly alienated from Russia as the war grinds on.
However, the drivers for continued solidarity between Moscow and Beijing remain strong and likely durable. The most important such driver is the United States itself, practicing a strategy (if it can be called that) of dual containment toward both Russia and China.
It was one thing when dual containment was deployed against middle powers Iran and Iraq in the 1990s. It’s quite another when it is used against two massive continental-sized great powers.
Even as the SCO grows and Eurasia gels, Washington’s own attempts to counter China — as marked by the constructed geography of the “Indo-Pacific” — have run into major difficulties beyond some core allies.
India has indeed partially aligned with Washington’s China strategy. But a deepening Russia-China bond has not prevented India from drawing even closer to Russia, despite New Delhi’s rivalry with Beijing.
In sum, Washington seems to be doing everything it can to create a more adverse and convergent Eurasia. Apart from the lip service being extended to diplomacy, there seems to be an active attempt underway to undermine the One China policy.