Geopolitical Expansion of SCO: Will it be a Next SAARC?

26 March, 2017

International Affairs


Originally, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was conceived in 1996 as ‘Shanghai Five.’ With theinclusion of Uzbekistan, it was converted  into SCO. The principal aims of the SCO included the heightening of the political, economic,security, scientific, technical, cultural, educational, energy, transport, environmental,and good neighbourliness relations among the member countries. However, the most important aspect of cooperation is security. It lays focus on the joint efforts for maintaining the peace, stability, controlling and controlling the terrorism, separatism and fundamentalism. 


The SCO has great potential for the multifaceted cooperation such as political, economic, security. Even it has attained some considerable achievements. In order to tap, expand markets and enhance ecconomc and secuirty cooperation, the geopolitical expansion of SCO has taken place by acceding thetwo new members- India and Pakistan during the Tashkent Summit 2016. These two countries formally will be added as permanent members in the proposed Astana Summit(June 2017). Despite divergent on geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic issues, the SCO has become the largest region of the world in terms of demographic, geographic and economic dividends.   


Soon after the end of the World War-II, the international politics has been characterised by the exponential growing trend of regionalism. In the late 1970s, several regional groups have been appeared on the geopolitical landscape. In 1985, the SAARC was instituted with the vision to promote the welfare, quality of life andto accelerate the economic cooperation.The promotion of the collective self-reliance among the South Asia countrieshas been holding the pivotal place. By age, the SAARC has become matured enough to claim a regional organizationbut by achievements, not in aposition to show some creditworthyachievements’ in terms of set goals. The animosity between the two major members India and Pakistan have crippled, plagued and handicapped the SAARCfunctionally and structurally. 


Geopolitical Expansion of SCO

 After a lengthy discussion and dialogue, the SCO has decided to pursue its geopolitical expansion. The first geopolitical development startedin 2004 when Mongolia wasinducted as an observer during the Tashkent Summit (2004). It was followed by the admission of observers such as India, Iran,Pakistan(2005) along with other six countries Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkeyas dialogue partners. Again in 2009, Belarus was admitted as an observer. India and Pakistan (Memorandum on accession signed in June 2016), have joined as acceding member in 2016 and these two are likely to be admitted as full members during the proposed Astana Summit(2017).


The geopolitical expansion holds a good potential for political, economic and security cooperation in both South and Central Asian regions. Not only the original member but the acceding member India and Pakistan likely to be benefitted through the heightened trade,investments, availability of untapped markets,connectivity  (INSTC, CPEC) and  energy (TAPI, IPI and CASA) projects. 


Nevertheless, the geopolitical expansion (full membership of India and Pakistan) has been fraught with multiple challenges, given the  complex geopolitical environmentexisting  among the members of both SAARC and SCO. The geo-economic, geopolitical and geostrategicimplications and imperatives have to be gauzed carefully through the prism of arch rivalries and divergences among the major players such as Russia, China, Central Asia, India and Pakistan. In this background, the major question haunting is, what would be the future of the SCO by the proposed geopolitical expansion? 



SAARC was incepted in 1985 with the principles of sovereign equality, protecting of territorial integrity, maintaining of political independence and non-interference in internal affairs of other States.  The primary goals and objectives of SAARC included the promotion of quality life and regional economic growth; strengthen of collective self-reliance; to encourage an active collaboration in economic, technical and scientific fields. Nevertheless, these principles and objectives appeared to remain asdistant dreams for the regional cooperation for the given of bilateralconflictingissues between India and Pakistan. Even after the completion of 30 years of its age, the SAARC has still notbeen able to control the challenges of terrorism, extremism,fundamentalism, promote regional economic cooperation and sort out the soco-economc problems. In order to enhance regional economic cooperation, several projects have been put in place. However, these projectshave been remained either in embryonic or notmaterialised. It is believed that the bilateral irritants of India and Pakistan over several issues such as Kashmir, Siachen Glacier, Sir Creek and water have failed the SAARC. Given the recent skirmishes over the LoC between India and Pakistan, failed the SAARC to date with Islamabad Summit 2016.


China is the most influential player of the SCO. Though prima facie, the motivations and interests of Russia and China seem to be similar, but these are also incongruent in criticalareas of cooperation. Russia's Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation agreement of  0 billion to jointly build a gas pipeline, transactions in their own currencies, rather than the dollar, reinvigorated Asia-Pacific security cooperation, regularly vetoing the US-sponsored UN resolutions regarding Syria and North Korea, Chinese silence regarding Russia's intervention in Ukraine are some of the congruences in the larger Eurasian geopolitical canvas. But underhand, a fierce competition has been going on between both the major powers in the context of expanding their geopolitical and geo-economic influence in the Eurasia in general and the Central Asia in particular.  Both partners used to remain very mistrustful and watchful of each other’smanoeuvres. Chinese economic clout in Central Asia regarding trade, investment and joint ventures are causing a lot of heartburn for Russia. Silk Road (One Belt One Road) has raised hackles among the Russian scholars, who believed Central Asia is as Russia’s backyard. According to Huasheng (Director of the Centre for Russia and Central Asia Studies at Fudan University), Russian officials perceives it as Moscow’s geopolitical challenge to its regional integration throughout the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).


It seems that the Indo-Pak accession will restraint the consensus ability and internal cohesion within the SCO over the regional cooperation/developmental issues. So, given the strategic regional challenges in terms of terrorism, secessionism and fundamentalism, security cooperation will remain the main objective of SCO. However, consensus on counter-terror strategy seems difficult to achieve among the member countries given the good or bad terrorism. Similarly, given the lack of connectivity and various other geopolitical hurdles, regional economic cooperation will be effected. Various energy and connectivity projects such as TAPI, IPI, and INSTC have also been hanging in limbo since their conceptualization due to vested interests.Though CPEC is completed, but India has been hesitant to join it.  Though Russia has shown its interest to join the same, but it has also raised hackles of the same.  Apart from these challenges and hurdles, there is a possibility of competition/conflict for expanding geopolitical/geo-economics influence in the Eurasian region at least between Russia and China. 


The entry of India, engaging with its competitor China, will destabilise the organisation. The geopolitical environment has been changed, and Russia and India have been drifted partly from each other, though India’s accession has been supported by the Russia. At the same time, India’s relations with China has also not been on the even keel. In the recent past, the bilateral relations have been further soured due to China’s opposition to India’s bid for NSG membership, blocking of Chief of LeT Masood Azhar, hosting Dalai Lama by Delhi and his visit to Arunachal Pradesh, India’s support to Mongolia during its economic blockade by China in view of Dalai Lama’s visit.Thus, the SCO can be characterised by factionalism, distrust and mistrust among the members even before the completion of its geopolitical expansion. 


The Moscow's Carnegie Dmitry Trenin has called the accession of India and Pakistan to SCO asa “time bomb” in view of being consistently in a state of war against each other. From the Pakistani side,a well-knownPakistani columnist, who has repeatedly called for peaceful ties with India, believes that the SCO may turn into a forum where theneighbours will clash over bilateral issues. Both the countries will use SCO as the platform to attack each other and make the forum paralysed like SAARC which has always been under the shadow of Indo-Pak rivalry. 


Given the existing exasperations among the members, how SCO will be kept intact, will remain the major question before the policy practitioners, strategic thinkers and commentators? It would appear that SCO will meet the same fate as the SAARC on account of major conflicts/difference between India and Russia, Russia and China, China and India and India and Pakistan. For becoming a successful organisation, the SCO needs consensus and cooperation to achieve the set goals -political, economic, and security cooperation. The larger interests should not be gambled for the bilateral issues. Discussion and dialogue should take place over the bilateral issues but should not become stumbling blocks. All the conceived projects of connectivity and energy should be translated into reality. The SCO could become helpful in realizing the Asian century and new world order. It has the potential to challenge the discriminatory global political and economic governance provided the member countries give a miss to the bilateral conflicts. Therefore, to stop turning the SCO into SAARCIZATION, it has to show diplomatic acumen in handling the mistrust, distrust, and bilateral/multilateral irritants among the member countries.