Explainer: The SCO, Its Foreign Ministers' Meet and Why All Eyes Are on the July Leaders' Summit

The SCO has been in the news as India hosts its foreign ministers' meet tomorrow. It is a unique group whose history has had a significant role in shaping its tone.

New Delhi: When the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation gather for their annual jamboree on Friday, May 5, their main job is to prepare the way for the meeting of their leaders in the next two months. With decisions to be taken on trade and connectivity, there is a lot on the plate.

Here is a quick primer on what to expect from the SCO, a distinctive organisation whose history has shaped its current form.

What’s the likely outcome at the SCO foreign ministers’ meeting?

There is not likely to be any document issued after the meeting, as it is only the annual SCO summit that yields a ‘Declaration’ that is decided by consensus. The discussion of the foreign ministers is to sign off on the agenda for the Leaders’ Summit that will take place on July 3-4. 

As per sources, the foreign ministers have to take decisions on around 15 item points, but these will not be made public after the meeting on Friday. However, they are likely to range around issues related to trade, energy and connectivity. There is a proposal for trading in national currency, but it is at a very nascent stage and has not even been discussed among the member states.

Till now, sources do not expect Ukraine or Afghanistan to be a point of discussion, except that they may be raised in national statements. Most countries will certainly be talking about the economic challenges in the global context, but there is not likely to be any direct reference to the Ukraine war.

Iran and Belarus are slated to be new members. But it will only be clear on Friday if all the modalities have been cleared for the Iranian and Belarus presidents to attend the July summit as full members.

What’s the origin story of the SCO?    

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s origin lies in the group known then as ‘Shanghai Five’ which was cobbled together in 1996 as a way to address border issues. This was in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union when the creation of new states in central Asia led China to confront problems related to the demarcation of boundaries, as well as the influence of Islamist groups on Xinjiang. 

The ‘Shangai Five’ was formalised with the signing of the ‘Agreement on Strengthening of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Sphere in Border Regions’ by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in Shanghai on April 1996. 

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Four years later, Uzbekistan joined the group and the Shanghai Five transformed into the SCO in July 2001.

This turned a loose grouping that came together to resolve security and border issues following the dissolution of the Soviet Union into an institutionalised multilateral platform with a permanent secretariat and interlacing economic and security interests. Decisions in the group are taken by consensus, and all members must abide by the principle of non-aggression and non-interference in internal affairs.

While the SCO headquarters are in Beijing, another permanent body, the executive committee of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) is based in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. 

In a reflection of its origins, Russian and Chinese are the official languages of the SCO, despite efforts by new members to include English in the discourse. Further, the SCO secretary general and SCO RATS executive committee positions are appointed to a person from a particular committee on a rotational basis – in Russian alphabetical order.

Was it taken seriously as a grouping by the West?

In May 2001, an American China-watcher, Bates Gill wrote a paper for Brookings Institution that the Shanghai Five had resulted in some “impressive achievements” like introducing confidence-building measures, resolving border disputes and combatting terrorism. He observed that the five countries had “stuck together and issued increasingly tough statements in opposition to what they see as US “hegemony”. However, he was not that optimistic about the future. “But it may be more difficult for the group to get much beyond this stage”.

At the same time, he added that the forthcoming July meeting in China could lead to a “more robust set of agreements” in tandem with Beijing and Moscow seeking to consolidate their bilateral ‘strategic partnership’. “This will mark a new stage in the efforts of countries such as Russia and China to find ways to assert themselves more effectively in a world they see as dominated by the United States. It is a trend worth watching,” suggested Gill.

When the SCO got its current form, the perception continued that it was an attempt by China and Russia to maintain an exclusive sphere of influence in Central Asia and to keep away the West in forming their own vision of a multilateral forum.

After 9/11, the defeat of the Taliban regime and the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan created a new dynamic for the region. While Russia had earlier been the main security guarantor, Central Asian nations were willing to consider the strategic and financial opportunity to support the presence of US forces in Afghanistan and the creation of supply lines.

What led to India becoming a part of SCO?

According to a 2002 Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses paper, Pakistan had been the first to move, seeking a grant of observer status in January 2001, followed by a formal application for full membership in June 2001. While China was said to have lobbied for Pakistan’s entry, Tajikistan president Emomaly Rahmanov strongly opposed even discussing an expansion. The belief was that Tajikistan and Russia were against Pakistan’s membership as Islamabad was then strongly backing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had already raised concerns about spillover effect among Central Asian nations.

The first time that the SCO was officially mentioned by India was in a joint statement following Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s visit to New Delhi in February 2002. The joint statement said that both countries “noted the progress” made by SCO. It added that Kazakhstan felt that given India’s “geographical proximity”, India’s membership of SCO would “add strength to the organisation”.

For several years, SCO froze the matter of membership expansion largely due to differences between Russia and China over who should be admitted as members. India, Iran and Pakistan were admitted as Observers at the 2005 Astana Summit, but it took another five years for the self-imposed moratorium on consideration of expansion to be removed.

Leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gather in Astana, Kazakhstan on July 5, 2005. Photo: www.china.org.cn

India applied for membership in 2014, but it took another two years for the memorandum of obligations to be signed.

India and Pakistan were formally inducted as full SCO members in June 2017, when Kazakh President Nazarbayev welcomed the new member.

What were India’s key expectations when joining the SCO?

New Delhi had two major agendas for joining the SCO – to expand interaction with central Asian countries, as well as, to have a say on security policies in the region that could impact India.

To have increased interaction with Central Asia also requires better connectivity. India has also pushed for the International North-South Corridor (INSTC) which connected the western coast of India to Iran and Central Asia, but it has not moved as fast as desired.

However, connectivity became a sensitive point with China aggressively spreading its Belt and Road initiative projects in Central Asia. India has now routinely refused to endorse the paragraph on BRI in SCCO summit declarations.

In the years after joining the SCO, India has also come part of other grouping like the Quad. India does not want SCO to be projected as a purely anti-West bloc, but it is aware that the agenda largely remains dominated by Russia and China.

Have India and Pakistan tensions impacted the SCO?

There had been apprehension that the membership of India and Pakistan into the SCO may lead the organisation to fall prey to tensions on the line of SAARC. But since the SCO doesn’t revolve around the two South Asian nations and the fulcrum of power is clearly with China and Russia, there has not been any impact on the functioning of the grouping.

There is also a clear prohibition on the raising of bilateral issues, which is strictly adhered to by the member states. Pakistan has made it a point to tell interlocutors that it will not let SCO go the ‘Saarc way’ – which means that along with foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in Goa, there would also likely be high-level participation at the July summit in New Delhi.