The 18th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will be held in Qingdao, a coastal city in eastern China’s Shandong Province, from June 9 to 10, 2018. Against the backdrop of major challenges in the international landscape, the summit has drawn wide attention both at home and abroad as the first of its kind since the organization’s expansion last year. What role is the expanded SCO playing in the world? What changes will the entry of India and Pakistan bring to the SCO and its member countries? What outcomes will the Qingdao summit bring about? With these questions in mind, China-India Dialogue recently sat down with Wang Shida, deputy director of the Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceanian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, to find some answers.
Why does the world need the SCO?
On the one hand, the SCO is unlike any other existing international organization; It is more open. It is an inclusive international organization aiming to promote wide cooperation among member states in all areas, without considering any others as a competitor or rival. Indeed, the emergence of the SCO, as well as the spread of the Shanghai Spirit, offers an alternative option to the international community and sets a new model for countries around the world to build close and non-exclusive international relations. This is the first point.
On the other hand, the SCO was derived from the Shanghai Five, a mechanism initially aiming to solve demarcation issues. Later, even after the settlement of border problems, the SCO still played an important role. For this reason, it became a permanent organization, with its members increasing from the original Shanghai Five to six. Now, its membership has further expanded to eight. With the expansion of the organization’s membership, SCO member states are also expanding their cooperation realms. In terms of security and the fight against terrorism, separatism and extremism, they have carried out fruitful cooperation. In terms of economics, they have put forward a series of cooperation initiatives such as the SCO Free Trade Zone and the SCO Development Bank. There are also other similar initiatives. For its member states, the SCO is the perfect platform for them to promote in-depth cooperation in politics, economics, security and other areas.
What are the benefits and challenges for new member India?
Last June, at the Astana summit, India and Pakistan were admitted into the SCO. SCO membership brings obvious benefits for India. First of all, it can benefit economically. India has adopted a ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy. However, Afghanistan and Pakistan have long separated India from Central Asia. To a large extent, India still lacks interaction, communication and trade exchange with Central Asia. After joining the SCO, India has shared the same platform under the SCO with its four Central Asian members. Obviously, this is helpful for it to deepen economic cooperation with Central Asia. There are lots of areas where the two sides can cooperate economically. For India, it is crucial to ensure energy supply from Central Asia. Meanwhile, India hopes to explore the Central Asian market. Currently, India’s IT, finance and agricultural products have all set sights on the Central Asian market.
Another potential benefit is that India can be fully involved in anti-terrorism cooperation under the SCO framework. This is good news for India. As for challenges or problems India may face, I think the most noteworthy, which is also a point India itself continues stressing on, is the fact that Western countries including the U.S. have unprecedentedly strengthened their efforts to rope in India. In the second half of 2017, the Trump administration staged the Indo-Pacific strategy. In this context, how to maintain a balance between the SCO and the West becomes a pressing issue for India to solve.
How will India’s entry into the SCO impact China-India relations?
India’s entry into the SCO can greatly benefit India-China relations. First and foremost, the SCO provides a platform for Chinese and Indian leaders, including heads of government and ministers, to conduct internationalized dialogues. In the past, bilateral frictions especially the 2017 Dong Lang incident, proved that the guidance of top-level leaders is vital to the development of China-India ties. This needs top leaders of the two countries to often meet on various occasions. After India became a full member of the SCO, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping will definitely meet at each year’s SCO summit. Moreover, heads of government and ministers of China and India also hold regular talks.
In the future, the SCO, just like BRICS and G20, will likely become one of the three major platforms for Chinese and Indian top leaders to meet. In my opinion, this is a huge benefit. Moreover, it is important to view China-India relations from a wider perspective. Their relations cannot be simply seen as bilateral ties, which need to be viewed from regional and even global angles. Since its inception, the SCO has upheld the Shanghai Spirit, which features dialogue, mutual benefits, mutual trust, respect for diverse civilizations, and pursuit for common development. No doubt the Shanghai Spirit will be conducive to guiding the future development of China-India relations from a wider perspective and fostering a favorable environment for bilateral ties.
Can the SCO bring India and Pakistan closer?
In fact, since 2016, due to some problems concerning the Kashmir conflict, India-Pakistan relations haven’t gone well. The SAARC summit, set to be held in Pakistan, was delayed. Institutionalized communication between India and Pakistan, including meetings between their leaders, has been undermined. Like its role in improving China-India relations, the SCO can also provide an institutionalized communication channel for Indian and Pakistani state leaders and ministers. I believe this is meaningful to India-Pakistan ties, which are now at their lowest point in history. At least, the SCO provides a platform for face-to-face dialogue between Indian and Pakistani leaders. Unlike state visits, this platform doesn’t require them to list outcomes. It isn’t so formal, so Indian and Pakistani leaders can communicate sincerely in an easygoing atmosphere. This will help improve the environment for high-level bilateral dialogue.
Another point I would like to particularly emphasize is that Indian and Pakistani armies will participate in the SCO Peace Mission military exercises. This is of great significance because the two countries’ armies have had long-term standoffs along the Line of Actual Control in the disputed Kashmir region. The two armies participating in joint military drills under the SCO framework will definitely have constructive importance for them to build mutual trust.
What topics of this year’s SCO summit are you most interested in?
This year’s SCO summit, to be held in the coastal city of Qingdao, marks the first of its kind since the organization’s expansion from six to eight member countries, and thus has great importance. Considering this is the first time that India and Pakistan will participate in the summit, I’ll pay more attention to how leaders of the eight member states conduct wide discussions on issues of common concern. Particularly, with participation of the two Southern Asian countries, what breakthroughs and outcomes will the SCO summit create? I have no idea what specific topics are going to be discussed at the summit until its agenda is unveiled. But, I guess connectivity will be high on the agenda, because there have been many connectivity initiatives under the SCO framework. Russia, India and Iran—though Iran isn’t an SCO member, it is taking an active part in SCO activities—have put forward the International North-South Transport Corridor. China is pushing forward construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as well as the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor.
If the parties involved can pool their resources and align with each other’s connectivity initiatives, they will be able to forge a connectivity platform that extends from the west end to the east end of the Eurasian continent and convers Central and South Asia. To a large extent, this will exert profound influence on the region’s current geopolitical landscape. This goal is very important. But, considering that India and Pakistan just joined the SCO, there remains a long way to go to achieve the goal. Nevertheless, it is a possibility with great potential in the future.
In addition, how to strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation under the SCO framework is also a topic worth noting. In the past couple of years, ISIS encountered significant failures in Syria and Iraq, resulting in many terrorists fleeing to Central Asia, South Asia, and Afghanistan. In this context, how to address international terrorism such as ISIS and promote anti-terrorism cooperation between Central Asia and South Asia has drawn wide attention.