Wider Eurasia
SCO: Potential for Expanding and Deepening Cooperation Against the Backdrop of the Global Crisis

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has never positioned itself as an anti-Western organisation, despite the fact that since its creation it has constantly faced attacks from Western countries. There is no doubt that the external conditions for the activities of the SCO will become more complicated as the global crisis worsens. At the same time, let’s not forget that the key word in the name of the Organisation is “cooperation”, writes Rashid Alimov, SCO Secretary-General in 2016–2018.

The world is changing rapidly and irreversibly. Turbulence and tension in global politics and economics continue to increase. The usual international order has been irreversibly consigned to history. The system of international relations that emerged almost 80 years ago, unable to withstand the growing combined challenges and threats of the 21st century, entered an era of fundamental transformation, which further accelerated the process of building a new global governance architecture based on the increasing role of economic and political centres in Asia, Africa and Latin America. One of these influential centres of power in Eurasia is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which appeared on the political map of the world in 2001.

The SCO of 2024 is significantly different from the Organisation created by China and Russia together with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at the dawn of the 21st century. Today, the SCO unites countries with a territory comprising more than 65% of the Eurasian continent and a population of over 3.5 billion people, which produce more than a quarter of the world’s GDP. In less than a quarter of a century, the SCO has been progressively and dynamically developing on the basis of the creative principles of the “Shanghai spirit”. The SCO “family” has also grown; it expanded to include India and Pakistan in 2017, and Iran in 2023. We can say with confidence that in 2024, at the Organisation’s summit in Astana, the Republic of Belarus will become a full member of the SCO.

By maintaining and successfully developing partnerships with the UN and interested international organisations, the SCO, within a short period by historical standards, has become one of the supporting pillars of new international relations.

Against the backdrop of a global crisis of confidence, the attractiveness of the SCO and the principles on which multilateral partnerships are built are increasing. All 14 states that are SCO dialogue partners have already declared their intention to become member states of the Organisation as soon as possible. With a high degree of probability, it can be argued that these countries and partners from among international organisations see the SCO as a rapidly evolving centre of the emerging multipolar world, capable of actively countering global and regional risks.

The SCO on the path to renewal

However, the world is changing, and therefore the SCO, by positioning itself as a new type of organisation, must not only adapt to the changing world, but also be able to “look beyond the horizon” of current trends in global development. There is every reason to believe that the SCO will cope with this task. Over more than two decades, from an Organisation aimed primarily at ensuring security in the Central Asian region, the SCO has transformed into a powerful international structure with 35 statutory bodies and 45 expert mechanisms for multilateral interaction. On the one hand, the interaction mechanisms and cooperation formats created within the SCO provide a good opportunity to combine the national interests of the Organisation’s member states with the tasks of transregional and global development. On the other hand, the profound changes that the entire system of international relations is currently experiencing dictate the need to jointly develop a strategy for the development of the SCO that would meet the expected challenges and threats of our time. In other words, the concept of the Organisation, proposed by its founding fathers in 2001, needs to be improved and certain corrections must be made, taking into account new realities and emerging opportunities.

Currently, the SCO is actively working collectively to draft a new Development Strategy, designed for the period up to 2035. There is experience in developing a similar document: the first Strategy was adopted at the SCO summit in Ufa in 2015. The difference is that ten years ago, this was the view of six states on the prospects for joint development. Since then the SCO “family” has increased fourfold: from six members in 2001 to 26 in 2024 (including observer states and dialogue partners). “Strategy 2015-2025” basically served its purpose. Thanks to joint efforts, the SCO has grown into the world’s largest trans-regional international organisation with the largest population in the world, enormous economic potential and a geographical area stretching from South and Southeast Asia to the Middle East and Europe. These and many other factors (for example, the fact that the SCO includes four nuclear powers, and its co-founders — Russia and China — are permanent members of the UN Security Council) determine the special status and obligations of the Organisation not only in Eurasia, but also to the world community.

Eurasia and Asia
SCO Facing a New Challenge
Rashid Alimov
Partnership, cooperation for co-prosperity, has been the cornerstone of interaction within the Organisation. In the current conditions of the SCO, it is important not only to preserve this principle, but also to give it additional strength and energy, to move from extensive to intensive development. The current moment requires just such an approach, writes Rashid Alimov, SCO Secretary-General in 2016–2018.

Because of this, the SCO Development Strategy for the coming ten-year period should be primarily focused on the effective impact of practical interaction between the states included in the SCO “family” and become the expected response to the key international challenges facing the Organisation in the foreseeable ten-year period. It is appropriate to recall that the SCO was a pioneer in many areas of international cooperation. In particular, one of the first documents adopted by the heads of SCO member states in 2001 was the Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism, as well as the SCO Convention on Countering Extremism (2017). Based on these documents, the SCO was able to build effective work to counter terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, including cross-border terrorism, separatism and extremism. There are other examples that characterise the partners’ interest in stimulating the creative dynamics of the Organisation’s development. According to estimates issued by the SCO Secretariat, over the past five years (2019-2023) about 400 proposals and initiatives have been voiced at the Organisation’s summits, which have been accepted for implementation or are under discussion and are aimed at increasing the effectiveness of the SCO and its compliance with the hopes and aspirations of millions of people. Most of them are long-term in nature and must be reflected in the Strategy being developed.

The priorities of the SCO

It is expected that cooperation in the field of security, as before, will remain a high-priority area of activity for the SCO. This is entirely justified: the number of conflicts along the perimeter of the SCO’s external borders is not decreasing. The “forces of evil” are not abandoning their attempts to destabilise the SCO countries internally. In addition, as is known, any local conflict has not only a regional, but also a global dimension. An example of this is the conflict in Afghanistan, which has dragged on for almost half a century.

Amid the current conditions, the SCO can and should become an example of the implementation of the principle of indivisible security at the regional and global levels, and make an increasingly significant contribution to raising the level of security in the region and in the world.

It is important that amid increasing combined challenges and threats, the SCO continues to search for effective new forms of cooperation in the field of security. In particular, a negotiation process has been launched on the creation of a number of specialised SCO institutions in the field of security: the SCO Universal Centre in Tashkent by transforming the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS SCO) created in 2002; the SCO Anti-Drug Centre in Dushanbe and the Centre for Combating International Organised Crime in Bishkek. If a consensus is reached, a powerful “security fist” can be formed within the SCO, which will have no analogues in the world. But, most importantly, the “fist” will be able not only to take preventive measures, but also to decisively repel emerging security threats.

Amid emerging uncertainty in the global economy, the SCO continues to search for the most effective model of trade and economic cooperation; one that is resistant to emerging risks and crises. So far, achievements in the field of economic cooperation within the SCO have been quite modest and are still far from the parties’ expectations. The Organisation has adopted many documents in this area, but many of them have failed to yield the desired result. For example, work on developing a “formula” for creating a mechanism for financial support for the Organisation’s project activities has been delayed for an unjustifiably long time. There are still many “red flags” on the road map for gradually increasing the share of national currencies in the mutual settlements of the SCO member states. The mechanisms of interaction in the fields of energy, industry and new technologies, where there is significant potential for joint development, are not fully operational. There is dissatisfaction with the pace of implementation of the programme to stimulate industrial cooperation between business circles. Full-fledged cooperation in the field of trade and economics, along with other reasons, is hampered by the slow development of transport infrastructure and connectivity of roads and railways between the SCO member states. However, as we know, there are no miracles in economics, and only those who walk can make it to the end of a long road.

In 2023, the Economic Development Strategy of the SCO region until 2030 was finally adopted. The document is comprehensive. Leading experts from the member states’ 40 ministries and departments worked on this fundamental document for almost two years. The philosophy of this document is simple and clear: the successful development of each SCO member state will contribute to the sustainable development of all partners, and the synergy of successful economies will serve as the basis for the prosperity of the common Eurasian space and will affect the improvement of the well-being of the population. It is difficult to overestimate the strategic importance of this document. During its implementation, cooperation programmes will be simultaneously launched in 15 sectors of the economy.

If everything planned is implemented practically, the SCO space will turn into the most dynamically developing region in the world, with modern transport infrastructure and new international transport corridors.

It is in the interests of all member states of the SCO “family” that the economic section of SCO Development Strategy 2035 is based on the main provisions of the adopted Economic Development Strategy of the SCO region. This approach will ensure the synchronisation of steps to implement the two fundamental strategic documents of the SCO, will promote mutually beneficial trade and economic cooperation, will increase the competitiveness of the economies of the SCO member states, and will strengthen the position of the SCO in world economic relations.

About the core of the SCO

A primary worry among the states of Central Asia is the issue of “slipping” cooperation within the SCO regarding the field of economics and finance. It is estimated that the largest number of proposals and initiatives related to increasing the efficiency of cooperation in the economic sphere come from the Central Asian states. In the Central Asian countries, leading experts are concerned that as the SCO expands, attention to the problems of Central Asia may decrease, and they’ve place special hopes on the further comprehensive development of cooperation within the SCO and support from economically powerful partner countries in the Organisation. At the SCO anniversary summit in Dushanbe (September 2021), Central Asia was named the core of the SCO. It was declared that the SCO will strengthen its role in improving the stability and socio-economic development of this region. It is important that in the future SCO Development Strategy, the theme of the “SCO core” not only finds its worthy reflection, but is also supported by all partners in the Organisation.

The SCO’s special focus on Central Asia is nothing new: it’s known that the Organisation was initially conceived and implemented with concern for ensuring the security and development of the region. It seems that now that the SCO has become larger and has acquired global significance, the Organisation should be even more active in Central Asia, which has been in the area of increased attention of the Western world in recent years. While the political importance of Central Asia as the geopolitical core of the Eurasian continent increases, the United States and the European Union are actively promoting their special strategies in the region. For example, in accordance with the EU-Central Asia Roadmap for deepening ties, on January 29-30, 2024, the Global Gateway Investment Forum was held in Brussels (Belgium) to discuss a transport link between the EU and Central Asia. Statements were made about billions of dollars in investment in construction of a bridge between Europe and the region without the participation of China or Russia. The EU-Central Asia summit will also take place in the first half of 2024; preparations are in full swing. The United States also has its own “Strategy for Assistance in Strengthening the Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity of Central Asia.”

It is obvious that external pressure on the Central Asian countries from the United States and its allies will increase, which could lead to the creation of crisis situations in the countries of the region. In these conditions, the SCO can play a leading role in transforming the region by proposing an SCO Strategy for the socio-economic development of Central Asia, aimed at increasing its prosperity. Such an approach will only confirm the priority of Central Asian issues for the Organisation in any transformation of the SCO. At the same time, it is important to note that the Central Asian states have not slowed down, but fully supported the expansion process, actively participated in the development of its regulatory framework and sincerely welcomed the new full member states of the Organisation and its partners. It should be noted that promising integration processes are gaining momentum in Central Asia itself.

On the vitality of the SCO

The lifeblood and driving force for the development of the organisation is mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for different civilisations and the desire for common development. This is what has entered the international political lexicon as the “Shanghai spirit.” This is the main characteristic of the SCO as a new type of organisation. It is important that, regardless of changes in the world and the expansion of the SCO “family,” the organisation does not change its nature as a partnership and firmly adheres to the basic principles laid down in the SCO Charter.

The SCO has never positioned itself as an anti-Western organisation, despite the fact that since its creation it has constantly faced attacks from Western countries. There is no doubt that the external conditions for the activities of the SCO will become more complicated as the global crisis worsens. At the same time, let’s not forget that the key word in the name of the Organisation is “cooperation”. The more complex and harsher the outside world becomes, the stronger the mutual support and cohesion must be within the SCO “big family” for the sake of jointly protecting the interests of the stable development of the vast Eurasian region. The question is whether the SCO will be able to preserve, defend and ensure the continuity of the partner essence of the Organisation, the best traditions that have developed over more than two decades. In other words, the Organisation must adapt to new realities and upcoming challenges, which are very difficult to predict.

Economic Statecraft
SCO: New Borders - New Tasks
Daria Osinina
The expansion of the SCO towards the Rimland is of strategic importance, as since the Cold War, the American foreign policy strategy towards the Heartland has been to locate US military bases in the Rimland and foster the emergence of loyalist regimes there. Such a policy fits into the “anaconda” plan, which implies the control and strangulation of the Heartland territory. Accordingly, the integration of the Rimland countries into the SCO is the formation of a belt of friendly states, Daria Osinina writes.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.