The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the other BRICS?

(To Enrico Magnani)

While much attention is focused on the BRICS and its future, little is said or thought about Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which remains more in the shade, perhaps deliberately. Even in this area, the divergent dynamics of the international community are increasingly being recorded.

The full membership of Iran marked the summit of the heads of state and government of the SCO adhering states (chaired for the first time by India albeit in a remote format), on July 3 and 4 with the motto SECURE (explaining the SECURE concept, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi defined the "S" for the safety of citizens, "E" for development economic, "C" for the connectivity in the region, "U" forunit, "R" for the respect of sovereignty and integrity and "E" for the protection ofenvironment), but did not see the leap from observer to full member, as expected by some, of Saudi Arabia and, even more astonishing, of Belarus.

This enlargement increases the difficult challenge of improving the credibility of the organization in defusing the conflicts and disagreements that afflict several of its partners and presenting itself as an alternative to the architectures, considered close to the West, of the G-7 and G-20 (although many of the states adhering to this latest agreement are at the same time part of the SCO, starting with China and Russia).

While the SCO, under growing Chinese pressure, would like to be more present and visible, the lack of cohesion within it can represent a serious handicap and slow down Beijing's influence on world affairs. There are many problems, starting with Russia which seems to be mired in situations which, where unclear (the Wagner affair), remain difficult (the military stalemate in Ukraine).

While everyone is concerned about Afghan instability, the Sino-Indian relationship continues to slowly unravel, the Indo-Pakistani relationship remains cold, the Saudi-Iranian relationship while improved remains in suspense, the Tajik-Kyrgyz relationship is mute, others dystonias are present in a more or less veiled form and only the Sino-Russian axis seems to appear to be a positive and stable element, even with all its ambiguities.

How was the SCO born?

The SCO began as one of several attempts to systematize and control the Soviet implosion (or explosion), initially as Shanghai Five, established on April 26, 1996 on the initiative of China who feared the unresolved tensions between the new republics that emerged from the dissolution of the USSR. The Treaty on Deepening Military Confidence in the Border Regions is signed in Shanghai by the heads of state of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. Since then, the whole project has remained firmly in Chinese hands, despite the expansion and inclusion of important partners.

The threat reduction mechanism deepened on April 24, 1997, when the same countries signed the Treaty on Reduction of Military Forces in Border Regions at a meeting in Moscow. On May 20, 1997, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin signed a declaration on a "multipolar world", marking the beginning of a confrontation that is now there for all to see.

The SCO pays particular attention to regional security, the fight against terrorism in the region, ethnic separatism and religious extremism and at successive summits (Almaty, Kazakhstan in 1998, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in 1999, and Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2000) the adherents declare that they oppose intervention in internal affairs by other countries and support each other's efforts to safeguard the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and social stability of the five countries and address security threats.

In 2001, with the Shanghai summit, architecture began its process of evolution and expansion with theaccession of Uzbekistan and the Declaration of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, praising the role played by the mechanism so far, is made public Shanghai Five and aimed to transform it into a full-fledged entity. In June 2002, the six heads of states met in St. Petersburg where they signed the Charter of the SCO, which included the purposes, principles, structures and forms of functioning of the organization1.

2005, at the Astana summit in Kazakhstan, witnessed the initial presence of India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan, bringing the SCO out of the Chinese and former Soviet ambit. Since then the SCO has developed rapidly, establishing a number of permanent bodies and ad hoc initiatives in the fields of economic and security issues, transport, energy and telecommunications, and held regular meetings on security, military, defence, foreign affairs, economics, culture , banks and other officials of its member states.

In July 2015 in Ufa, Russia, the SCO agreed to admit India and Pakistan as full participants (they completed full membership in summer 2017)2.

The SCO has followed the cursus honorum of all international organizations, establishing internal architectures and mechanisms3 and establishing relations with the United Nations in 2004 (where it is an observer in the General Assembly), the Commonwealth of Independent States and ASEAN (2005), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and OECD (2007). The SCO's Regional Counter Terrorism Structure (RATS) has established relationships with the African Center for the Study and Research of Terrorism (ACSRT) of the African Union (AU) in 2018.

In recent years, the organization's activities have expanded to include increased military cooperation, intelligence sharing, and counterterrorism, even as leaders of member states have repeatedly stated that the SCO is not a military alliance. However, military exercises are regularly conducted between acceding states to promote cooperation and coordination against terrorism and other external threats and to maintain regional peace and stability.

The first joint military exercises of the SCO took place in 2003 and then became occasions for maneuvers held every year, the 'Peace Missions'4. As part of the progressive expansion of the SCO, during the 2023 Summit, the Indian presidency established five new pillars and areas of interest for cooperation: startups and innovation, traditional medicine, digital inclusion, youth empowerment and shared Buddhist heritage.

Two new mechanisms have also been activated at the initiative of India: the Special Working Group on Startups and Innovation and the Working Group of Experts on Traditional Medicine.

A set of problems

Similarly to the BRICS, but in a more determined way, China through the SCO, aspires to strengthen its role and global influence through a network of architectures; but as mentioned, this objective continues to be burdened by a lack of credibility as it is unable to dilute the internal tensions which, as mentioned above, affect some of its partners (and these problems also afflict intra-BRICS relations). This is very evident in the case of the SCO. Worthy of note is the importance of the Saudi entry, even if not in full form, undoubtedly another diplomatic success of Xi Jinping, a further reason for satisfaction after having mediated the signing of an agreement between Riyadh and Tehran for the resumption of relations diplomats after a seven-year hiatus. The Saudis enter the SCO as a dialogue partner, the first step towards full participation.

Today, the SCO represents a non-negligible scenario. It is the largest regional organization in the world, with a total land area of ​​over 34 million km2 (of which 50% is Russian) - over 60% Eurasian - and its population of over 3 billion, which represents almost half of the world one. Therefore, there is a lot at stake. In total, the SCO "extended family" includes 21 countries and covers three continents (Asia, Europe and Africa), with the total GDP of the nine permanent members amounting to approximately $20 trillion, of which three-quarters attributable to China.

The presence of actors with not only "diverging" but also "opposite" interests appears to be a salient feature of the SCO and can condition the effectiveness of the grouping. Now, the inclusion of Saudi Arabia could add a further element of uncertainty, due to Riyadh's aspirations to escape the US link, perceived as no longer fully responsive to its national political project (we need to see how Riyadh will manage its relations with Washington , considering that its immense military arsenal, almost all of US origin, could quickly become a pile of scrap metal without spare parts and technical personnel…).

Common adherence to the same organization, in this case the SCO, for example, does not favor détente among its members5. China and India are the main example: in fact, the two Asian giants have been in open conflict along the disputed Himalayan border for almost three years and for the control of the waters of the Indian Ocean and the influence on its coastal states. The same can be said of the ongoing tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad over Kashmir. The exchange of diplomats between Iran and Saudi Arabia, like the former joining and the latter moving closer to the SCO, cannot be thought of as an ipso facto end to their regional rivalry: at best, it will become "more predictable" ( and more controllable?), given that the hegemonic ambitions of Riyadh and Tehran in the Middle East and elsewhere will tend to show their irreconcilability.

The rapprochement between Beijing and Riyadh, marked by an unprecedented development in the history of the two nations, is strengthened by an important acceleration of economic ties, as evidenced by the recent decision to build a steel pole, the last step in a chain of agreements of importance strategic. In a climate of growing collaboration, the Saudis recently announced the signing of an agreement with a Chinese steelmaker, which adds to contracts and stakes from major companies in the sector, including the Saudi oil giant Aramco6.

Waiting for how relations between Riyadh and Tehran will evolve immediately, on another complex front that directly involves the two most important adherents of the SCO, India and China, with serious tensions on the Himalayan border7.

These are added to numerous other problems, such as the strategic rivalry for control of the Indian Ocean and influence over the bordering states of the region (Indonesia, Myanmar/Burma, Sri Lanka), furthermore, to complete the imbalance in the relationship, radically favor of China, the trade imbalance exists; indeed of the $135 billion in trade in 2022, India's deficit is $100 billion.

But the issue of borders is the exposed nerve of Indo-Chinese relations. The decision taken by Beijing last April to change the name of some enclaves in the part of the territory under its control has once again exacerbated bilateral relations. China and India have open disputes over some territories in the Himalayan area, where they have 3.488 kilometers of undelimited border. The border area, known as the Line of Actual Control, has been a source of tension since the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict.

In 2020, the biggest crisis between the two countries in decades erupted in the border region of Ladakh. The incident left around thirty Indian and Chinese soldiers dead in brutal hand-to-hand combat, and resulted in a major buildup of both states' forces in the area. Concerned about the amount of resources China has deployed, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has allocated billions of dollars in ambitious infrastructure projects to boost civilian presence and bolster its military presence. But China does not seem interested in taking its relations with India to an extreme, in a repetition of the functional model of Russian-Turkish relations, competitive collaboration.

A preparatory meeting

As is the practice in the life of international organizations, the meeting of foreign ministers was held in the month of May in the Indian city of Goa, preceding the July summit8, but the Goa meeting was preceded by a visit to India by Li Shangfu, the new Chinese defense minister. It was the first visit to India by a minister from this portfolio (and weight) other serious clashes in the Galwan Valley in June 2020. On the sidelines of the SCO defense ministers meeting, Li met his Indian counterpart Rajnah Singh. After the clashes in Galwan, tensions had not completely subsided. On 9 December 2022, new skirmishes were recorded on the Himalayan border, albeit in another sector9.

According to the Chinese, the situation was stable and there were signs of improving bilateral relations. But Chinese optimism has been clearly denied by India, which sets the border issue as a precondition in order to then start the normalization of bilateral relations. These contradictions are explained by India's deep distrust and decision to actually join (was part of it, but without carrying out activities, since the activation of this forum, in 2007) to the quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an alliance that also brings together the USA, Australia and Japan), whose goal is to improve cooperation between members with the aim of stopping the expansion of Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.

But the list of tensions within the SCO is long and touches on topics and areas of great importance; for example the one between India and Pakistan regarding Kashmir has been in place since the partition of the former British Empire, also in this case they are two states equipped with nuclear weapons and great military potential (in reality the balance seems to be in favor of India, given that Pakistan seems to be upset by repeated and increasingly serious institutional political crises).

On this front, Pakistani Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari's visit to Goa was the first by a senior Pakistani official in nearly a decade, which raised some expectations about the scale of the meeting. Already in 2015 the SCO summit held in Russia led India and Pakistan to resume bilateral talks. In his speech, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar stressed the need to end cross-border terrorism, a clear call to Pakistan, which India accused of arming and training rebels fighting for the independence of Indian-controlled Kashmir or its integration into Pakistan, an accusation that Islamabad rejects. India and Pakistan did not hold bilateral talks on the sidelines of the meeting.

Pakistan has a close and complex relationship with China. Immediately after the Goa meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang met with the President of Pakistan, Arif Alvi, who assured the head of diplomacy in Beijing that, due to several fatal accidents and widespread popular hostility, the safety of all Chinese citizens working on multibillion-dollar projects in Pakistan will be promoted. Islamabad, which is in serious financial difficulties, had to accept in exchange for funds, the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), an infrastructural and development axis that from Sinkiang must reach the Indian Ocean and is a component of the BRI (Bel and Road Initiatives). Islamabad, given the relevance for its national security and the priorities of its major donor (Beijing), has promoted a trilateral meeting with the head of foreign affairs of the Taliban government Amir Khan Muttaq10, who, accompanied by a high-level delegation, was allowed to leave the country despite the sanctions. Various topics were discussed during the meeting. Beijing is interested in the vast untapped mineral resources that lie along their shared border, which is a few kilometers long, while Islamabad is wary of the enormous security risks along their much longer common border and contacts between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban militias.

Afghanistan is currently facing one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, with about half of its 38 million people facing food insecurity and about 3 million children at risk of malnutrition, according to international aid agencies. The trilateral meeting that followed the Goa meeting meant the realization of the conviction among its members that no regional economic future is possible without ensuring the stability of Afghanistan (of course also at the Goa meeting, the topic of Afghanistan was discussed as Kabul, albeit in a particular situation, retains observer status within the SCO).

On the other hand, there are internal frictions between the Central Asian countries whose roots lie in the drawing of borders, a legacy of the Soviet legacy. On 15 and 16 September 2022, at the height of the SCO conference, nearly a hundred people were killed in a violent border incident involving the use of armored vehicles and artillery fire, between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, both allies of Moscow. Bordering China's Xinjiang and hosting Russian military bases in their territories, the two states share a common border of more than 900km, which is often disputed – more than 200 armed incidents have occurred over the past two decades. In 2021 alone, there were an unprecedented number of clashes between the two sides, which left more than 50 people dead and raised fears that the conflict could escalate.

These tensions are recorded in the context of the silent struggle (until now) taking place to gain influence and/or keep it on the part of China, Russia, Turkey and Iran. Proof of these fragilities was the insurrection of January 2022 in Kazakhstan, ignited by apparently minor reasons11, but which has brought to the top of the country a leadership which seems very lukewarm towards Moscow and which has had to welcome, willy-nilly, the thousands of young Russians who do not accept the mass draft declared after the start of operations in Ukraine. But here too China is facing Moscow, which has the ambition to absorb all the former Soviet republics within the EAEU12.

An insidious rival, more than Iran, of the Chinese ambitions that seek to express themselves in Central Asia through the SCO, is Turkey, which for years through the OTS (Organization of Turkic States)13 he works to broaden his influence. Even if dictated by strong internal reasons, Erdogan's Turkey and, despite serious economic problems, seems determined to stand up to Chinese pressure14.

A corner of peace, perhaps

Apparently, the Russian-Chinese axis detaches itself from the aforementioned list of problems, even if perceptions, views and interpretations regarding the SCO differ. And on the occasion of the Indian presidency summit, in his address, Putin did not fail to emphasize the presence and integration of Russia in the international system and the solidity of relations with the other members of the SCO and confirmed his objectives in Ukraine . For Russia, the SCO remains one of the few international groups in which it can still join comfortably with other members without problems.

At the Goa meeting, Beijing and Moscow agreed to further develop bilateral relations, although this seems to become a ritual karma, and to make the SCO a platform for mutually beneficial cooperation. They also pledged to improve communication and coordination with other SCO member states and to maintain solidarity and cooperation15, complete the process for the entry of Iran and Belarus (the latter did not materialize), accelerate the completion of the SCO secretariat and regional counter-terrorism institutions. Also in Goa, Qin Gang and Sergueï Lavrov criticized the ability of global institutions to solve geopolitical problems, including the COVID-19 pandemic, saying their organization would do more to address and overcome these challenges. But it doesn't look easy.

At the 2022 SCO Summit (September 15-16, Samarkand), which had the goal of solidarity with Russia, there has been some dissonance between the positions of China and India. New Delhi, despite its dependence on Russian oil and arms flows, appears uneasy with a conflict involving a permanent member of the UN Security Council on European soil; this while Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan expressed some differentiation the anti-American hard line of China, Russia and Iran16.

Russia and China founded the SCO with the ultimate objective (the immediate one of China that originated the initiative has been mentioned above) of establishing a counterweight to the network of US alliances in East Asia up to the Indian Ocean, seeking to reduce what they see as the dominance of global institutions and alliances under the auspices of Washington and the West at large (with G-7, G-20, OECD, OSCE, IMF, World Bank, EU and NATO). China accuses Washington of trying to contain its economic and military rise.

A difficult future

China aims at strengthening and enlarging the SCO, even if, for example, the entry with full rights of adherents such as Turkey, would worsen its aims in Central Asia, but faces the lack of cohesion of (and among the ) its members and their imbalances. In fact, as in the BRICS, it is the predominance of China that creates political as well as structural imbalances. In fact, China is ten times more populous than Russia and ten times richer; its GDP, despite a dramatic slowdown, is still six times that of India and three times that of the other eight members combined.

For the New Delhi summit, China hopes to compensate for the obvious difficulties and modest results in the western Pacific, despite the high hopes, which have so far only materialized with the presence of a police assistance mission in the Solomon Islands. Southeast Asian countries do not want a conflict between Beijing and Washington, but neither do they want Chinese hegemony, and accept the balancing role provided by the United States and with some conspicuous exceptions, Laos and Cambodia, ASEAN shows itself cold to Chinese political and economic pressure.

Japan continues to arm itself against China. Tokyo has also confirmed it will limit the export of microchip manufacturing equipment, a measure in line with US requests to curb Chinese technological progress, and South Korea is moving in the same direction. Military spending in East Asia increases as Japan calls for the opening of a NATO regional office17. South Korea is disillusioned with Beijing's willingness and/or ability to curb PyongYang's nuclear-missile unrest.

On March 13, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom revealed the details of AUKUS, the military pact signed in September 2021 to equip Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines18.

In the context of relations with the West, China is also experiencing growing difficulties in managing the relationship with the EU, which, although with Franco-German tactical overtures, appears determined to get out of the noose of supplies of strategic technologies and materials from the Asian nation .

The 'Global South' remains the area of ​​interest for Chinese diplomatic, influence, economic and military action, in an attempt to counter the initiatives of the United States and its allies to contain Beijing's assault on world power.


2 Mongolia has had observer status since 2004, Iran since 2005, Afghanistan since 2012; Belarus has been a dialogue partner since 2010, a waiting room of a different kind, and becomes an observer since 2015; this category has gradually joined Sri Lanka (2010), Turkey (2013), Cambodia (2015), Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nepal (2016), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Maldives, Myanmar, and Egypt (2022 ). Furthermore, in 2011 Vietnam expressed an interest in becoming an observer, even if not formalized; in 2012, Bangladesh applied to become an observer. In 2015, Syria applied to become a dialogue partner; in 2016, Israel did the same; in 2019 it's Iraq's turn; in 2023 Algeria requests to become an observer, while Turkmenistan, although self-declared a neutral state, participates in the SCO summits as an invitee.

3 (Council of Heads of State, Council of Prime Ministers, Councils of Ministers [foreign, interior, finance, etc.], Secretariat [Beijing-based], ad hoc bodies, working languages ​​[Russian and Chinese])

4 On June 4, 2014, the idea of ​​merging the SCO with the Collective Security Treaty Organization was raised in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, but the idea was not followed up by the Russian opposition. Now, in preparation for the BRICS summit in August, there has been talk again about the merger between the SCO, CSTO and EAEU (Economic Union of Eurasia). Once again the perplexities of Moscow have been recorded, which with the EAEU and the CSTO is trying to bind the former Soviet republics to itself, with pale copies of the COMECON and the Warsaw Pact. Furthermore, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, many members of the SCO, CSTO and EAEU have distanced themselves from military and economic cooperation with Russia.

5 example of this fetish is the accession to NATO of Greece and Turkey, arch-rivals before their accession to the Alliance, remained so even after

6 It is useful to recall that in 2007 Saudi Arabia, in order to equip itself with an instrument of deterrence against Iran, had acquired DF-21 medium-range missiles of Chinese production (Dong Fen, East wind) with a range of almost 2.000 kilometers and capable of carrying either conventional or nuclear warheads, renewing another purchase, dating back to the 80s, of DF-3 missiles, in both cases with the full endorsement of Washington

7 China announces 'renaming' of 11 places in Arunachal Pradesh, including one close to Itanagar

8 The practice of meetings of foreign ministers is an important and not at all formal step, as they are aimed at preparing the agendas for the heads of state and government summits in order to minimize the times and elements of friction and to facilitate the reaching of agreements, for example see

9 SCO: China defense minister in India amid border tensions», BBC, April 27, 2023

10 Pakistan sets to host trilateral dialogue with China, Afghanistan

11 Do Kazakhstan's protests signal an end to the Nazarbayev era?

12 China Looks to Fill a Void in Central Asia

13 The TTO, formerly called the Turkish Council or the Turkish-Speaking States Cooperation Council, is an intergovernmental organization comprising Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. It is an intergovernmental organization whose main objective is to promote global cooperation between Turkish-speaking states. First proposed by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2006, it was established on October 3, 2009 in Nakhichevan (an Azerbaijani enclave between Armenia and Iran). During the 2021th Istanbul Summit in XNUMX, the Turkish Council changes into the Organization of Turkish States. The General Secretariat is in Istanbul. Hungary, Northern Cyprus and Turkmenistan are observer states. There is the parliamentary assembly (based in Baku), organization of culture (Ankara), organization of culture, international academy (Astana), foundation for traditions (Baku), center for nomadic civilizations (Bishkek) , economic council (Istanbul)

14 Shapiro J., Ankara and Beijing touch each other, without hitting each other, Domino, 5, 2023, pp.128-132

15 Chinese FM urges strategic independence, security cooperation at SCO meeting

16 SCO Summit in Samarkand: Alliance Politics in the Eurasian Region

17. NATO to set up liaison office in Tokyo, beef up regional ties, Nikkei reports

18 Policy paper - Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS: 13 March 2023