Structural Challenges:

The Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) recently met in Goa, India. According to a press release issued by Moscow, foreign ministers from SCO member states discussed "drafts of the relevant [SCO] documents and decisions" and examined "topical" issues in international and regional affairs. The recent meeting was held in preparation for the annual SCO summit, which will be attended by heads of state from SCO member countries and will be held in India from 3-4 July 2023.

While the SCO offers economic opportunities and has expanded its geopolitical influence, it faces challenges such as divergences between member states, regional rivalries, and the need for reforms to ensure cohesion and sustainability. The SCO’s role in security and counterterrorism is evolving, and it aims to maintain global relevance through various partnerships and observer roles.

Growing Influence

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization consists of China, Russia, four central Asian nations— Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—,India, and Pakistan. Iran also officially joined the SCO in April of this year.

The SCO was launched in 1996 as the Shanghai Five. At that time, the bloc was primarily an eastern alliance grounded in two basic agreements between Russia, China, and three central Asian states to grapple with security challenges and further military cooperation following the breakup of the Soviet Union. When Uzbekistan joined in 2001, the forum was renamed the SCO.

The SCO has tried to preserve the original "Shanghai Spirit," through cultivating an ethos centered around principles of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for cultural diversity, and pursuit of common development.

The SCO is growing rapidly and will ultimately cover a much larger geopolitical space than in its original formulation. Influential Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar have become SCO dialogue partners along with UAE and Bahrain.

With a collective GDP (gross domestic product) of over $23.5 trillion and total trade value of $8.03 trillion, the SCO offers endless economic opportunities.

Most SCO member states, observers, and dialogue partners have joined China’s mega-project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI has been very successful in furthering Beijing’s trade and foreign policy objectives, and China is the most powerful SCO country. Although the SCO maintains a non-aligned stance and respects cultural diversity, the development goals it endorses could herald a new global economic system.

Internal Rifts

The SCO is in need of greater cohesion and remains an untested entity. Ultimately, the forum will need to enact reforms to better serve the interests of member nations and achieve sustainability.

First, divergences between key member states could undermine the SCO if some degree of trust is not restored. Since the SCO stipulates complete consensus between members for all decision- making, ongoing rifts could reduce the credibility and sustainability of the forum.

The rivalry between India and Pakistan poses a challenge for this regional forum. Ties between Islamabad and New Delhi have remained unstable for decades and have recently been particular fraught in light of the two nations’ inability to solve the Kashmir dispute. The arrival of Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to Goa was the first visit by a Pakistani foreign minister to India since 2011.

Now that Tehran has joined the SCO and Riyadh intends to do so, Iranian-Saudi relations could become more tense. These two countries have previously had a difficult relationship and only restored diplomatic ties very recently.

It remains to be seen whether such tensions could hinder the SCO in the long term or whether this forum could prove to be the best platform for mediation and confidence-building measures.

The second clause of the SCO Charter (on the Treaty of Long-Term Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation) stipulates that any hostility or dispute in bilateral relations should not impinge upon the activities of the organization. This provision has previously facilitated the resolution of tensions among the original SCO members.

Second, although the SCO has a security function, it has been more focused on counterterrorism. The bloc had initially declared that it would counter the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. It stopped short of becoming directly involved in counterterrorism efforts in the way that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been, although the two organizations are quite similar.

If the SCO does not evolve into a military bloc, it could become more like the United Nations in its full adherence to international law and the UN Charter. Currently, the nine members under the umbrella of the SCO represent 60% of Eurasia, more than half of the global population, and four nuclear powers.

In long run, Beijing and Moscow will have to sort out differences in their expectations about the SCO.  While Russia seems interested in confronting the US, Beijing is more focused on economic connectivity. In light of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the SCO might have tilted towards Russia if not for China’s balancing force.

The SCO has maintained global relevance through ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the European Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Organization of Islamic Countries. It also holds an observer role at the United Nations.