Seas of clouds in Shanghai. Photo: iStock
Seas of clouds in Shanghai. Photo: iStock

As the annual SCO Summit in the Chinese city of Qingdao edges closer, preparatory meetings have been held in Beijing for the defense and foreign ministers of member countries. Originally comprising China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization now includes Pakistan and India, which were formalized as members only last year at the summit in Astana. Broadening its scope since the expansion, the content of the documents and decisions reviewed at both the meetings for submission at the SCO Summit in June give a clearer idea as to the future aims and long-term vision of the forum.

First of all, a long-term treaty of friendship among neighboring countries has been included along with drafts of five-year plans, such as the SCO Action Plan for 2018-2022, which was approved for implementation of the Treaty for Long-Term Neighborliness. Holding the potential for solving future regional disputes and acrimony, this stipulation could be implemented in the case of India and Pakistan disputes if required. With firm guidance from the SCO, this agreement could provide an effective solution for the Kashmir issue further down the road.

Secondly, the approved draft of the Qingdao Declaration of the Heads of State now projects the SCO as an international organization. Having started as a regional-level forum, this upgrade symbolizes the long-term vision of the group, which is now poised to step up to the next level.

Now representing 40% of the world’s population, the SCO has definitely grown in importance and influence as major regional players such as India and Pakistan have become part of the mechanism

Now representing 40% of the world’s population, the SCO has definitely grown in importance and influence as major regional players such as India and Pakistan have become part of the mechanism. Having a bigger zone of influence now, the SCO has finally come of age.

Thirdly, reinforcing its main focus on counter-terrorist, counter-separatist and counter-extremist measures according to the historical “Shanghai Five” tradition, a program of cooperation for 2019-2021 was finalized for approval at the defense ministers meeting. Even in the past, the SCO has given top priority to joint defense coordination, solidarity and integration, exchanging information and combating terrorism as a whole to synchronize security cooperation among members.

Releasing a joint communiqué at the end of the foreign minister’s meeting a commitment was given by member countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to work together toward connecting the Belt and Road Initiative with each country’s development program. As specified in the statement, “The foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan reiterated their support for the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ proposed by China.” Except for India, all the participants have “reaffirmed support for China’s Belt and Road proposal,” denoting that country’s disapproval and signifying that this hurdle still has to be overcome.

Pledging to make coordinated efforts for security solutions, the participants agreed to adopt a united stance over regional and international issues like Syria, the Iran nuclear deal as well as their multilateral relations.

Starting a new chapter, these were the first top ministerial-level meetings since India and Pakistan became members and achieving complete unity would have enhanced the value and credibility of the organization. However, it has come a long way from being a Central Asian group with the inclusion of the two South Asian neighbors.

Achieving agreement on 14 resolutions at the foreign ministers meeting, Wang Yi pointed out that the success of the SCO is due to the basic guidelines and ethos of the “Shanghai Spirit.” This refers to the time when it was known as the “Shanghai Five,” having become the Shanghai Cooperation Organization on its fifth anniversary in 2001 when all members decided to celebrate its success and “lift the mechanism” to a higher level.

Based on shared principles and a common vision, according to the SCO infrastructure, all decisions are made with mutual consensus and equal respect is given to all the members irrespective of their size. With this approach, the ethos of the Shanghai Five made history by solving boundary issues and disputes, restoring trust and stabilizing member states.

Not only that, this mechanism helped promote economic relations and trade while spearheading and containing “three evil forces” – terrorism, separatism and extremism. Promising to be a turning point, the decisions taken at the foreign and defense ministers’ meetings signify a revitalization and expansion of the organization to enhance its effectiveness, cohesion and influence.

As the SCO develops further, it could become more like the United Nations Organization in some of its aims and structure. In the past, it has been compared to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but the basic concept has never been to form a military bloc. However, the SCO adheres to the UN Charter as well as international law, sorting out differences between members with dialogue, confidence-building measures and participation in joint ventures.

Sabena Siddiqui

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst. Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue Twitter @sabena_siddiqi