The story so far: Iran and Belarus could soon become the newest members of the China and Russia-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). “In the Samarkand summit [in September], we expect the leadership to adopt a document on the obligations Iran must fulfil to gain membership. The legal procedures of Belarus’s accession are about to start. We need to build consensus on the acceptance of Belarus,” Chinese diplomat and incumbent Secretary-General of SCO, Zhang Ming, stated last week. According to him, the suggested expansion would exhibit the collective’s rising international influence and its principles being widely accepted.
Founded in June 2001, it was built on the ‘Shanghai Five’, the grouping which consisted of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. They came together in the post-Soviet era in 1996, in order to work on regional security, reduction of border troops and terrorism. They endowed particular focus on ‘conflict resolution’, given its early success between China and Russia, and then within the Central Asian Republics.
Some of their prominent outcomes in this arena entail an ‘Agreement on Confidence-Building in the Military Field Along the Border Areas’ (in 1996) between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which led to an agreement on the mutual reduction of military forces on their common borders in 1997. It would also pitch in to help the Central Asian countries resolve some of their boundary disputes.
In 2001, the ‘Shanghai Five’ inducted Uzbekistan into its fold and named it the SCO, outlining its principles in a charter that promoted what was called the “Shanghai spirit” of cooperation. The charter, adopted in St. Petersburg in 2002, enlists its main goals as strengthening mutual trust and neighbourliness among the member states; promoting their effective cooperation in politics, trade, economy, research and technology, and culture. Its focus areas include education, energy, transport, tourism and environmental protection.
It also calls for joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region; and the establishment of a democratic, fair and rational new international political and economic order. The precise assertion, combined with some of the member states’ profiles, of building a “new international political and economic order” has often led to it being placed as a counter to treaties and groupings of the West, particularly North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
The grouping comprises eight member states — India, Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The SCO also has four observer states — Afghanistan, Iran, Belarus and Mongolia — of which Iran and Belarus are now moving towards full membership.
India acquired the observer status in the grouping in 2005 and was admitted as a full member in 2017. Through the years, the SCO hosts have encouraged members to use the platform to discuss differences with other members on the sidelines. It was on such an occasion that Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a bilateral meeting with former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2015 in Ufa, and Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar negotiated a five-point agreement with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Moscow conference in 2020.
India is also a part of the ‘Quadrilateral’ grouping with the U.S., Japan and Australia. Its association with the grouping of a rather different nature is part of its foreign policy that emphasises on principles of “strategic autonomy and multi-alignment”.
The SCO secretariat has two permanent bodies — the SCO Secretariat based in Beijing and the Executive Committee of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) based in Tashkent. Other than this, the grouping consists of the Heads of State Council (HSC), the Heads of Government Council (HGC) and the Foreign Ministers Council.
The HSC is the supreme decision-making body of the organisation. It meets annually to adopt decisions and guidelines on all important matters relevant to the organisation. The HGC (mainly including Prime Ministers) also meets annually to zero in on the organisation’s priority areas and multilateral cooperation strategy. It also endeavours to resolve present economic and cooperation issues alongside approving the organisation’s annual budget. The Foreign Ministers Council considers issues pertaining to the day-to-day activities of the organisation, charting HSC meetings and consultations on international problems within the organisation and if required, makes statements on behalf of the SCO.
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) noted in 2015 that decades of rapid economic growth had propelled China onto the world’s stage, whereas Russia found itself beset with economic turmoil following the Crimean annexation in 2014 and ejection from the G8 grouping.
Most recently, Russia’s action in Ukraine caused it to be subjected to sanctions on multiple fronts by the West. China, in what could be referred to as ‘distance diplomacy’, had held that security of one country should not be at the expense of another country — blaming the West (specifically referring to NATO) for the entire episode. Thus, the organisation spearheaded by both Russia and China does not find its supporters in the West. Moreover, on the proposed induction of Iran, journalist and commentator Nazila Fathi, writing for the Middle East Institute, stated in September 2021 that the country might not see much short-term benefit, however, it would signal closer ties with both China and Russia.
The Iranian leadership has often stressed that the country must “look to the East”. This is essential not only to resist its economic isolation (by addressing the banking and trade problems on account of U.S. sanctions) from the West, but also find strategic allies that would help it to reach a new agreement on the nuclear program. In other words, using its ties with China and Russia as a leverage against the West. Additionally, it would help it strengthen its involvement in Asia.
The same premise applies for Belarus, which lent its support to Russia for its actions in Ukraine. An association with the SCO bodes well for its diplomacy and regional stature.