The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Meets In Goa

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Bahrain, the Maldives, Myanmar, Kuwait, and UAE Join As Dialogue Partners With English To Be Adopted As An Official Language, Yet Strategic Tensions Remain Among Development Plans

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Foreign ministers from the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) have been meeting in Goa, India, where they have been discussing deepening economic and security cooperation in the region. India is the current Chair of the SCO.

The SCO was founded in 2001 as a counterweight to United States alliances across East Asia to the Indian Ocean. The group includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In 2017, India and Pakistan became full members, with Iran and Belarus being set to join as full members later this year. Several other countries hold dialogue and observer partner status, including Afghanistan and Mongolia as observers, and “Dialogue Partners” in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Egypt, Nepal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, and Turkiye.

Other involved nations and new dialogue partners include Bahrain, the Maldives, Myanmar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates – all of which achieved dialogue partner status on Friday (May 5).

Although the SCO as a bloc is designed to balance the West’s influence in Eurasia, the Middle East and South Asia, it does have its own tensions. India and China, both full members, have border disagreements which have led in recent times to military clashes. India also has issues with neighbouring Pakistan.

India’s Foreign Minister, S. Jaishankar, following Friday’s meeting, said that India’s relations with China cannot be normal until border row is resolved, while stating that “Pakistan’s credibility is depleting faster than its forex” in references to the country being a haven for terrorists. That will dismay Russia, acting as a counterweight to all parties and in whose interests’ cordial relations are paramount. Behind the scenes diplomatic efforts will have been put in, however it remains to be seen how far China – Pakistan’s effective banker – will wish to go in terms of allowing India’s northern and western borders to be secured. It is possible – China’s economy is about seven times larger than India’s, meaning attempts to subdue it over the decades and create distractions for New Delhi have largely been successful. With the continuing dissolving of Chinese relations with the West, Beijing may begin to feel that Delhi has more to offer as a strategic partner than an annoying neighbour – a platform for which the SCO is the ideal launchpad. There may be some results in the pipeline: Jaishankar said after his talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang that “I think the issue is that there is an abnormal position in border areas. We had a frank discussion about it, and we have to take the disengagement process forward.”

Jaishankar wasn’t so partial towards Pakistan, saying that his Pakistani counterpart Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, was a “promoter, justifier and a spokesperson” of the terrorism industry, that Islamabad “Needed to wake up and smell the coffee” and “India and Pakistan are not on the same boat”.

He also said, in comments directed at both Beijing and Islamabad concerning CPEC that “It was made very clear twice that connectivity is good for progress, but it cannot violate the integrity and sovereignty of states. This has been our long-standing position, and nobody should have any doubt about it, and I assure you nobody in this room has any doubt about it. I made sure of that.”

In essence, Jaishankar implied that unless border issues with both Pakistan and China can be resolved, CPEC will not reach its economic potential and Pakistan’s potential as a future industrialized nation will be jeopardized. CPEC (The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) is the single largest Belt & Road initiative project, with Beijing having already invested an estimated US$6.6 billion into various projects. It should also be noted that his comments would also have been made with a domestic, Indian audience in mind. Nonetheless, they will be a source of much debate within the corridors of Zhongnanhai and the concept of future rapprochement with New Delhi.

Frictions aside, progress was made on the development of intra-regional trade and payment systems, with all participants eager to reduce reliance on the US dollar as a trade currency. Yet how this is to be managed is a huge question. Russia and India have currently suspended their Ruble-Rupee usage and returned to US dollar trade as India’s payment in Rupees for Russian energy has left Russia with an excess of the currency that currently has little traction on global markets. The Chinese RMB Yuan could act as an alternative, however New Delhi is against the concept while border issues remain. Washington will be pleased with this conundrum.

Russia, with the energetic Sergey Lavrov attending after his Latin American trip, will for once be in the position as an honest broker, trying to ensure the SCO doesn’t fall apart. That remains an unlikely scenario, given the emerging gaps between the West and the Rest, meaning that Indian pressure to resolve conflicts may yield some results. Beijing now probably needs India more onside this century than it did last; meaning that the SCO may yet be the format that enables an improved regional development strategy co-invested in by its biggest partners – China, India, and Russia.

Jaishankar also called for reforms and modernisation in the SCO to keep up with the changing times while also requesting the English language be included as the third official language for the organisation.

“The SCO is in its third decade of existence and this is an opportune time for its reform and modernisation to keep the organisation relevant in the rapidly transforming world. I am pleased to note that discussions on the issues of reform and modernisation of the organisation have already commenced. I assure you that India will extend its constructive and active support for this process.

I also seek support of the member states for the long-standing demand of India to make English as the third official language of the organisation. This will enable a deeper engagement with English-speaking member states of the SCO and will take the work of the SCO to a wider global audience.”

That was also a partial nod to the potential development of the SCO into a larger organization which could later see parts of the SCO activities merged with the BRICS+, the Eurasian Economic Union, Commonwealth of Independent States, and develop stronger trade and investment ties with other regional bodies such as ASEAN, the African Union and Mercosur.

Jaishankar also stated that “As a result of geo-political upheavals, the world is today facing a multitude of challenges. These events have disrupted global supply chains leading to serious impact on the supply of energy, food and fertilisers and cascading effects on developing nations. These crises have also exposed credibility and trust deficit in the ability of global institutions to manage challenges in a timely and efficient manner. These challenges are also an opportunity for member states of the SCO to collaborate and address them collectively. With more than 40% of the world’s population in the SCO, our collective decisions will surely have a global impact,” he said.

The two-day meet occurred as part of India’s first presidency of the SCO and with the aim of promoting peace, stability, economic development, prosperity and closer interaction between member nations with priority on secure SCO to prioritize security, economic development, connectivity and unity.

In his opening remarks, Jaishankar also drew attention to the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan and welcomed the progress in admitting Iran and Belarus to the SCO.

“The unfolding situation in Afghanistan remains at the centre of our attention. Our efforts should be directed towards the welfare of the Afghan people. Our immediate priorities include providing humanitarian assistance, ensuring a truly inclusive and representative government, and preserving the rights of women, children and minorities. I am happy to note the progress on the ongoing process for the admission of Iran and Belarus as full members of the SCO. I thank the secretariat for their efforts in that direction,” he said.

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