Can SCO Promote Connectivity Within The 'Three Asias'?

Can SCO Promote Connectivity Within The 'Three Asias'?
The SCO CFM’s meeting held on May 4-5 in Goa, India, is another manifestation of Russia and China, the two key members of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to provide an alternate to the existing U.S. dominated world order. Hosted by India, SCO is the only viable regional organization connecting central, south and west Asia. Formed on June 15, 2001 in Shanghai, SCO is composed of 9 members, three observer states and six dialogue partners; it is the only organization representing all the three Asia's by focusing on regional cooperation and taking stand against three ‘isms’: ethnic separatism, religious extremism and terrorism.

According to the reports, “India’s theme for its Chairmanship of SCO in 2023 is ‘SECURE-SCO’. The country has been persistent in pushing for the strengthening of collaboration on issues pertaining to regional security, defense, and combating terrorism, among others. On the agenda for the SCO under India’s presidency will be the modernization of the grouping with a focus on advanced technology and digital infrastructure. The agenda also includes discussions with regional counterparts on various regional, security, and political issues”.

If SCO participants in the Goa meeting go beyond exchanging pleasantries and superficial discussion, one can expect some solid progress as far as the agenda of Goa meeting is concerned. But, as it appears from the conclusion of the Goa meeting, same old diplomatic jargon could be seen in which member countries expressed their will and determination to move forward in promoting cooperation, enhancing trade, commercial ties and taking steps against extremism, separatism and terrorism. No road map to promote travel and tourism by easing the visa regime was to be seen in the discourse of Goa meeting.

SCO is represented by all the Central Asian states except Turkmenistan. In 2022, Iran was granted full membership in SCO. Other members are India, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Countries having observer status in SCO are: Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia. Six “dialogue partners” in SCO are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey. SCO was primarily established by Russia and China when the world faced 9/11 and the threat of terrorism loomed large. In the beginning SCO primarily focused on countering terrorism, threat of centrifugal forces promoting separatism and religious extremism. Later on, with the expansion of SCO, it was decided to broaden its scope and to include areas of regional cooperation like economic, trade, travel, tourism and so forth.

According to the reports, “SCO has been an observer in the UN General Assembly since 2005. In April 2010, the UN and SCO Secretariats signed a Joint Declaration on Cooperation. SCO Secretariat, located in Beijing has also established partnerships with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in addition to its ongoing cooperation with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the UN Office on Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT). The Department of Political and Peace building Affairs (DPPA), as well as UNRCCA (United Nations Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia) maintain regular contacts with the SCO officials. The cooperation activities focus on security developments in the region and key issues related to counterterrorism and prevention of violent extremism”.

As compared to South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which is in limbo since 2016 when it failed to hold its 19th summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad because of boycott of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and India, SCO has done well because it is led by the two giants of Asia, China and Russia. Likewise, Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) which represents the countries of Central, West and South Asia established in 1985 has however failed to promote regionalism because of its weak leadership and capacity to enhance connectivity. It means, after Sino-Russian reconciliation following the end of the Cold War in 1991 and disintegration of Soviet Union, the two countries decided to mend fences and promote trade, commerce, travel, tourism and connectivity in other areas. Once Russia and China were able to strengthen their ties, the outcome was the formation of SCO in 2001 and its gradual expansion.

The significance of SCO needs to be examined from three angles. First, Russia and China as the core members of Shanghai Cooperation Organization are able to provide an alternate leadership to the West dominated world order. Now, India as a regular member of SCO has a matching power status with China and Russia and is in consonance with the Central Asian members of SCO on preventing separatism, extremism and terrorism. With the inclusion of Iran as a regular member of SCO, anti-American bloc in that organization will get an impetus. Stretching from Baltic to the Pacific and Kazakhstan to India, SCO is a populous regional organization with members rich in natural and mineral resources. SCO because of its strategic depth and economic significance can emerge as the world’s power house connecting the three Asia's, Russia and China by linking through roads, railways and sea ports. The SCO is also gaining traction in the Arab world.

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is an important project of connectivity and there are other projects like Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) gas pipeline and Central Asia-South Asia (CASA) energy corridor from Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan and India. Trade and economic ties will get a boost if Afghanistan is stable, so that the three Asia's are able to reap the benefit of regional cooperation.

Second, the meeting in Goa has been able to create a semblance of cooperation among the members of SCO albeit coldness witnessed because of lack of warmth between Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers. If there was no handshake between Bilawal and Jaishankar, it reflects an unprofessional and immature mindset which is least cognisant of the practices and international standards of diplomatic meetings.

India and Pakistan are so abnormal in their behavior that sometimes, they will embrace each other and sometimes they will not even want to have a handshake! That was manifested in Kathmandu, Nepal on the occasion of SAARC summit held in January 2002 when President General Musharraf of Pakistan after his speech went to the chair of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and had a historic handshake.

In Pakistan, there is a criticism that why Bilawal went to Goa, disregarding the fact that attending a meeting of multilateral organization has nothing to do with bilateral matters. Creating embarrassment at an international forum is a poor reflection of countries having a recognized international standing. If India and Pakistan are bringing their contentious issues at the regional and international level, it would mean that the two countries have a long way to go in behaving in a mature manner. What will happen if SCO summit or a meeting is held in Pakistan? Will Pakistan not invite India, an important member of SCO, to attend that meeting?

If India is able to influence SCO and as a host of Goa meeting it focused on promoting connectivity in the three Asia's regardless of its unresolved issues with China and Pakistan, it reflected maturity and prudence of India Foreign Minister who has excellence in diplomacy and projecting his country’s strategic foresight. In the sidelines of SCO meeting, Pakistan’s foreign minister held meetings with his Russian and Uzbek counterparts but is it not cumbersome for Islamabad to project a positive image when the country is a hub of terrorist activities. On May 4, in a terrorist attack in government college Parachinar, 7 teachers were brutally killed. Periodic violent and terrorist acts in different parts of Pakistan are a great source of embarrassment.

As usual, the foreign ministers of Pakistan and India in their addresses followed a traditional rhetorical approach by attacking each other’s position and exposed before other members their failure to keep the forum of SCO out from politics. Raising the Kashmir issue or cross border terrorism in a multilateral forum was unwise and proved that India and Pakistan lacked vision, foresight and prudence in managing their conflicts and instead of dragged such issues in a multilateral forum.

Talking against racism, xenophobia, religious persecution and cross border terrorism is fine but the focus of both the foreign ministers should have been on connectivity, social, human and economic development in the three Asia's. Yet, it is a very welcome sign of goodwill that, on the occasion of Goa SCO foreign ministers' meeting, Pakistan announced that it would release 600 Indian fishermen. Bilawal’s press conference in Karachi after returning from Goa meeting echoed Islamabad’s position that unless India reverses its position on Jammu and Kashmir, and restores it to August 4, 2019, relations with New Delhi cannot return to normal. This signifies lack of mutual trust, confidence and political will to mend fences in Indo-Pak relations.

Finally, providing connectivity among its members in trade, travel, tourism, environment and other issues of significance, SCO will make use of consensus between two of its key members China and Russia to strengthen regional cooperation and connectivity while pending the resolution of their conflicts.

It is yet to be seen how the SCO, in its summit scheduled to be held in July this year in New Delhi, will deal with the issues which impede connectivity among member states. Certainly, obstacles in way of TAPI and CASA energy corridor need to be removed. Afghanistan, which is a major stumbling block for connectivity between the three Asia's, should also be looked into by SCO in its summit meeting a few months from now.

The author is the former Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Karachi, and can be reached at