The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ended on September 16 with many questions about the organization’s future.
For most of its existence, the SCO was viewed as being led by dominant members Russia and China. But the poor performance of the Russian military in the war in Ukraine, as well as the toll of the costs of the conflict and the international sanctions imposed on Russia for warfare, are likely to hurt Russia’s economy for years to come.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has negatively impacted the economies of SCO member countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China.
Thus, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived at the Samarkand summit with little to offer member states in terms of security or finances, while Chinese leader Xi Jinping made his first official foreign visits (he was in Kazakhstan before continuing to Uzbekistan for the summit) since beginning of the pandemic, led a delegation ready to sign new trade and infrastructure deals.
As Putin met with Xi on the sidelines of the SCO summit, the Russian leader acknowledged China’s “questions and concerns” about Ukraine in televised speeches.
When Putin met with Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister told him “the present age is not an age of war”.
The summit ended with a feeling that there is only one dominant member in the SCO, and that is China, and that the SCO is becoming an almost exclusively Asian-oriented group.
Among those queued for full membership is Belarus. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko said on the sidelines of the summit that his country has been working with the SCO for 12 years and that it is time Belarus became a member of the “Shanghai family”.
Lukashenko’s fate is, of course, closely linked to that of Putin’s Russia, but other new members and aspiring members remain further removed from the Kremlin’s influence.
India and Pakistan became full members of the SCO in 2017, and Iran is set to become a full member in 2023. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed that his country, already a dialogue partner of the SCO and also a NATO member, wants to become a member.
Other SCO dialogue partners are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
The summit also reminded observers of divisions within the organization.
Heavy fighting breaks out
On the day of the summit, heavy fighting broke out between SCO members Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Indian Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi did not meet or even exchange greetings at the summit, although a statement by Xi congratulated India on assuming the rotating chairmanship of the SCO.
Modi also failed to meet Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on the sidelines of the summit. Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said it was due to differences between India and Pakistan in the Kashmir region.
But during his speech at the summit, Modi spoke about SCO members “granting each other full rights of transit,” and Sharif responded in his speech, saying, “Let’s build a strong connectivity plan that has ties to the countries of Central Asia.” In such a situation, everyone, including neighbors, has the right of full transit.”
India has started using a trade route that goes to Central Asia by road through Pakistan and Afghanistan, but Pakistan still has restrictions on goods from India entering by land and India is forced to ship goods from and to India to be shipped to Pakistan.
The guests of honor invited to the summit included the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, but after heavy fighting broke out between the two countries on September 12, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan canceled his trip to Samarkand. However, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev appeared.
Violence erupted in Kazakhstan in January, eastern Tajikistan in May and June, and western Uzbekistan in early July. There is Beijing’s ongoing campaign against Muslims in the western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and then there is the Russian military presence in Ukraine. None of this was addressed directly, or in most cases at all, as the SCO leaders sat down at the summit table.
On paper, the SCO looks impressive and possibly even menacing. After all, its member states represent almost half of the world’s population. But the diverging interests of the organization’s members and the animosity of some members towards others diminishes the political clout of the SCO, and this too became increasingly evident at the Samarkand summit.
Once billed as a rival to NATO, the SCO conducted joint military exercises in China and Russia in 2007, involving about 6,500 troops and 80 warplanes and helicopters from the then six member organizations. But while the SCO continues to conduct military drills, they are not frequent and have never been as extensive as the 2007 drills.
The SCO Summit previewed what to expect from the organization in the near future; an increasingly Asian group striving to improve regional economic and trade ties, offering its leaders an annual opportunity to meet and potentially discuss matters of common interest on the sidelines.