SCO summit reinforces global trend toward multipolarity
The just-concluded summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, called for the forging of a multilateral world order as a hedge against US unilateralism. The eight member states — China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, India and Pakistan — reaffirmed “their commitment to a more representative, democratic, just and multipolar world order based on the universally recognized principles of international law.”
The summit declaration commits them to “oppose grouping, and ideological and confrontational approaches to solving international and regional issues,” and “to work together to build a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness and justice as well as win-win cooperation, and to build a community with a shared future for mankind.”
Multilateralism is a founding goal of the SCO. It was established in 2001 against the backdrop of a decade of US unilateralism, which continued to manifest itself in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the subsequent two decades. In response, China and Russia led the expansion of security and economic cooperation within the SCO, besides extending its membership to India and Pakistan in 2017 and including a dozen nations as observers and dialogue partners.
Meanwhile, faced with reversals in the Iraq and Afghan wars, and the threat posed by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the US opted to contain Beijing’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region. The Obama administration began this quest with the “pivot to Asia” well over a decade ago. America’s China containment policy has assumed a bipartisan consensus and continues under the Biden administration.
Through this policy, the US intends to recreate the Cold War — in spite of the fact that global power is today more diffused than ever, as are the world’s ideological and economic realities. That is why current regional and global relationships remain fluid in nature and emerging powers have to tread carefully amid the current great power contestations.
Even China is compelled to perform a difficult balancing act, as is apparent from its evolving position on the Ukraine war. China and Russia had pledged to unconditionally pursue a strategic partnership days before the Russian intervention in Ukraine. Since then, their bilateral trade, mostly in energy, has expanded considerably. However, China has “questions and concerns” over Ukraine, as Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed during the SCO summit.
This is understandable. Beijing strictly adheres to the principle of territorial integrity, as it has faced the threat of separatism in peripheral provinces such as Xinjiang. Moreover, China fears that its alignment with Russia over the Ukraine war may provide a potent justification for the US containment policy.
The organization’s inner strength lies in its ability to promote the pragmatic interest of its partners.
These two considerations aside, Sino-Russian interests fundamentally converge when it comes to countering America’s global unipolar influence. The outcome of Putin’s meeting with President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the summit suggests as much.
Putin was quoted as having told his Chinese counterpart: “We jointly stand for the formation of a just, democratic and multipolar world order based on international law and the central role of the UN, and not on some rules that someone has come up with and is trying to impose on others.”
After the meeting, China stated that it “is ready to work with Russia in extending strong support to each other on issues concerning their respective core interests.” China considers Taiwan as part of its territory and thus a domestic matter. Russia supports the One China policy. China also understands Russian sensitivities in the “near abroad.”
Therefore, in his summit speech, Xi urged cooperation to prevent foreign powers from meddling in internal affairs and instigating “color revolutions,” referring to the one in Kazakhstan early this year.
China and Russia have also used other global groupings like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to advocate for an alternative to the US-led international order.
India’s diverse foreign policy pursuits offer another instance of the complexity of world politics today. It is part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the US, Japan and Australia, which is meant to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region. At the same time, however, India has assumed the presidency of the SCO for a year and will host its 23rd summit in 2023. It has also refused to join the trade pillar of the 14-member Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which was unveiled by the Biden administration in May, again with the purpose of containing China.
Moreover, India’s trade with China has seen exponential growth in recent years, reaching $125 billion last year. Just two years ago, their troops violently clashed in the Galwan Valley in the Himalayan border region. The two powers have other border disputes too, but they have not allowed these disputes to impact their economic and trade relations.
This model of interstate relations particularly applies to India-Pakistan ties, where the enduring conflict of Kashmir has subverted trade and economic cooperation. The issue has gained urgency due to the current floods. The summit made it clear that Indian and Pakistani leaders adhere to different versions of deeper connectivity, including free transit rights. Both sides need to emulate the “Shanghai spirit,” which is the basis of the SCO’s creation and expansion. Next year’s summit in India will be an excellent opportunity to renew the stalled peace process.
As is clear from the preceding discussion, the SCO is a vital regional platform for China and Russia to articulate the value of multilateralism in world politics and simultaneously protect each other’s security interests from US-led Western interventionism. Covering more than 40 percent of the world’s population and nearly 30 percent of its gross domestic product, the SCO is also an alternative venue for countries like India and Pakistan, which are seeking to diversify their foreign relations away from relying solely on the US and Europe.
That is why it has this year attracted several other countries — from Egypt in North Africa to Qatar in the Arabian Gulf and Belarus in Europe to Vietnam in Southeast Asia — to enter its fold, initially joining as dialogue partners before moving to observer status and eventually becoming full members. Some of them, such as Saudi Arabia, are drastically diversifying their energy-centric economies and, hence, have no choice but to diversify their global relationships, especially with the emerging powers and organizations in Asia.
Ultimately, any organization that serves the mutual gains of diverse nations in the economic and security spheres is a force for good in world politics, especially if we keep in mind the horrors of American unilateralism in the last three decades. The SCO’s inner strength thus lies in its ability to promote the pragmatic interests of its partners.
• Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist who has been vice chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.