Will the SCO evolve into a new governance prototype?
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a paradox. Many observers, especially in the West, doubt that the forum can produce anything but annual statements and say that its activity is designed to create the impression that this group is important.
It is indeed difficult to name concrete achievements reached by the SCO since its founding in 2001. Another widespread assessment is that China is increasingly taking the lead, and that Russian claims to leadership in Central Asia, the driving force behind the creation of the SCO 11 years ago, never came true. Beijing is imposing on SCO meetings its preferred agenda, i.e. an economic one, while Russia, which is weaker in economic terms, unsuccessfully wants the SCO to become a major security actor in the area. This increases internal tensions which contain a risk of undermining the whole organization.
Some of these views are correct, but nevertheless each summit of the SCO attracts great attention worldwide and even expectations that an alternative to liberal world order is going to emerge in this framework. This is not strange. Any organization, in which Russia and China are members, while other great powers are not, generates by default suspicion from all others. The global situation is changing rapidly and chaotically, and world leaders are used to seeing danger to their position in any potential grouping, even if its intentions and capabilities are not clearly defined. This feeling is only stronger because countries very central to international development, like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, are part of the SCOs activities and agenda and are even seen as likely members in the future.
The SCOs efficiency is not easy to measure. The success of this structure lies in what it has helped to avoid, rather than what it built up. The initial reason for members to join efforts was the settlement of border issues between China and five former Soviet republics. A topic which is always extremely sensitive and explosive has been addressed in a delicate and constructive way, and this experience, which was in the Chinese style called Shanghai spirit, was considered worth keeping and developing. Without the SCO, Russian Chinese rivalry in Central Asia could be much more severe right now it exists, but is manageable.
The very fact of the existence of such groups as the SCO or the BRICS reminds us all that the world is undergoing a process of redistribution of forces and influence towards new centers, which started at the end of the 20th century. There are prototypes of governance structures for a time when traditional Western institutions cease to be universal and define the course of events. Only prototypes, because so far not one emerging power claims real leadership ambitions or demonstrates willingness to challenge the existing international paradigm. All of them (Russia, China, India etc.) demand from the West that Western powers take their position into account more and show greater respect for their interests and rights. This is evident both globally and locally, but so far thats it. Even in Afghanistan, where all of the SCO members are vitally interested in stability, the voice of the organization isnt heard.
But even its vague and barely active position doesnt bar the SCO from rising significance. On the one hand, due to the general escalation of tensions in the region, on the other hand, because Western players are confused and dont have a convincing strategy for Afghanistan.
Approaches to the SCO reflect more general perceptions of alternatives to the current international system. Some are afraid of the emergence of alternatives, others hope for them. In real terms no one has grounds to expect this from the SCO it is very far away from the required condition. But the atmosphere in international politics is creating a situation in which an alternative will be widely demanded, the crisis of the current system is too obvious. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation still has the chance to prove its ability.
Fyodor Lukyanov, for RT