China’s Role in a Changing SCO By Muhammad Asif Noor

The forthcoming summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is scheduled to be held in June in China’s province Qingdao. The regional body, despite its best efforts to eliminate challenges and because of multiple anti-regional factors, is struggling to achieve its goals. In fact, Pakistan and India’s membership as permanent members of the SCO has exacerbated these critical challenges.
This expanded and new version of the SCO demands a dynamic strategy that will keep Pakistan and India away from the issues that plague their bilateral relationship. South Asia’s history, moreover, reveals that bilateral disputes have always dominated collective regional issues. SAARC is one such example. There is also a common assumption that the Pak-India rivalry might negatively influence the SCO and may also affect the SCO’s collective strategy to fight against regional evils.
It will be difficult for other SCO member states such as China to keep these two arch-rivals away from their bilateral disputes. Other SCO members, moreover, have also been struggling to eliminate anti-regional elements, and have been fighting human and drug trafficking, terrorism, extremism and cybercrime.
Apart from this obstacle, China, which is at the vanguard of the SCO, also has to confront several other challenges of critical importance in order to maintain regional stability and security.
First, the SCO should assume its responsibility in maintaining regional stability and security. Regional stability and security are some of the biggest challenges that the region has been facing. However, the addition of Pakistan and India has increased the intensity of these challenges. As a result, Beijing must respond to the entire region’s concerns by accepting its responsibility in dealing with the regional crisis.
Second, Beijing will have to play a balanced and objective role in the tense Pakistan-India relations, all the while adhering to the political principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. This is crucial to maintaining peace, stability and security in the region. For this purpose, China should follow a policy of constructive engagement between Pakistan and India which will not only pave the way for the settlement of disputes between Pakistan and India, but will also develop deeper economic ties.
Third, Beijing should play a more constructive role in the political stability and economic development of Afghanistan. Beijing’s heavy investment in developing infrastructure in the war-torn country could be a potential first step in this regard because of Afghanistan’s proximity to SCO member states. However, China might face an uncertain prospect in Afghanistan because of the rise in security attacks on Afghan and NATO forces and the growing influence of the Taliban and other anti-state elements operating in the country.
China, which finds itself at the vanguard of the SCO, has to confront several critical challenges in order to maintain regional stability and security
SCO member states, especially Pakistan, would also be significantly affected if the situation in Afghanistan takes an unexpected turn for the worse. It is, moreover, obvious that the SCO cannot solve all of Afghanistan’s problems by itself.
Fourth, focusing on poverty and inflation, the SCO chairman should aim to make a breakthrough in economic areas by developing a dynamic economic strategy which takes on board all member states, especially Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. History shows that the SCO achieved great success in the area of security by adopting a common approach to combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism—the major evils currently plaguing South Asian states.
Economic ties within the SCO, however, lag far behind, and so far no satisfactory results can be drawn from the bloc’s economic performance. The China initiated ‘One Belt, One Road’ project will be a potential opportunity for states in the Asia Pacific to benefit from it and will also give an impetus to China’s vision of economic development and of linking the region with the international market.
Fifth, the SCO will have to develop a comprehensive strategy to handle the issue of expanding the organisation. Whether or not the SCO should expand is an important question that Beijing will sooner or later have to answer. On the one hand, Russia is a strong advocate of expansion and supported Pakistan and India’s bids for membership, while China, on the other hand, is more cautious because it worries that expansion may lead to a fall in the organisation’s efficiency.
Moscow and Beijing, along with other member states, can continue to discuss the issue but it is crucial that the SCO not let this question negatively affect the organisation’s internal solidarity. It is also important for the regional forum to predict all the possible effects an expansion can have, and to prevent the undesirable consequences that might emerge from a possible expansion. At the same time, Beijing should make the best use of the possibilities that a future expansion will bring.
The writer is Director, Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies and Secretary General, Pakistan-SCO Friendship Forum
Published in Daily Times, May 17th 2018.

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