The expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization aligns with Beijing’s geostrategic ambitions. Drawing India closer into China’s orbit serves as a check against US influence, while Pakistan’s inclusion could help fight security threats. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to connect Eurasia and South Asia, could also benefit from the new members.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) recent decision to accept India and Pakistan as full members is a major gain for the organization’s most powerful member China. The SCO members represent 40 percent of the world’s population and generate 20 percent of global GDP, and it now stretches across a large part of the strategically critical Eurasia-South Asia landmass.
The expansion aligns with Beijing’s geostrategic ambitions. China hopes that the SCO will play a more prominent role in international politics, and the organization provides a forum for China to present itself as a leader in multilateral organizations. India’s membership undermines a potential Washington-Delhi entente against Beijing. Pakistan’s inclusion will allow the SCO to better coordinate its fight against terrorism and ethnic separatism – two major security threats to Chinese interests. The organization’s geographic extension into the subcontinent will also give a boost to Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), by improving connectivity between Eurasia and South Asia.
SCO expansion takes place at a critical juncture in international politics. The US withdrawal from a leadership role in Asia and beyond coincides with Beijing’s growing willingness to assert its interests. During the Obama administration, Washington had embarked on a multi-pronged pivot or rebalancing strategy to maintain its primacy in Asia, by reinforcing its security posture in Asia and by launching diplomatic and economic initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. The Trump administration has either suspended or cancelled these initiatives. China on the other hand is in a stronger position than ever to promote its national interests through diplomatic and economic initiatives.
India’s inclusion is a blow to Washington
The SCO expansion further consolidates Beijing’s influence in Central Asia, and extends it to the subcontinent. Through the SCO, but also through a revived Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Beijing hopes to promote an Asian security concept to counter the US-led regional alliance systems and network security arrangements.
India’s inclusion in particular is a blow to Washington’s efforts to enlist New Delhi in checking China’s challenges to US primacy in Asia. While New Delhi will continue to pursue strong ties with Washington, it will also avoid being associated with any anti-China alignment, such as the now mooted ‘Arc of Democracy’ (Australia, India, Japan and the US). India and China share the vision of a multipolar international order, and they cooperate in the BRICS grouping and in the China-India-Russia trilateral framework. India also participates in the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB), which was founded in 2015 on China’s initiative. Its SCO accession is a further sign that India is attracted to the potential economic and security benefits of these Chinese-led organizations.
The SCO has been a testing ground for China to initiate and lead a regional organization vital to its national interests. Together with Russia, China has been the key player within the organization since its inception in 2001. A cooperative Russia and a stable Central Asia serve Beijing’s interests in maintaining regional security and stability. To better coordinate the fight against terrorism in the region, the SCO established a Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) in 2005. Pakistan’s membership promises new opportunities for cooperation among members in this area.
Boost for the Belt and Road Initiative
China also sees the organization as a vehicle to seize and develop the potentials for regional cooperation on energy, trade, and investment. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative will receive a boost by the SCO’s expansion into South Asia. Beijing has already made enormous investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), worth close to $55 billion. It has sought the establishment of an SCO Development Bank to facilitate regional trade and investment. The SCO already endorses BRI – and the shared SCO membership could mitigate New Delhi’s suspicions of the project or even lead to India’s participation.
Over the past fifteen years, Beijing has encouraged gradual SCO institutionalization. The organization’s heads of state now meet for annual summits, and there are ministerial level meetings and parliamentary consultations on issues ranging from defense, foreign affairs and internal security to economic development and finance. The SCO Secretariat was set up in 2004. Since 2005, member states hold a bi-annual joint military exercise.
SCO expansion also carries risks for China, especially if it becomes embroiled in the India-Pakistan conflicts and if India’s positions as a democracy conflict with views held by the more authoritarian regimes represented by China and Russia as well as by most Central Asian member states. But these risks are outweighed by the major diplomatic, security, and economic benefits to the organization’s legitimacy, dynamics and geopolitical reach. Most of these benefits will be reaped by its most powerful member China.