Eagle's grip loosening? The dragon and bear at the helm of SCO-led multipolarity challenge the established order.

From Eagle’s Grip to SCO-Led Multipolarity?

The whispers of a SCO-Led multipolarity had been growing for years now. The once-iron grip of the Eagle Nation, the undisputed leader of the world stage, seemed to be loosening. A tremor, like a dragon awakening from its slumber, shook the established order. A symphony of rising voices, a chorus that echoed from the windswept steppes of Central Asia to the bustling streets of Shanghai, demanded a world where power was shared, not hoarded.

The Eagle Loses Grip, Emergence of SCO-led Multipolarity

Once a strategic crossroads, Central Asia had always been a vital artery connecting East and West. Again it became the stage for a pivotal moment in global geopolitics. The 24th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Astana, Kazakhstan, brought together leaders from across Eurasia to discuss security, trade, and the future of the organization itself. The summit’s theme, “Strengthening multilateral dialogue – striving for sustainable peace and development,” aptly captured the challenges and opportunities faced by the SCO in the current global order. With a growing membership and an ambitious agenda, the SCO is positioned to play a significant role in the evolving world order, potentially ushering in a SCO-led multipolarity.

Unity Amidst Diversity In SCO-Led Multipolarity

The SCO has grown from its original six-member core to a ten-member organization with global ambitions. The recent inclusion of Belarus as the first European member, following the addition of India, Pakistan, and Iran, underscores this expansion. However, this growth has diluted the organization’s focus on Central Asia, introducing new complexities and frictions, particularly among key players like China, Russia, India, and Pakistan.

The Dragon and The Bear Steering the Ship

China and Russia, as founding members, have played pivotal roles in shaping the trajectory of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Initially focused on regional security and economic cooperation, the SCO has expanded its mandate significantly.

Leaders like Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have championed the SCO’s role in countering Western alliances. Xi has stressed unity among SCO members and opposed external interference, criticizing what he calls the West’s “Cold War mentality.” Meanwhile, Putin has advocated for a new model of cooperation in Eurasia, advocating for the removal of external military presence from the region.

Putin and Xi’s Vision for the SCO: Multipolarity and Global Development

In his speech, Putin stressed the SCO’s importance in establishing a multipolar world order.

“Today, as the world undergoes rapid and irreversible changes, the SCO’s proactive stance in international affairs is crucial. A multipolar world is already a reality,” he emphasized “We are convinced that along with BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a pillar of the emerging world order. These two organizations serve as a powerful driving force behind global development processes and efforts to ensure true multipolarity,” Putin added.

The Russian president noted, “an increasing number of countries are calling for a fairer world order and express determination to defend their legitimate rights and traditional values; new centers of power and economic development are emerging and growing stronger.”

In addition, President Xi Jinping has consistently echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the vision of a shared destiny. Citing an old Chinese saying, “No mountain or ocean can distance people who have shared aspirations,” Xi highlighted the interconnectedness of global interests and the importance of unity among SCO members. He emphasized the need to uphold the “Shanghai Spirit,” which encompasses mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for cultural diversity, and the pursuit of common development. Xi stressed that, ‘In the face of significant global changes, we must have the wisdom to see the changes, the ability to deal with the changes, and the courage to make changes.’

“We should jointly advocate an equal and orderly multipolar world and a universally beneficial and inclusive economic globalization, practice true multilateralism, and make global governance more just and equitable,” advocated Xi.

Economic and Geopolitical Significance: BRI, CPEC, and SCO Integration

China and Russia view the SCO as increasingly vital amid rising Western sanctions and geopolitical tensions. Russia, facing isolation over issues like Crimea and Ukraine, sees the SCO as a key platform for international support. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), reinforces its commitment to deeper economic ties within the SCO, despite differing views among member states.

Economic and Security Cooperation

Economic collaboration remains a cornerstone of the SCO. Due to Western sanctions, the bloc’s member nations have become key buyers of Russian commodities like oil and gas. Putin highlighted the increasing use of national currencies in trade within SCO countries and proposed creating a new payment system to further this trend. Such economic strategies underscore the SCO’s potential to serve as a counterweight to Western economic influence.

Additionally, Security cooperation, particularly in response to terrorism, remains a critical area of focus. Recent terror attacks in Russia and Pakistan have underlined the ongoing threat and the need for coordinated action. Earlier in May 2024, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi urged SCO members to step up their security efforts, emphasizing continuous engagement with Afghanistan, where various terrorist forces pose a significant threat to regional stability.

In his speech, Xi reiterated the importance of maintaining security, stating, “Security is a prerequisite for national development, and safety is the lifeline to happiness of the people.” He proposed enhancing intelligence sharing, conducting joint operations, and establishing a universal center to address security challenges more effectively.

Moreover, Afghanistan remained a focal point for the SCO’s security strategy. The region’s stability is crucial for broader regional security. Consequently, China and Russia both stressed the importance of coordinated humanitarian support and political engagement in Afghanistan.

Xi highlighted the necessity of establishing a broad-based and inclusive political structure in Afghanistan to ensure peace and reconstruction, stating, “Afghanistan is indispensable for the security in the region.”

The SCO’s approach involves leveraging its Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure to strengthen counterterrorism efforts and establish an anti-drug center in Dushanbe, addressing the multifaceted security challenges emanating from Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s Crucial Role

Pakistan’s role is pivotal as Afghanistan’s neighbor and China’s strategic ally that hosts the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This strategic corridor not only enhances economic connectivity between China and Pakistan but also plays a crucial role in regional development and stability. Islamabad has consistently advocated for engaging with Afghanistan to address economic and developmental challenges, emphasizing the imperative of preventing Afghan soil from becoming a base for cross-border terrorism.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has underscored the increasing incidence of terror attacks in Pakistan, attributing them to militants exploiting Afghan sanctuaries. He has reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to combating terrorism and extremism in all forms, including state-sponsored activities.

Also See: TTP Threat: A Stalemate for Pakistan and Afghanistan Ties?

Geopolitical Dynamics: India, Taliban, and Regional Implications

However, recent allegations by former CIA officer Sarah Adams have introduced a new dimension to the regional dynamics. Adams alleges that India covertly funds the Taliban with $10 million. This funding purportedly supports extra-judicial killings of Kashmiri and Sikh leaders in Pakistan via the Taliban network and ensures the security of their leader, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada. These revelations, supported by evidence shared with major news outlets like the Guardian and The Intercept, raise serious concerns about the Afghan Taliban’s sincerity in pursuing peace. If substantiated, this purported collaboration between India and the Taliban could jeopardize fragile regional progress, exacerbating an already intricate geopolitical landscape.

The potential scenario of Afghanistan becoming a proxy battleground between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan is deeply concerning.

Escalating reciprocal attacks launched from Afghan territory could swiftly escalate tensions, potentially drawing neighboring states into a broader conflict. Such a scenario presents a significant regional challenge, posing severe implications for stability and security in the area.

Also See: Beyond Retaliation: Pakistan Airstrikes in Afghanistan

Sharif’s Advocacy at SCO: Terrorism, Extremism, and Humanitarian Concerns

Amid these challenges, Sharif emphasized at the SCO summit that terrorism and extremism, whether committed by individuals, groups, or states, must be fought collectively in a comprehensive manner. He condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, including state terrorism, in clear and unambiguous terms. Additionally, he highlighted the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, urging SCO member states to raise their voices against ongoing brutality there.

India’s Role and Regional Dynamics

India, although an emerging economy, its stance within the SCO has often been questioned, especially regarding its opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) due to its passage through Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. During the summit, India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar met with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, agreeing to step up talks to resolve border issues. Despite these diplomatic efforts, India’s role is often viewed with suspicion, particularly in the context of regional security and its involvement in covert operations in the SCO region and beyond. This positions India as a potential spoiler in the region, raising questions about its true intentions and the impact on SCO’s stability.

In addition to India’s state-sponsored transnational terrorism, allegations by former CIA officer Sarah Adams have further complicated perceptions of India’s role. These revelations, supported by evidence, cast doubt on India’s intentions and its potential impact on stability within the SCO framework.

India’s stance on issues like the CPEC and its alleged involvement in covert operations raises questions about its role as a regional actor. Perceived as a potential disruptor, India’s actions may undermine SCO cohesion and stability, highlighting ongoing challenges in regional diplomacy and security cooperation.

Also See: SCO – A Tide Bringer for the Region?

Afghanistan: A Test Case for the SCO

Afghanistan remains a contentious issue within the SCO. While Afghanistan holds observer status, the Taliban-led government has not been invited to SCO meetings. The summit saw calls for resuming the work of the SCO-Afghanistan contact group to help normalize the situation in the country. However, the need for the Taliban to ensure Afghan soil is not used against other states has also been emphasized.

The SCO’s stance on Afghanistan reflects broader regional and international concerns.

Despite economic and diplomatic relations, none of the SCO member states have formally recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government since they took power in 2021. The need for an inclusive Afghan government involving broad participation from various ethnic and political groups was emphasized for sustainable peace.

See Also: Afghanistan’s Future: IEA Walks A Tightrope for Legitimacy

Strategic Initiatives and the Astana Declaration: A Recipe for SCO-Led Multipolarity

The 24th summit of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on July 4 adopted the Astana Declaration. It approved 25 strategic documents covering energy, security, trade, finance, and information security. This comprehensive set of agreements highlights the SCO’s commitment to addressing key regional and global challenges through multilateral cooperation.

In addition to security and economic cooperation, the SCO is exploring specific initiatives to enhance its strategic capabilities. One significant proposal is the development of a new payment system within the SCO framework, aimed at increasing the use of national currencies in trade and reducing reliance on Western financial systems. This initiative could potentially strengthen economic ties among member states and offer a buffer against external economic pressures.

Another notable initiative is the creation of a regional development bank, which has been under discussion for several years. Although previous attempts to establish such a bank were met with resistance, particularly from Russia, the current geopolitical climate may provide the impetus needed to move forward. This bank could support infrastructure projects, promote sustainable development, and enhance economic integration across the SCO region.

Pakistan’s Chairmanship and Future Prospects

As China takes the rotating presidency of SCO after the Astana Summit, Pakistan holds the rotating Chairmanship of the SCO Council of Heads of Government (CHG), which is the SCO’s second-highest decision-making forum.

In this capacity, Pakistan will be hosting the SCO Heads of the Governments Meeting in October this year. The two-day meeting has been scheduled for October 15-16, marking another significant event in the SCO calendar. This event is crucial for advancing strategic initiatives endorsed at the Astana summit, particularly in light of Pakistan’s strategic position and the ongoing challenges it faces both internally and in its immediate neighborhood and as Afghanistan’s neighbor, sharing the longest border and bearing the brunt of terrorism emanating from Afghan soil.

Dynamics with Afghanistan and Regional Strategic Shifts

Amidst these complexities, questions persist about how the SCO will navigate evolving dynamics with Afghanistan, and India’s role as a spoiler in the Af-Pak region. Despite uncertainties surrounding the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s role, adaptive strategies are increasingly seen as necessary. The resumption of the SCO-Afghanistan Group and the prospect of Afghanistan’s observer status within the SCO, following Belarus’s recent accession, highlight the region’s shifting landscape.

Furthermore, Afghanistan’s participation at UN-Doha III has given Western powers an edge, potentially prompting regional powers including Pakistan to recalibrate their strategies of engagement with the Interim Government of Afghanistan.

Also See: Afghanistan’s Future: IEA Walks A Tightrope for Legitimacy

Strategic Imperatives and Challenges Ahead of the SCO Meeting

As Pakistan prepares to host the SCO meeting, speculation mounts about Afghanistan’s potential participation as an observer, contingent upon efforts by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) to curb militant activities, including those of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), operating from Afghan territory.

All eyes are now on the SCO meeting hosted by Pakistan, where strategic engagements and the realities of Afghanistan’s challenges will likely dominate discussions.

Leaders, including Putin, recognize the imperative of engaging with Afghanistan, while acknowledging the significant security challenges emanating from Afghanistan. The emphasis on engagement could overshadow other pressing issues, potentially reducing them to mere political rhetoric. Therefore, Pakistan’s nuanced approach in this context becomes crucial for regional stability.

SCO-led Multipolarity: Charting the Future

The SCO’s expanding influence presents a delicate balancing act. Maintaining relevance in Central Asia while asserting itself globally is a complex challenge. The recent Astana summit demonstrated the SCO’s potential to contribute significantly to global stability and development. However, the success of a SCO-led multipolarity hinges on managing internal dynamics and responding effectively to external pressures.

The SCO’s westward expansion, with Belarus now a member, sends tremors through the established order, traditionally led by the Eagle Nation. This eastward-looking Eagle Nation now finds itself warily eyeing the Bear (Russia) and the Dragon (China) as they orchestrate a potential counterpoint through the SCO.

The ambition is clear: ‘build consensus, forge new paths of cooperation, and promote global security, stability, development, and prosperity.’ But grand pronouncements require practical solutions. Can the SCO bridge internal divides and translate these goals into concrete actions that address regional complexities and global challenges?

The stakes are high. Whispers of a multipolar world rise in crescendo. Will the SCO become the conductor of this symphony, reshaping the global order? Or will external pressures mute its ambitions for a SCO-led multipolarity, leaving it lost in the chorus? The answer remains unwritten. Therefore, the SCO stands at a pivotal juncture. Can it navigate the treacherous geopolitical terrain and forge a “community with a shared future for all,” or will internal friction and external pressures stall its progress? Only time will tell if the SCO will rise as a true counterpoint or simply fade into a background hum within the symphony of the world order.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.

Haleema Khalid | Chief Editor and Research Lead at South Asia Times (SAT)

Haleema Khalid is an Editor and Research Lead at South Asia Times. She holds a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics and a Bachelor's in Social Work. Her research interests include exploring language's impact on society and culture.

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