Creating a multilateral world system was advocated during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting that just ended in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, as a safeguard against US unilateralism. China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, India, and Pakistan are the eight member states, that reaffirmed “their commitment to a more representative, democratic, just, and a multipolar world order based on the generally accepted principles of international law.”
One of the SCO’s founding principles is multilateralism. It was founded in 2001 against the backdrop of a decade of US unilateralism, which persisted over the next two decades in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In response, China and Russia took the lead in developing the SCO’s security and economic ties, as well as adding India and Pakistan as full members in 2017 and a dozen other countries as observers and discussion partners.
In the meantime, the US decided to restrain Beijing’s expanding influence in the Asia-Pacific area in light of the failure of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the threat posed by China’s Belt and Road Initiative. With the “pivot to Asia,” the Obama administration launched this mission more than ten years ago. The Biden administration keeps up America’s containment of China strategy, which has come to be supported by both political parties.
The US wants to reenact the Cold War through this approach, despite the fact that global power and ideological and economic realities are more diffuse than ever. Due to the fluid character of modern regional and international relations and the ongoing competition between major powers, developing countries must proceed with caution.
Over the years, the SCO’s culture has developed in a very Chinese fashion. Prior to the US war on terror (italics mine) spreading to Iraq and beyond, the Shanghai Five initially concentrated on combating terrorism.
The original “three no’s”—no alliance, no confrontation, and no targeting of any third party—ended up equipping a fast, hybrid vehicle with “politics, security, economy, and humanities” as its “four wheels,” along with a Global Development Initiative, all of which stand in stark contrast to the goals of an aggressive, hegemonic west.
The fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping portrayed China and Russia as “responsible global powers” determined to secure the emergence of multipolarity and reject the arbitrary “order” imposed by the United States and its unipolar worldview is arguably the most important takeaway from this week’s Samarkand summit.
The meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the “very special friendship” register, could not have been more friendly. Modi, who was actually speaking to the west, called for strong answers to the food and fuel crises. In the meanwhile, the State Bank of India will set up unique rupee accounts to conduct business involving Russia.
Xi has not traveled abroad since the Covid epidemic until now. He might pull it off because he is quite certain that he will be given a third term during the Communist Party Congress in Beijing the following month. Xi now holds influence over at least 90% of the Politburo and/or has allies in those positions.
The revitalization of BRI’s appeal in direct relation with the SCO was the other important justification. In Astana (now Nur-Sultan), China’s massive BRI initiative was formally unveiled by Xi nine years ago. For many years to come, it will continue to be the mainstay of Chinese foreign policy.
The SCO’s evolving multilateral cooperation structures, which gather countries focusing on economic development independent from the nebulous, hegemonic “rules-based order,” are aligned with the BRI’s emphasis on trade and connectivity. Even the Modi government in India is reconsidering its reliance on western blocs, where New Delhi is at best a neo-colonized “partner.”
Therefore, in Samarkand, Xi and Putin effectively laid out a roadmap for enhancing multipolarity, as emphasized by the final Samarkand declaration that was endorsed by all SCO members.
Expanding membership and cooperation horizon
China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were the SCO’s founding members. Later, in 2017, India and Pakistan joined.
At this year’s summit, the SCO) signed a memorandum of obligations on Iran’s commitments to join (it has been an observer state since 2005); the process for Belarus’ membership was launched; memorandums of understanding granting Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar the status of SCO dialogue partners was signed; and an agreement was reached on admitting Bahrain, the Maldives, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Myanmar as new dialogue partners.
With a current membership of 40% of the world’s population, 60% of Eurasia’s land area, and more than 30% of the world’s GDP, the SCO today serves as the largest regional organization in the world.
Priorities and doable steps to increase SCO’s activity from their existing levels were determined at the summit. Important regional and global issues were discussed by the chiefs of foreign ministries. Several resolutions were passed, one of which was a detailed implementation schedule for the SCO Treaty on Long-Term Good Neighborliness, Friendship, and Cooperation for the years 2023–2027.
Before the summit even started, Uzbekistan proposed to create an action plan to encourage mutual investment as part of the presidency of the Republic of Uzbekistan in the SCO. This would increase the coordination of the SCO nations’ agencies in charge of creating investment policy. The nation also intended to host an international conference on agro-industrial sector cooperation, which will enable its participants to create a shared plan to increase agricultural sector cooperation and research new agricultural technologies and methods to boost yields and conserve water resources.
A new Great Game
Even more than China, Russia is aware that their adversaries are taking unnecessary risks. Alone in 2022, there were unrelenting border conflicts between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, a failed coup in Kazakhstan in January, problems in Badakhshan, Tajikistan, problems in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, and more.
Then there is recently-liberated Afghanistan, where ISIS-Khorasan and its Tajik and Uzbek allies have ravaged no fewer than 11 provinces. The usual suspects, who will employ whatever means necessary to harass and “isolate” Russia from Central Asia, allegedly urged thousands of would-be Heartland jihadis to travel to Idlib in Syria before returning to Afghanistan.
The US/NATO fighting unified Eurasia with Turkiye in the middle, Russia and China should be prepared to participate in a sort of extremely complex, hybrid Great Game.
On the plus side, Samarkand demonstrated that there is at least agreement among all the stakeholders at various institutional organizations that regionalization, in this case Eurasian, will eventually supplant US-led globalization and that technology sovereignty will define sovereignty.