Beijing’s leadership gets put to the test at SCO

Reid Standish

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has taken on many forms in its 20 years, but the bloc now grapples with its greatest test in how it can respond to the situation in Afghanistan.
Finding Perspective: The SCO — a Eurasian security bloc that consists of China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan — has long faced questions over its relevance and been criticized as a hollow talk shop with little practical follow-through.
That reputation will be difficult to shed, especially as both China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin will not attend the Dushanbe summit in person. Although that may have less to do with the SCO than other factors, as Xi has not left China in more than 600 days and Putin is in self-isolation after COVID cases were detected in his entourage. Both leaders will be attending virtually.
But as Luca Anceschi, a professor of Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow, told me, just because the SCO is a talk shop doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant, especially because the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan has created new opportunities for Beijing to allow its own “regional order to emerge.”
This view is shared by Charles Dunst, an associate with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro team, who says that while the SCO is far from being a catchall for Chinese leadership, it can continue to grow in the future.
“The Afghanistan crisis has the potential to breathe more life into the SCO,” said Dunst. “But the fact that the group operates on consensus will probably prevent it from making a significant difference there.” Why It Matters: The bloc has long focused on what it calls the “three evils” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism — areas where its largely authoritarian members have tended to see eye to eye.
Moving forward, those talks will only become more relevant as China becomes even more preoccupied with terrorist threats coming from Afghanistan.
As Niva Yau, a researcher at the OSCE Academy in Kyrgyzstan, put it, the SCO isn’t the only arrow that Chinese policymakers have in their quiver. The organization has its limits, especially with key differences over Afghanistan between rivals India and Pakistan, as well between Tajikistan and the Taliban.
But it can still make headway on issues like drug trafficking, refugees, and terrorism in Afghanistan, according to Yau, and agreement on these are the most likely deliverables for a joint statement to materialize from the summit in Tajikistan.
Pulling back, the SCO also fits into Beijing’s future ambitions. “There is this long-term idea that once there is more consensus about things like security and trade, that the region will then bound together around Beijing and see China as the best provider for these matters,” Yau told me.