Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Foreign Ministers meeting
5 min read

The SCO faces rewards and risks as it admits Belarus

China and Russia have pushed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization beyond its original mission. Eva Seiwert says this may make some members more willing to work with the EU.  

Belarus’ upcoming admission to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) shows that the once purely regional grouping – originally comprising China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – is expanding its geographic and geopolitical reach. After India and Pakistan in 2017 and Iran in 2023, Belarus will be the first exclusively European country to join. What began as a Central Asian forum focused on regional security cooperation will have become a diverse 10-member club with broadening global ambitions.

The SCO’s shifting focus reflects China and Russia’s evolving interests. As founding members, they were the driving forces in creating a platform for regional security and economic cooperation, and 23 years later they are willing in parts to sacrifice that role to raise the SCO’s international weight: Its members already comprise roughly 25 percent of the world’s economic output and half of its population, making it useful to Moscow and Beijing’s geopolitical aims. 

While Russia’s interest in the Chinese-initiated organization was initially lukewarm, Moscow began to take the SCO more seriously following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and ensuing Western sanctions. Since starting its full-scale war against Ukraine in 2022, Moscow has had to seek partners outside of Europe even more intensively. The Kremlin now sees the SCO as a useful forum for gathering support and countering Western claims of its international isolation, and as a result has adopted a “the more, the merrier” approach to membership.  

China initially failed in its push for closer economic ties alongside security collaboration. By the mid-2010s, it was using venues like the Belt and Road Initiative and later the China-Central Asia summit to promote closer regional cooperation. Nevertheless, having consolidated its position as a major power, China has come to welcome the SCO as a forum to showcase its ability to offer alternatives to US-led institutions and to present itself as the champion of the Global South. 

Enlargement sought to increase the organization’s geopolitical presence

By embracing membership of the South Asian heavyweights India and Pakistan in 2017, the SCO bet on increasing its visibility on the world stage, while accepting the risk that decades of India-Pakistan tensions could weaken its core mandate of security cooperation. Regardless of this flaw, adding two major regional powers that were also nuclear states promised to bring the organization more legitimacy. Accepting India as the first undeniably democratic member country would help to counter the Western portrayal of the SCO as a “dictators’ club.” 

Iran’s accession made more sense in terms of organizational effectiveness. Tehran was a natural choice to help prevent drug trafficking and political instability spilling over from neighboring Afghanistan  – and it promised improved trade links through its port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman. But Iran also blurred the SCO’s regional focus even more and damaged any global legitimacy the organization had gained by admitting India – several SCO members had long refused to consider Iran’s application for full membership, filed as far back as 2008. 

But in 2015 Russia and China joined the US and Europe to sign the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, under which Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. After the Trump Administration unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, antagonism towards the US brought China, Russia and Iran closer together. Tehran’s accession in 2023 showed the SCO no longer cared whether the West saw it as friend or foe.

The accession of Belarus at the SCO summit in Astana, Kazakhstan will seal the SCO’s transformation into a geopolitical bloc at the center of a hardening global confrontation between the US and its allies on one the hand and China, Russia and their partners on the other. As the first all-European member, Belarus expands the SCO’s reach from Central, South, and West Asia; adds an important ally of Russia and a “strategic partner” of China; and reinforces the SCO as a counterbalance to Western organizations.

Not all member states want to choose sides between China and the US

SCO enlargement now seems focused on assembling a coalition that supports China and Russia’s ambition to establish a global order not dominated by the West. But Minsk’s interests in the SCO may not only be geostrategic. Trade with fellow members will be a welcome alternative to ties to Europe, given EU sanctions for supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine. Given its weak economy, Belarus stands to gain more from SCO membership than the other members will from Minsk. 

The SCO’s next steps will be critical. Will it focus on consolidating relations among its members – close partners of China and Russia that endorse their vision of a “multipolar world order,” but also want to reap the fruits of economic collaboration? Or will expansion become the new normal, as the SCO gathers as many countries as possible to establish itself as the voice of the Global South? The organization’s so-called dialogue partners currently include, among others, Bahrain, Cambodia, Egypt, Kuwait, the Maldives, Nepal, and Qatar.

As the SCO requires consensus, it seems likely that the organization won’t rush to add more countries. Some SCO states have no interest in being drawn into choosing between fealty to Russia and China and relations with the US. Kazakhstan, for one, has refused to openly support Russia’s war against Ukraine. Its “multi-vector foreign policy” should make it reluctant to turn the SCO from a tool to solve regional issues into one of geopolitics.

Enlargement has raised the SCO’s profile and put it in a bind – international visibility has come hand in hand with loss of regional relevance. This presents an opportunity for the EU to raise its engagement with Central Asia. Diplomatic and economic ties have grown in recent years – the EU accounts for 42 percent of cumulative foreign direct investment in the region. While Europe cannot act as an alternative to the SCO’s original regional mandate, it can build on its position to offer more attractive partnerships focused on concrete co-operation.  

A longer version of this commentary ran on the website of The Diplomat on July 1, 2024.