The dominance of China and Russia in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation gave rise to a belief by some that it was less about peace and economic expansion than being a counterweight to Western influence. Gatherings that appeared more about talk than action fanned the theory. But the perception can be set aside with the joining of India and Pakistan at the group’s recent summit in Kazakhstan. Enlarged, revitalised and with a new sense of purpose, the bloc is now better placed to take on regional disputes and security challenges that threaten development.
President Xi Jinping (習近平) called at the summit for deeper practical cooperation, which he rightly said would benefit all people. The organisation’s adoption of a convention on anti-extremism fits that thinking; it needs to fight what Beijing refers to as the “three evil forces” – terrorism, separatism and extremism – as well as tackling cross-border crimes such as money-laundering and drug trafficking. Particular threats to the group’s members are posed by the extremist group Islamic State through the spread of its radical ideology and terrorist activities and the continuing war in Afghanistan.
Unity was understandably the priority for the grouping when it formed in 2001 with China and Russia and the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Beijing and Moscow were at the time not on the best of terms over a rumbling border dispute and mistrust over geopolitical tensions and the smaller nations were struggling with poverty and Islamic radicalism. The US-led war against terrorism in neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan added to the region’s pressures. Bringing the nations together to set plans and goals was necessary for stability.
Cooperative mechanisms have been put in place and the launch in 2013 by Xi of the “Belt and Road Initiative” has created a foundation for long-term economic development and growth. The inclusion of India and Pakistan will dramatically increase the bloc’s influence and strength, further boosting prospects. Their addition means it will account for a quarter of global GDP compared to the previous 15 per cent and include 44 per cent of the world’s population. There is now no larger regional multilateral organisation.
Enlargement offers strength and the opportunity to overcome regional challenges. The new members are bitter military rivals and still locked in a territorial dispute over Kashmir. India’s border dispute with China stands in the way of normal relations; it is behind New Delhi not embracing the belt and road plan. The bloc provides a forum for dialogue to discuss differences and work for common goals. That is good for the region and the world.