The annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit was designed as a showcase for the expansion of “multi-dimensional cooperation.” But the meeting ended up highlighting the differing policy priorities of its leading members – China, Russia and India.
The virtual gathering on July 4 was technically hosted by India. The only substantive action taken by the group, which also includes the Central Asian nations of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, was Iran’s elevation to full membership. Otherwise, the respective leaders of SCO members used the occasion to pronounce on their preferred geopolitical topics. The collective message sent by the summiteers was disjointed.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin used the SCO soapbox to try to show it was business-as-usual for the Kremlin in the wake of the late June mutiny by Wagner Group mercenaries. Although a hunt is ongoing inside Russia for perceived backers of the rebellion within the government and military, Putin said “Russian political circles and all of society showed a united front against the attempted armed mutiny.” He went on to claim that Russia was “consolidated as never before.”
Putin also lauded the SCO for providing Russia an economic lifeline after the United States and European Union imposed sanctions to punish the Kremlin for its unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Russia’s trade turnover with SCO member states has risen by over one-third since the start of the war. What Putin neglected to mention, however, was that Russia’s SCO partners are, in many cases, taking advantage of Russia’s distress. China and India, for example, are reportedly buying Russian energy resources at steep discounts, sometimes way below market rates. The countries are also paying for imports in national currencies. That is leaving Russia holding a pile of Indian rupees, which are only partially convertible on international currency markets.
Central Asian leaders focused their SCO comments mainly on economic affairs. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev painted a distinctly different picture from Putin on the subject of the SCO as a facilitator of trade. “We should recognize that for more than 20 years, it has not been possible to implement a single major economic project under the auspices of the SCO,” Tokayev said.
Such sentiments were echoed by other Central Asian participants. "Unfortunately, for a long time no progress has been made in resolving ... important issues of the trade and economic component of the organization [SCO]," Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov said.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s comments focused on the oft-repeated themes of unity and common security. He cast SCO member states as marching together to build a “win-win” economic order that opposes “hegemonic, high-handed, and bullying acts,” code words meaning US leadership of the global system.
“We have followed our fine tradition of standing together through thick and thin, as passengers in the same boat should do, and we have firmly supported each other in standing up for our respective core interests,” Xi said.
The Chinese leader went on to tout the Belt & Road Initiative as a “path to happiness,” adding that SCO members “should make the pie of win-win cooperation bigger.”
India, meanwhile, sent not-so-subtle signals that it isn’t happy about Xi’s BRI path. India’s name was conspicuously absent on a SCO communique concerning the BRI. India’s displeasure with Xi’s economic development vision is rooted in Beijing’s development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). A key element of CPEC is a rail line that traverses territory disputed by India and its bitter rival Pakistan, which is also an SCO member.
Justin Burke is Eurasianet's publisher.