Abstract. Now in its21st year, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) finds itself in a period of transition. The organization has successfully completed its first round of expansion, altering the global and regional political landscape. As a result of this expansion, the organization has encountered some functional difficulties that include drafting and implementing important decisions. The SCO’s authority in the global arena has thus grown, but coordinating the positions of all members of the organization and seeking consensus is now laborious. The administrative status of the organization’s secretariat must be raised and its powers expanded in order to make its operation more effective. This article proposes a rethinking of the decision-making format that reflects the changing correlation of forces within the organization after its expansion, in light of objective difficulties in reaching consensus. The SCO needs an effective decision-making mechanism that will keep it from becoming a so-called “club of interests.” In addition, the article proposes a transition to the principle of ratifying decisions by majority vote in order to resolve pressing and unavoidable issues facing the SCO, while preserving that of consensus in resolving long-term issues. An important problem for the organization’s continuing development is drafting a unified concept of the SCO’s cultural values that corresponds to the so-called Shanghai Spirit. The authors note that coordination of the SCO’s cooperation with such regional organizations in Eurasia as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) must be improved in order to ensure stability and prosperity in the macroregion.

Created in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a new type of international body. It helps ensure geopolitical stability in Eurasia and political, economic, and cultural cooperation.

The first expansion of SCO participants took place in 2017, when it granted membership to India and Pakistan. The process of admitting Iran began in September 2021. This affected the balance of forces and interests among the organization’s members and made certain limitations of the current mechanism and its operation more noticeable. For example, there was a risk of damaging coordination among SCO members on security, due to difficulties in reaching consensus between New Delhi and Islamabad on this problem. Such issues as liberalizing trade within the SCO and creating a free trade zone remain unresolved.

Today’s trends in international politics and economics present a number of challenges to the SCO’s institutional mechanism. This is reflected in the difficulties of creating a relevant agenda, making effective decisions, and subsequently implementing them. The aim of this work is to examine some proposals for dealing with current problems that should help raise the SCO’s effectiveness. Strengthening the SCO’s institutional format would help establish durable political and diplomatic relations while shaping common economic and security interests among members of the organization.

Institutional Structure of the SCO and New Challenges

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a permanently operating intergovernmental and international organization created to strengthen mutual trust and goodwill, facilitate multiprofile collaboration in maintaining peace and security in Eurasia, ensure comprehensive and balanced economic growth in the region, and coordinate approaches to integrating SCO countries into the world economy.

In the years of its existence, the SCO has become a platform for debating and resolving both regional and global issues. The organization’s membership grew in 2017 with the admission of Pakistan and India, bringing the SCO to a qualitatively new level. It is now the world’s largest regional organization in terms of area, population, and economic potential of its members. Admitting new, large countries as members of the organization continues to be a practice of strategic importance.1

According to the provisions of the SCO Charter, any country that pledges to observe the aims and principles of the organization can become a member. There are two ways of terminating membership: voluntary withdrawal (after giving official notice) or expulsion after systematic violation of the Charter’s principles and failure to meet assumed obligations.

Permanent SCO organs are the Secretariat and Regional Antiterrorism Structure. Councils of the heads of state, heads of governments, and ministers of foreign affairs meet once a year. The Council of National Coordinators meets three times a year or more, while conferences of the heads of ministries and agencies are held according to resolutions by SCO summits.

Under today’s conditions, creating new paths of regional development amid the deteriorating international situation is a priority task for the SCO. The aggregate strength and influence of the organization has grown substantially worldwide from expanding the number of member states, allowing it in turn to set more ambitious goals for itself.2

The institutional structure of the SCO consists of two elements: a conference mechanism and permanent organs (according to the articles of the SCO Charter). It is through these that the organization’s resolutions are executed.

The decision-making organs are divided into three levels. The highest of these is the Council of Heads of State. The second is the Council of Heads of Government, and the third consists of discussion and decision-making bodies. The last includes the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs and conferences for the heads of ministries and agencies. Administrative organs of the SCO are the Council of National Coordinators, the Regional Antiterrorist Structure, and the Secretariat. Consultative organs include the Business Council and Interbank Association.

The SCO Secretariat is the executive branch of the organization. It operates daily to provide and coordinate its informational, analytical, legal, organizational, and technical activities. The Secretariat coordinates the organization’s collaboration dialogue with observers and partners in accordance with the SCO’s normative and legal documents. It also initiates contacts with countries and international organizations on matters concerning the activities of the organization and, in coordination with member states, signs the corresponding documents to implement them.

It is through these that cooperation is achieved with nongovernmental structures within the SCO. They are also responsible for organizing and coordinating the activities of the organization’s team of observers at referenda and presidential and/or parliamentary elections.3

Despite its expanded functions, the SCO Secretariat has no real authority for effectively coordinating the positions of member states in executing ratified initiatives. This is due to (among other things) the lack of a permanent mechanism for contact between the organization’s Secretariat and the National Coordinators in the SCO countries.

Another example of the limitations of the existing SCO mechanism lies in the security sphere, where the battle against the “three forces of evil” – terrorism, extremism, and separatism – is the responsibility of the Regional Antiterrorist Structure (RATS).

The RATS performs a wide range of functions and tasks that include maintaining ties with antiterrorist agencies in the SCO countries and international organizations, planning and executing operations and joint antiterrorist exercises, preparing drafts of international legal documents in the field, exchanging information on combating terrorism, and conducting topical academic conferences and seminars.4

The RATS works hard to combat the “three evils,” but is currently unable to guarantee true unity of action among member states in the security sphere. Such coordination could become even more difficult after expanding the number of participants, due to major disagreements between India and Pakistan over the criteria used to define international terrorist groups.

The problem of Afghanistan is unquestionably an important security issue for the SCO. The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group was created in 2005 and has since acquired great practical experience in dealing with Kabul. Far from all of its original plans have been achieved, however, and the group has operated under the dark shadow of NATO intervention. The primary masters of the Afghan people’s fate have been the US and its allies. After the withdrawal of NATO troops and the winding down of the Western countries’ collaboration with Kabul, it has become obvious that the time is ripe for the SCO to take center stage and answer the many challenges of the new Afghan reality.5

The situation in and around Afghanistan is now the focus of the organization’s attention. It is the most important topic of regional security in general and that of individual member states as well. The drafting of a number of initiatives was announced at the SCO’s Dushanbe summit of September 16-17, 2021. These included the creation of an antiterrorist center in Dushanbe; the establishment of a universal center for combating terrorism in Tashkent, based on the RATS; and the launch of a center for fighting international organized crime. The summit’s participants emphasized that resolving the situation in Afghanistan was one of the most important factors in maintaining security and stability throughout the lands of the SCO. It was announced that SCO members considered the creation of a truly inclusive government in Afghanistan to be of exceptional importance, along with the establishment of a unified country free from terrorism and drug-trafficking. A joint meeting of the SCO and CSTO leaders, held in the outreach format during the summit, was devoted to the problem of Afghanistan.6

Classic SCO Agenda

The SCO is working hard to build a common, comprehensive, and stable security structure in Eurasia. Considerable attention is given to advancing processes of economic collaboration and development, strengthening strategic partnership, and improving cooperation among SCO member states in energy, technology, humanitarian efforts, and other areas.7

The types of issues that are considered to have grown in the last 20 years include problems of information security and developing joint responses to epidemiological threats.

The process of building an SCO security community has acquired special importance amid tectonic changes in the international system caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. A prerequisite for building a security community on the regional and global levels is rejecting the mentality of the Cold War, unilateral actions, and protectionism. In accordance with the principles of the Shanghai Spirit, members of the SCO support one another in battling the pandemic and make a substantial contribution to the evolution of the global management system.8

The economic dimension of SCO activity was officially launched in 2001 with the adoption of the Memorandum on Common Goals and Lines of Regional Economic Cooperation and the start of the process of creating favorable conditions for trade and investment. The Strategy of SCO Development Until 2025 and the Plan of Measures for Implementing the Program of Multilateral Trade and Economic Collaboration among SCO Member States were adopted in 2015 and 2019, respectively.

A number of important humanitarian agreements were also reached in subsequent years. The Intergovernmental Agreement on Cooperation in Education was signed on June 15, 2006, at the sixth session of the Council of Heads of State. Its mechanisms include official meetings between ministers of education, sessions of a working group of experts on education, the Week of Education Without Borders, and the Forum of SCO Member State University Deans.

Conferences of ministers of education are held every two years to plan and implement long-term intergovernmental cooperation in education. Conferences of the working group of education experts are a mechanism of dialogue among representatives from SCO member state ministries of education and are held once a year.

Difficulties in Reaching Consensus After Expanding SCO Membership

Like many other international organizations, the SCO follows the principle of consensus in decision-making. It is emphasized that the principle of consensus lays a firm foundation for collective action based on general agreement. Key decisions of the organization are made by the Council of Heads of State and the Council of Heads of Government.

Resolutions of different branches of the organization are made through consultations with no voting. Resolutions are considered adopted if there are no objections from any member state during consultations. Small and medium-sized countries are of equal status in adopting resolutions through consensus, since each country in the SCO has the right of veto.9

Despite the equal rights of the participants, their roles in the organization in fact differ. Before membership was expanded, the informal balance of forces in the organization obeyed the “2+4” principle (China and Russia + the republics of Central Asia). In this format, Beijing and Moscow were the main drivers of SCO development. They set the agenda and bore most of the organization’s costs. The economic and military potential of China and Russia also stood out against those of the other members of the organization. The membership of two major powers that had no major designs on each other and considered the interests of regional players made the mechanism of reaching decisions and implementing initiatives within the SCO understandable and largely effective.

Expansion of the SCO is accompanied by the risk of reducing the effectiveness of adopted resolutions. The resolution to admit India and Pakistan as new members was adopted at a conference held in Astana in June 2017. This was the first expansion of the SCO. The second began in September 2021, after a meeting of the Council of Heads of State in Dushanbe, where it was announced that the process of admitting Iran as a member of the organization had begun.

Expansion of the organization will allow the weight of the SCO in the international arena to increase as it moves beyond the geographical confines of Central Asia to all of Eurasia. On the other hand, there is a threat of spreading the organization’s attention too thin over a wide range of problems and issues (e.g., hotbeds of instability in South Asia). In addition, with the principle of consensus still in place, the increased number of participants complicates the process of drafting resolutions that satisfy everyone but still have substantive content.

The current India-Pakistan and China-India conflicts give this problem special relevance. There is the risk of turning the SCO into an interregional organization with limited effectiveness in implementing adopted resolutions, due to the varied interests of the key players, or transforming it into an organization that adopts abstract and vague resolutions.10 The problem of strengthening the organization’s institutional foundations is thus more relevant and important than ever before.

The distribution of the balance of forces and interests within the SCO has obviously changed substantially. The organization now comprises several large countries with their own geopolitical and economic interests that frequently differ from those of other members. This inevitably increases the difficulty of both seeking consensus and creating an agenda.

The main motive for interaction among SCO members is undoubtedly cooperation and building friendly relations. However, it must also be recognized that each member of the organization wants to advance its own national interests. The pair of Russia and China, which created a mechanism for coordinating their interests, building mutual trust, and eliminating possible rivalries, were thus unique in the classical composition of the SCO. After the expansion, however, the organization now contains several large countries with conflicts and claims against one another. It will be more difficult for them to coordinate their positions and avoid situations where rivalry between them would reduce the effectiveness of the SCO.11

The Delhi-Islamabad and Delhi-Beijing discord in matters of security (especially the 2020 border conflict between China and India) poses serious new threats to SCO development.12 The growing number of participants has also altered the correlation of forces among members of the organization, since India and Pakistan are not only countries with fairly large economies but nuclear powers as well. The 2+4 configuration is outdated.

The reaction of external forces to SCO expansion cannot be ignored. The US’s position has always been characterized by extreme caution. Washington believes that the SCO and the regionalism it promotes are basically joint efforts by Russia and China to create an “anti-Western” camp and a “condominium” of sorts in Central Asia.13

Because of the heightened strategic competition between China and the US, and the rise in political tension between Russia and the US, speculation has grown that the other members of the organization are becoming less interested in maintaining the earlier level of political collaboration within the SCO, seriously limiting the development of regional integration in the broader expanse of Eurasia.14

The simultaneous presence of three great powers – China, Russia, and India – reduces the possibility of creating a collective identity among members of the organization. Probably, small countries should pay more attention to building cooperation, resolving disputes, achieving the common interests of organization members, and working to create a collective identity. In contrast to
ASEAN and the EU, the SCO comprises representatives of different civilizations with different values. Effective institutions and standards must be established to create a collective identity. It should also be noted that Washington, which has no interest in full-scale cooperation between Delhi and Moscow or Beijing, would pressure India, as an ally of the US under the Quad alliance.

SCO expansion affects both the drafting of the organization’s agenda and the adopting of resolutions. Under the new conditions, the unsatisfactory state of the decision-making process caused by the more complicated correlation of forces is becoming clear, as several Chinese observers have noted.15 Complicating the process of seeking consensus and identifying priority lines of cooperation could lower members’ genuine interest in the SCO, turning the organization into a kind of debate club that makes no meaningful decisions.16

We can no longer speak of a Moscow-Beijing duumvirate, now that expansion has occurred. At a minimum, a triangular structure of the balance of forces and interests is now in the early stages of formation. The search for this balance depends on the possibility of matching the national interests of the great powers and agreeing (even if informally) on the expected results of cooperation within the SCO.17

Many of the organization’s resolutions are advisory, and the institutionalization of cooperation is not great. The consensus mechanism of adopting resolutions slows the process of drafting them, eventually affecting the overall effectiveness of the regional institution. In 2020, for example, the SCO reacted relatively slowly to challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and the true level of solidarity amid the crisis raised questions.

Difficulties such as these could become even greater. The Council of Heads of State, the Council of Heads of Government, and other SCO organs could face a redistribution of interests and unofficial roles among members of the organization.

In order to continue the institutionalization of the SCO, it is important to preserve the so-called Shanghai Spirit, which is characterized by mutual trust. However, the admission of India and Pakistan changes the geographic, demographic, strategic, and political balance, which can weaken the Shanghai Spirit through the contentious issues that exist between the two countries.

The growing number of participants is clearly an unavoidable condition of SCO growth and development in the world. However, the role of the SCO will not be strengthened if its basic standards and institutional mechanisms are weakened because of expansion. The opposite is also true: It risks losing its importance to the political and economic processes in Eurasia. Adhering to uniform standards is an important factor of solidarity and the organization’s effectiveness as an international institution in the long run.

Russia was interested in India and Pakistan joining the SCO in order to (among other things) raise the organization’s status and importance in the global arena.18 On the other hand, India’s and Pakistan’s desire to join the organization was driven by their own geopolitical interests, rather than devotion to the Shanghai Spirit. Admitting India and Pakistan to the SCO did not lower the intensity of their conflict over the ownership of Kashmir. Neither was the border dispute between Delhi and Beijing mitigated, as might be expected if the two countries had common values and views. (It actually grew worse.)

The rise in conflicts between certain members of the organization is undoubtedly a major obstacle to maintaining true unity within the SCO. The tension in relations between Delhi and Islamabad can be felt in the difference between their views on matters of international and regional security. India frequently accuses Pakistan of supporting transnational terrorist organizations, while Pakistan expresses its dislike of India’s positions. Membership in one organization could hypothetically lower the level of such conflicts between countries, but the SCO has no mechanism for resolving such disputes and mutual claims.

The correlation of forces within the SCO has changed considerably, and the intertwining of geopolitical interests is not managed as much as it was under the Chinese-Russian duumvirate in the early days of the organization. Being large countries with nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan naturally will not become mere puppets.

The diversification of the structure of interests and preferences of the member states is reducing the effectiveness of implementing adopted resolutions, which even earlier were not always put into practice. Large-scale economic agreements were thus signed, but only a few multilateral projects were executed. Members of the organization conduct much of the economic cooperation in a bilateral format.

After the expansion, old and new members alike (and the organization as a whole) must go through a period of adapting and integrating interests with a revised roster of participants. Only after this can they consider a new period of development, the creation of a new agenda, and the drafting and implementation of collective resolutions. The length of this period and the success of such adapting will depend on many factors. New members of international regional organizations usually try to integrate their own values and preferences into the organizational standards, eroding the original values and principles of the organization. This forces the making of adjustments and corresponding reforms, as well as the formulation of new tasks.

The admission of new members into the organization that have numerous mutual claims lowers the status of existing agreements and standards within the SCO. For example, unending border conflicts, including the local China-India and India-Pakistan clashes, weaken the authority of the 2007 Treaty of Friendship and Goodwill among Countries of the SCO and other founding documents of the organization.

Since resolutions adopted by organs of the SCO are implemented by its member states in accordance with their own legal procedures, and the implementation of SCO resolutions is unavoidably associated with the relationship between international and domestic law, the implementation of adopted resolutions is becoming increasingly drawn out.

Prospects and Proposals for Reforming SCO Mechanisms

The main challenges that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is facing after expansion are its growing internal lack of homogeneity and the weakening of its sense of community. The SCO of today continues to adhere to the practice of adopting resolutions through consensus. With the passage of time, however, it is increasingly difficult to adapt this model to real problems, which only limits the effectiveness of the organization.

Existing protocols and mechanisms must be improved. The SCO member states vary widely in their political systems, economic models, and cultural traditions. They have yet to create a uniform understanding of the SCO’s positioning. There are serious problems with certain practices by members when adopting and implementing resolutions. The responsibilities and obligations of SCO members within the organization must be specified, and its overall effectiveness improved.

The traditional advantages of the consensus way of adopting resolutions are that it prevents dictates by one or several large powers and helps maintain a high level of interest among mid-sized and small countries in the activity of the international organization. The traditional approach of the SCO, which relies on informal, flexible procedures and duties, stems from the common goal of overcoming the mutual suspicion and mistrust toward multilateral institutions that was characteristic of certain Central Asian countries, especially in the first years after obtaining independence. This model was effective in the early stages of the SCO’s operation, since the countries of Central Asia have traditionally given great attention to ensuring their sovereignty and political stability.19 After the expansion, however, the shortcomings of this format have become increasingly apparent, as has the need for institutional evolution of the SCO’s activities.

A number of Chinese researchers are thus of the opinion that the possibility of adopting resolutions by simple or qualified majority vote20 while continuing to observe the opinions of most members of the organization21 must be considered in order to ensure the effectiveness of the SCO and its ability to make decisions in crisis situations.

The consensus principle of adopting resolutions can be reserved for matters of long-term strategic planning, while that of adopting resolutions by majority vote can be used for reacting promptly to urgent issues and challenges. This is important for maintaining the effectiveness of the organization and preventing it from becoming a “debate club.”

The activities of the SCO must also be coordinated with those of such Eurasian regional organizations as the CSTO and EAEU in order to ensure stability in the macroregion in the face of new geopolitical challenges and threats.

Definite steps in this direction have already been taken. In 2018, the SCO RATS, the CSTO Secretariat, and the CIS Antiterrorism Center approved a memorandum of mutual understanding on combating terrorism and extremism for cooperation in nontraditional areas of security.22 The memorandum proposed setting up a permanent trilateral expert group, and a joint declaration on combating terrorism was signed by the SCO RATS, the CSTO Secretariat, and the CIS Antiterrorism Center at the CSTO headquarters in Moscow in February 2022. It was thought that these organizations should be more and better coordinated at a qualitatively new level.

The SCO must work to enlarge and encourage the international community’s awareness of the organization, promote the Shanghai Spirit, develop a collective identity, strengthen the organization’s main precepts, establish common organizational goals and principles, and improve the organization’s operational capabilities.

More authority must be given to the General Secretary to strengthen the organization’s operational effectiveness. The General Secretary should become the executive head of the SCO, not merely of the organization’s Secretariat.23 The Secretariat should assume responsibility for coordinating and analyzing flows of information among members of the organization regarding matters on the SCO agenda, and provide guidance and technical support.24 The possibility of direct and close contact between the SCO Councils of Heads of State and Government must be provided to improve the Secretariat’s administrative authority. This step would help reduce bureaucratic delays. The Council of National Coordinators must ensure improvement of the exchange of information and mediation in the event of disagreements and disputes among members of the organization and strengthen cooperation between the Secretariat and Councils of the Heads of Ministries.

Such changes can raise the effectiveness of the SCO while ensuring its stable development and the long-term role of one of the world’s most important multilateral institutions.


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