The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Heads of State Council, which is the highest decision-making body of the Organisation, held its 22nd meeting at Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on 15-16 September 2022. The Samarkand Summit was the first summit meeting to be held in-person following the Bishkek Summit in 2019. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the previous two summit meetings were held in online or hybrid modes hosted by Russia (2020) and Tajikistan (2021), respectively. The 2022 Summit drew significant international attention primarily due to the background in which the meeting was held and the indication of focus areas which SCO is likely to have during India’s Chairmanship for the 2022-2023 period.
India, for the first time, has assumed the annually rotating Chairmanship of this Eurasia-centred organisation. Notably, it is also for the first time in SCO’s over two-decade history that it will be headed by a South Asian country. This development gives a South Asian dimension to the SCO presidency and further boosts the prospects of re-establishing linkages between South Asia and landlocked Central Asia, which has been long-envisaged by the two regions.
This write-up briefly discusses the regional and international scenario in the context of the Samarkand Summit 2022, discusses select tangible outcomes of the meeting as mentioned in Summit Declaration document, and gives a perspective on India’s Chairmanship of the SCO.
Significant Developments in the region prior to SCO Summit
The Samarkand Summit themed ‘Dialogue and Cooperation in an Interconnected World’ was attended by 14 leaders from members, observers and dialogue partners. It was one of largest SCO gatherings. Leaders from all five Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and (Turkmenistan as Guest of Honour), India, China, Pakistan, Russia, Belarus, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, Mongolia were present in the historical city of Samarkand for the SCO meetings. Afghanistan was not invited to the Summit as SCO does not maintain ties with it since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021.[i] Armenia and Azerbaijan are SCO Observers and President of Azerbaijan attended the SCO meeting while Armenian Prime Minister did not participate due to the current conflict with Azerbaijan.[ii]
In the backdrop of recent shifts and certain developments in SCO area and its neighbourhood, the Samarkand SCO Summit 2022 assumed additional importance. There were violent protests ignited over economic issues in January 2022 in Kazakhstan – an SCO member, which was stabilised following the invitation and arrival of CSTO[iii] peacekeeping force. This was the first time that any SCO member requisitioned and deployed CSTO forces to deal with domestic protests. Secondly, Central Asia is witnessing renewed clashes at the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border, resulting in deaths and destruction on both sides. Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are among founding members of SCO.
Situation in some of SCO’s nearby areas has also been a cause of concern. Afghanistan – an SCO Observer, could not stabilise since the takeover by the Taliban in August 2021, increasing the security concerns especially for bordering SCO members. However, probably the most significant development affecting all SCO members in one way or the other is the inter-state conflict involving SCO member Russia and its neighbour Ukraine since February 2022. Russia is facing severe Western sanctions, affecting regional economies and inter-regional connectivity. Amidst all these occurrences, all the SCO members also continue to strive to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences. Hence, the SCO Summit had a number of issues to discuss and address.
Some Tangible outcomes of SCO Summit
A Declaration was issued following the Summit in Samarkand. It covers in details the agenda items discussed and addressed by the SCO leaders.[iv] The SCO member countries committed themselves to a ‘more representative, democratic, just and multipolar world order’. Issues, including COVID-19 pandemic, environmental challenges were on the table while growing technological and digital divide, turbulence in global financial markets, global reduction in investment flows, unstable supply chains, and barriers to international trade were considered factors adding to the volatility in the global economy. The leaders opined that the world today is undergoing ‘global changes’ and it is entering ‘a new era of rapid development’ and large-scale transformation.
The Summit underlined greater regional cooperation in dealing with the challenges faced by the region. The Samarkand Summit adopted total 44 documents, including the Declaration, agreements, concepts, programmes and decisions,[v] indicating the intent for cooperation in areas, such as strengthening interdependence, industrial cooperation, ‘green’ economy, digitalization, and trade.[vi] A Comprehensive Action Plan for 2023-2027 for implementation of the provisions of the Treaty on Long-term Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation of the SCO Member States was also adopted.
Security: Security issues continue to remain a challenge and cause of concern for SCO countries and the wider region. The SCO leaders expressed deep concern over the security threat posed by terrorism, separatism and extremism in all its forms and manifestations. In a significant development, the SCO countries in Samarkand agreed to seek to develop common principles and approaches to form a unified list of terrorist, separatist and extremist organisations whose activities are prohibited on the territories of the SCO member states.[vii]
Currently, SCO has two permanent organs: the SCO Secretariat in Beijing and the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (SCO-RATS) based in Tashkent. The SCO-RATS has been considered ‘effective’ in promoting cooperation among members in combating terrorism, separatism and extremism. The SCO is pursuing the establishment of the Universal Centre to Counter Challenges and Threats to Security of the SCO member-states based within the RATS. Further, the Organisation is also in the process of establishing an Anti-Drug Centre in Dushanbe as a separate permanent body.
Afghanistan remains unstable. The SCO members called for ‘speedy settlement of the situation in Afghanistan’, which was considered as ‘one of the most important factors’ in preserving and strengthening security and stability in the SCO region. They supported the establishment of Afghanistan as an independent, neutral, united, democratic and peaceful State, free of terrorism, war and drugs, and termed it ‘critical’ to have ‘an inclusive Government’, with representatives from all ethnic, religious and political groups of Afghan society.
Economy: SCO also continued its emphasis on cooperation in the field of economy and the members intended to further develop cooperation in the fields of trade, finance, investment, innovation and digital economy. The leaders encouraged regional economic cooperation in various forms, called for promoting an enabling environment for trade and investment with a view to achieving progressive free movement of goods, capital, services and technology. Promotion of digital literacy to bridge the digital divide was underlined in the summit.
For the development of economic cooperation to increase employment and prosperity, the e-Commerce was considered an important sector. The SCO members adopted the Programme for Infrastructure Development of the SCO Member States to promote economic growth by creating an efficient and competitive transport and technological infrastructure. A ‘Roadmap’ for gradual increase in the share of national currencies in mutual settlements of SCO members was also adopted. A Framework for cooperation in the field of trade in services between the SCO member states was also signed.[viii]
Connectivity: Intra-regional and inter-regional connectivity was considered important to improve economic cooperation in the SCO area. Landlocked Central Asian members of SCO have been striving to improve connectivity with South Asia and the world. Uzbekistan is the only doubly landlocked SCO country. The Declaration notes that the on-going efforts to enhance connectivity between Central Asia and South Asia contribute to the ‘common goal’ of ensuring prosperity and security in the vast SCO region by building sustainable trade, economic, transport and communication links and strengthening the dialogue among civilisations.
In order to develop transit potential in the SCO region, the Heads of State approved the ‘Concept of cooperation of the SCO Member States to develop interconnectivity and create efficient transport corridors’. Iran’s inclusion as a member and greater utilisation of the Chabahar Port, which is being developed by India, further enhances the inter-region connectivity prospects in the SCO area.
India is making substantial efforts, including with some SCO countries, to establish seamless trade and transit system between South Asia and Central Asia, including the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Addressing the Samarkand meeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphatically urged the SCO countries to give each other ‘full right to transit’. Unimpeded transit will help realise the comparative advantage of SCO economies in a practical and fruitful manner.
Notably, on the sidelines of the Summit in Samarkand, an agreement was signed by the respective authorities from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China for the construction of a railway line connecting the three SCO countries.[ix] As per the agreement, the feasibility study for the construction of the railway section in Kyrgyzstan is to be completed by June 1, 2023. The agreement can be considered an important development towards regional connectivity.
SCO’s expansion: In a relatively short time since its inception, the SCO has firmly established itself as an influential multilateral platform. Multiple expansions of SCO and the interests shown by various countries to join the organisation in different formats indicate that many nations in different world regions increasingly see the SCO as a platform where many of the security and economic issues are focused on with outcomes that have wide impact. In Samarkand, the SCO and Iran have formally started the process for the latter to join as a member, and this process is likely to be completed before the next summit under India’s Chairmanship. Iran is likely to participate as a full member in the Summit 2023.
The organisation is also to start processing Belarus’ application to upgrade its observer status to the level of membership. Previously it was agreed by SCO to include Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar as Dialogue partners, new countries now joining this rank will be Bahrain, the Maldives, Kuwait, the UAE and Myanmar.[x] SCO’s growing association with the Gulf region indicates a desire in the organisation to reach out to the maritime and energy-rich part of the world. The Gulf nations probably see the potential of Eurasia as next emerging area and consider SCO to be an appropriate platform of engagement.
There is a growing number of countries willing to become an SCO member, observer or a dialogue partner. It is expected that during the period of India’s Chairmanship, when the Organisation will be headed by the world’s largest democracy, some other countries might express their desire to get associated with the SCO.
India as SCO Chair
From being an Observer since 2005, India became a member of the SCO in 2017. Following the Summit meeting in Samarkand, India has for the first time assumed the SCO Chair. India’s economy is expected to grow by 7.5 per cent in 2022 – the highest among the world’s largest economies. Being the fastest growing major economy of SCO, the growth impetus in the SCO area will be vastly contributed by Indian economy in the coming years. India has assumed the Chairmanship at an important time when the region needs greater cooperation to overcome the challenges. In his address to the Summit, PM Modi said ‘Today, when the whole world is facing the challenges of economic recovery after the pandemic, the role of SCO becomes very important.’
It is likely that while maintaining the SCO’s persistent focus on fight against terrorism, extremism and separatism, the 2022-23 Chairmanship period of India will emphasise on forging greater practical and result-oriented cooperation in the field of economy, connectivity and people to people contact. The approach is likely to be more people-centric. PM Modi in his remarks highlighted that the world is faced with ‘unprecedented energy and food crisis’ due to supply chain obstacles caused by the pandemic and the crisis in Ukraine. He suggested SCO should develop ‘reliable, resilient and diversified supply chains’ in the region.[xi] It was suggested that the promotion of cultivation and consumption of millets can help ensuring food security.
SCO has a large entrepreneurial and young population; their energy and abilities needs to be harnessed for development in the region. India can significantly contribute in this field by sharing its experiences. India wants to become a manufacturing hub with its young and talented workforce, use of technology and innovation. There are more than 70,000 Start-ups in India, of which more than 100 are unicorns. In order to take the economic cooperation agenda forward, India announced the establishment of a new Special Working Group on Start-ups and Innovation to share its experience with SCO member countries. Such an initiative will contribute to moving up the scale of economic activities and cooperation in the SCO area with practical benefits to the common people.
India has proven its strong medical and technological capabilities in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Though traditional medicines have also proved to be effective in boosting the immunity. Cooperation in SCO in this regard will be helpful in effectively dealing with diseases at early stages. There may greater emphasis in this field as India is taking the initiative to establish an SCO Working Group on Traditional Medicine.
From the perspective of people to people and cultural interactions, in a significant development, SCO leaders nominated the city of Varanasi in India as the first-ever ‘SCO Tourism and Cultural Capital for 2022-2023’. It reflects SCO’s acknowledgement of India’s unique cultural ethos. The development will further promote the SCO cultural and historical heritage among the people and increase tourism in SCO area.
The SCO summits also provide the leaders an opportunity to hold meetings in bilateral and trilateral formats with counterparts from other participating countries. On the sidelines of the Summit in Samarkand, PM Modi held various bilateral meetings with SCO leaders.
In his meeting with President Putin of Russia, he discussed various issues, including furthering India-Russia cooperation in sectors such as trade, energy, and defence, besides other bilateral and global issues. Discussions also included global food security, energy security and availability of fertilizers. Over Ukraine, PM Modi reiterated the need for an early cessation of hostilities and the need for dialogue and diplomacy to resolve the issue.
During the meeting between PM Modi and President Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, the two leaders underlined the need for the speedy adoption and implementation of cooperation programmes in trade, economic, investment, scientific and educational fields. Uzbekistan emphasised strengthening transport links with India, including through the Chabahar Port.
PM Modi and President of Iran met in Samarkand, which was their first meeting since President Raisi’s assumption of office in 2021. They discussed many issues pertaining to the bilateral relationship, connectivity, Afghan situation. Underlining the importance of bilateral cooperation in the field of regional connectivity, the two leaders discussed Chabahar Port.
A meeting between PM Modi and President Erdogan of Turkiye was held on the SCO Summit sidelines. The leaders reviewed bilateral relations and noted the recent increase in economic exchanges. Both leaders agreed to maintain regular contacts not just on bilateral issues but also for the benefit of the region.
Since its formation, SCO has largely been successful in keeping its ‘core’ stable and secure. Its annual meetings held at various political and official levels and varied mechanisms of interactions among institutions play an important role in this context. Further, the SCO has also provided as a platform to strengthen bilateral cooperation among members. However, in a fast-changing global and regional environment, the SCO’s much acclaimed ‘Shanghai Spirit’ of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, mutual consultation, respect for cultural diversity and the desire for joint development, has come under strain in view of the challenges in bilateral relations among member states.
The rather successful cooperation in security domain in SCO is encouraging countries to increase cooperation in economy, technology, healthcare, innovation and connectivity areas. There can be no meaningful economic cooperation without unhindered inter-regional connectivity and territory transit. The economic potential makes the organisation a powerful force for growth and prosperity.
*Dr. Athar Zafar is a Senior Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Discalimer: The views are of the author.
[i] Interfax, “No Afghanistan representatives to attend SCO summit,” 14 September 2022, https://interfax.com/newsroom/top-stories/83112/, accessed 18 September 2022.
[iii] The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is a military grouping of six former Soviet Republics. Kazakhstan is a member and other members are Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. Deployment in Kazakhstan was also the CSTO’s first mission in its 30-year history.
[iv] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “Samarkand Declaration of the Council of Heads of State of Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” September 16, 2022, (Translation), https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/35724/Samarkand+Declaration+of+the+Council+of+Heads+of+State+of+Shanghai+Cooperation+Organization, accessed 18 September 2022
[v] kun.uz, “SCO member states sign 44 documents in Samarkand summit,” 16 September 2022, https://kun.uz/en/news/2022/09/16/sco-member-states-sign-44-documents-in-samarkand-summit, accessed 20 September 2022
[vi] kun.uz, “Shavkat Mirziyoyev: SCO should maintain the status of not joining blocks,” 16 September 2022, https://kun.uz/en/news/2022/09/16/shavkat-mirziyoyev-sco-should-maintain-the-status-of-not-joining-blocks, accessed 20 September 2022
[vii] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “Samarkand Declaration of the Council of Heads of State of Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” September 16, 2022, (Translation), https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/35724/Samarkand+Declaration+of+the+Council+of+Heads+of+State+of+Shanghai+Cooperation+Organization, accessed 18 September 2022
[viii] kun.uz, “SCO member states sign 44 documents in Samarkand summit,” 16 September 2022, https://kun.uz/en/news/2022/09/16/sco-member-states-sign-44-documents-in-samarkand-summit, accessed 20 September 2022
[ix] Sputnik, “Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, China Sign Agreement to Build Railway - Presidential Press Service,” 15 September 2022, https://sputniknews.com/20220915/kyrgyzstan-uzbekistan-china-sign-agreement-to-build-railway---presidential-press-service-1100791302.html, accessed 18 September 2022
[x] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “Samarkand Declaration of the Council of Heads of State of Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” September 16, 2022, (Translation), https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/35724/Samarkand+Declaration+of+the+Council+of+Heads+of+State+of+Shanghai+Cooperation+Organization, accessed 18 September 2022
[xi] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “English Translation of Remarks by Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi at the SCO Summit,” 16 September 2022, https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/35719/English+Translation+of+Remarks+by+Prime+Minister+Shri+Narendra+Modi+at+the+SCO+Summit, accessed 18 September 2022