Commentary / World

Take the Shanghai Cooperation Organization seriously

by David Howell

Western liberals have hitherto been somewhat dismissive of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

First, it is seen as a rather weak structure, lacking a firm central system of coordination and direction, like, for instance, the European Commission at the head of the European Union or even the looser NATO.

Second, in as far as it has common aims, they have been seen as broadly anti-Western and anti-American, and therefore to be regarded with suspicion.

On the first point, the Western experts could not be more wrong. India and Pakistan are now both members (despite their endless mutual hostility), and an invitation is out to Iran also to become a full member.

The “team” now includes not just China, Russia and the ” ‘Stans” of Central Asia, but the whole Indian subcontinent, and countries like Turkey are also showing interest. The SCO thus is becoming an assembly embracing almost half the human race in a gigantic network.

Networks develop their own agendas. Heavy top-down and centralizing control is out of place. In this case it is clear that, despite numerous lingering disputes, the member states — especially China — see the SCO forum as increasingly useful in managing and promoting common aims relating to security, crime control, legal procedures, environmental and health standards, and possibly finance and trade — and in growing effective agencies to pursue these goals on a cooperative basis.

On the second point, the Western suspicions have more substance. Unquestionably there is a shared belief, or vision, held by all SCO members that the age of American domination, and of West-dominated global institutions, is coming to an end and that new global institutions should be developed with a much stronger Asian influence (and possibly African and Latin American as well), at least in parallel with the Western order, and in some areas in defiant competition.

As long as the SCO just appeared to be no more than a cover for purely Chinese ambitions to take a much bigger world role, Western wariness and disinterest were understandable. If the SCO agenda was simply to further Beijing’s goals, such as those expressed in recent speeches by Chinese President Xi Jinping, via, for instance, the multiplication of “Belt and Road” initiatives and a general desire to keep American warships out of what are regarded as Chinese sovereign waters, then it made sense to give it little extra attention.

But if now, for instance, we are going to see not just China but half the entire world line up to support Iran, as the Americans get set to toughen sanctions and cut it off, despite European protests. That should surely make U.S. President Donald Trump and his advisers think again before rushing to throw out the nuclear deal with Iran.

But there is an even deeper, longer-term and more strategic reason for taking an enlarged SCO much more seriously. This is rooted in the increasingly hyper-connected nature of today’s global issues. Whatever governments may publicly say or attempt to do, markets, interests, cultures and learning are interweaving at an unstoppable pace. Connection is replacing clash. For example, in the new globalization not only are products assembled in a chain that runs through a dozen countries, East and West, but linked actual stages in the production process may be separated out between different economies and societies.

Furthermore, not just in trade and investment matters, but in key fields such as defeat of international crime, terrorism, drug trading and people-trafficking, the interest of all responsible governments becomes to follow, and work with, the trends being set by larger forces.

In short, officials and strategic experts should be thinking about building not walls but gateways between the leading powers of today and tomorrow. This does not ignore, in an unrealistic way, the ongoing differences between, for instance, China and the United States, China and Japan, China and Australia, China and Europe, and even China and India, using the common platform of the SCO itself to iron out squabbles.

But it does suggest that the coming phase in international affairs should be best viewed as a new period of constructive interaction between the great powers, none of which may in practice have nearly as much real and individual power as they assumed in the past. Space for concessions on both sides could be enlarged.

Contrary to some fiery proclamations on public platforms, the list of areas where cooperation and possibly common action are essential, indeed unavoidable, is growing of its own accord.

In Afghanistan, in the Middle East quagmire, in global climate dangers, in open trade flows, in curbing the power of the giant global information corporations, in preventing runaway nuclear proliferation, in reasonable respect for a rules-based world order, the forces pushing East and West together are now stronger than the pressures, real or perceived, which drive them apart.

Even the dramas of the North Korean issue and the Trump-Kim on-off-on rendezvous, should be seen, and handled in this wider context, not just as a Western “problem.”

As it develops, the SCO offers those Western strategists who are sufficiently alert and far-seeing a web of linkages, and valuable opportunities to contain rivalries and build common ground internationally in face of the world’s most dangerous threats.

They should be taken.

David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations.