Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret) is a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert.
If there is one shining example of “the West vs the Rest”, it is probably the contrast between Nato and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). With 31 allies banded together, Nato is the largest military bloc in the world. Established in 2001, the SCO sits astride the Eurasian continent and accounts for almost 44 per cent of the world’s population, with trillions of dollars of exports every year.
At first glance, both organisations are growing in popularity. This can be seen in Finland’s entry into Nato on April 4 and Saudi Arabia’s cabinet approving a move to join the SCO as a dialogue partner on March 28. However, appearances can be deceiving.
The challenge for Nato in the months – and years – to come is how it can continue providing sufficient military support to Ukraine without getting itself involved in a direct confrontation with Russia, something it has been trying to avoid since the onset of the Cold War. No one knows how long the war in Ukraine will last.
Another concern, though, is making sure the war does not escalate into a nuclear exchange in the heartland of Europe. Putin’s hints at launching a nuclear attack might be bluffs, but his announcement of deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus is certainly true. If the eventual outcome of the war is an armistice that further divides Ukraine, the question is where this new Berlin Wall will be found.
Nato has come to an impasse, in part because Western democracy is in decline. Even if Nato has been looking for new threats – say, in the Indo-Pacific – to justify its survival, it will struggle to strengthen its military instruments while democracy is receding.
The fact that even Russia’s “special military operation “ in Ukraine has failed to dampen nations’ interest in joining the SCO – an organisation led by China and Russia – is noteworthy. At the SCO summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, last September, the grouping not only agreed to accept Iran as a member state but also started the accession procedure for Belarus, granted dialogue partner status to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and agreed on admitting Bahrain, the Maldives, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Myanmar as new dialogue partners at a later date.
This latest round of expansion for the SCO is the largest yet, and it is also the clearest indication that the West’s role in the world is shrinking. Indian External affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said last year that, “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.” A useful paraphrasing might be to say that Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s war is the world’s war but the world’s other wars are not Europe’s wars.
Unlike Nato, the SCO is open, inclusive and non-ideological. For it to grow sustainably, however, it cannot afford to be seen as an anti-Western club. Concerns about this have lingered for much of the organisation’s existence, and they could heighten at a time when Russia is at war with Ukraine.
Therefore, coordination between China and Russia is crucial. Both Beijing and Moscow talk about a multipolar world, yet their world views are not entirely the same. Beijing is the largest beneficiary of the globalisation that depends on the existing international order, but Moscow resents that order and considers itself a victim.
As its relations with Washington grow steadily worse, Beijing has at least maintained a plausible relationship with Europe, which sees China as simultaneously a partner, competitor and rival. Such a relationship with Europe appears to be impossible for Moscow now.
Nevertheless, as long as the SCO doesn’t grow into an alliance which requires common values and common enemies, such differences are unlikely to matter very much. This is why India, a country that is close to the West and also part of the SCO, is useful. With the world’s fifth-largest economy included in the group, critics of the SCO must think twice before describing it as a grouping of authoritarian regimes.
Security and development are said to be two wheels of the SCO cart, but what exactly affects security? When the SCO was formed more than 20 years ago, security efforts focused on counterterrorism. This is seen in the group’s joint counterterrorism exercises. Although all sorts of terrorist activities are still present today, they are not strong enough to require large, cross-border military operations.
Instead, the real challenge is to prevent war between member states. India and Pakistan, two longtime foes, could come into conflict again. It is also alarming how Chinese and Indian troops engaged in a deadly brawl in the Galwan Valley in 2020. On the eve of the Samarkand summit, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan experienced violent border clashes. That same week, Armenia and Azerbaijan were on the verge of another war.
Economic development is the incentive that binds everyone together. The combined GDP of the SCO plus Iran accounts for about a quarter of global GDP. The entry of Iran and Saudi Arabia, two large oil exporters, will strengthen the organisation economically.
The sanctions on Russia will make non-Western countries reconsider how to make their property and investments safe. Gradually, the SCO is expected to increase local currency settlements in trading that will spearhead the transition from a unipolar financial system based on the US dollar to a more multipolar financial system.
In a divided world, the SCO stands in contrast to other US-led coalitions. Yet it has a far harder task–to prove a less-Western world is a better world.
(This article was first published on South China Morning Post on Apr. 13, 2023.)