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SCO adds Iran, dodges Western themes in favor of multipolarity

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit was interesting for what it didn't say, almost as much as for what it did.

Analysis | Analysis

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) emphasized multipolarity and sovereignty in its latest leaders’ summit held virtually yesterday, and added Iran as its latest member state. This expands the grouping to nine states — the founding set being China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, with India and Pakistan having joined in 2017. Belarus will also join next year.

It was India’s first time hosting the SCO summit. But New Delhi decided to conduct the event in a virtual format due to reasons that remained opaque. What normally would have been a two-day in-person event was telescoped to a barely three-hour virtual forum.

In their speeches, leaders did push their respective national agendas. For example, Vladimir Putin claimed that he remained firmly in control after the attempted coup and thanked those SCO leaders who had backed him during the turmoil. 

But in the joint statement (New Delhi Declaration), the leaders took note of a world order characterized by “stronger multi-polarity, increased interconnectedness, interdependence” and pledged a “commitment to formation of a more representative…multipolar world order.” 

Thus, multipolarity was seen as both a trend and a preferred objective of a reformed global order. The states also endorsed the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of states, and sought the “sustainable implementation” of the JCPOA agreement with Iran that the United States walked out of in 2017.

The states also affirmed a policy that “excludes bloc, ideological and confrontational approaches to address the problems of international and regional development, countering traditional and nontraditional security challenges and threats.” That may be more than a little ironic, considering that Russia and China have already created a deep partnership with major security elements, Pakistan has long been a quasi-ally of China on containing India, and India has more recently emerged as a close U.S. security partner (though predominantly focused on China).

De-dollarization and opposition to unilateral sanctions also found a mention in the statement. India stayed away from a paragraph on economic development. New Delhi objects to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as it controversially intrudes into the Indian-claimed part of Kashmir that Pakistan currently controls. Countering terrorism, separatism and extremism, a foundational objective of the SCO, got its own separate statement.

But joint statements are also interesting for what they do not say as much as they say. Unsurprisingly there were no references to the “rules-based international order” or a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — two phrases that have become a mantra in Washington and practically obligatory when the United States gathers with its Asian allies and close partners.

There was also no mention of the Ukraine war. Staying silent on this major European conflict with all its negative implications for the international system would have been easy for SCO members, all of whom have either opposed or abstained on key U.S.-backed resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly on the war.

In my analysis of last year’s SCO summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, I had pointed to the two major strategic geographies in the international system — Eurasia and the “Indo-Pacific.” Whereas Eurasia has been a geographic reality for centuries, the SCO seeks to give it a geopolitical identity. The “Indo-Pacific” is more clearly a constructed term, with the goal of including India and excluding China.

India’s presence in both the SCO and the four nation Quad grouping indicates the more complicated realities, however. New Delhi wants to align with Washington on China, but also preserve its equities in the emerging Eurasia, which asserts sovereignty and regime stability and seeks multipolarity. All these are also New Delhi’s objectives, even as it simultaneously seeks to limit Beijing’s rise. 

But did India’s shyness on holding an in-person event indicate a lessening enthusiasm for the SCO? The Indian foreign minister denied it. It may be that India simply wanted to avoid the optics of welcoming Vladimir Putin to Delhi so soon after the high-profile visit of its prime minister to Washington.

Iran’s admission is a natural step for the SCO, which has central Asia as its core but is gradually enveloping parts of South Asia and the Middle East, creating a contiguous, giant terrain. Differences between SCO members (especially between India and the deep China-Pakistan partnership) are however trumped by the utility of the grouping to all its members. This will ensure that the SCO will persist and even continue to grow in the foreseeable future.

Ebrahim Raisi, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Levin Radin/Shutterstock) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi  (Shutterstock/Madhuram Paliwal)
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Photo Credit: viewimage and lev radin via

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