'Golden rule' of SCO diplomacy is to make all decisions based on consensus: former SCO chief
Published: Jul 01, 2024 06:18 PM
Photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

Editor's Note: 

From July 2 to 6, President Xi Jinping will attend the 24th Meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Astana. Additionally, at the invitation of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of the Republic of Kazakhstan and President Emomali Rahmon of the Republic of Tajikistan, he will pay state visits to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. The Global Times (GT) recently interviewed Rashid Alimov (Alimov), former Secretary General of the SCO (2016-18) and Distinguished Fellow of Taihe Institute, to discuss the significance of the SCO gathering, the expansion of the SCO membership and the role the SCO plays in the multipolar world.

GT: What are your expectations for this SCO summit?

Alimov: The SCO summit in Astana has its own characteristics. First, it will take place against the backdrop of a complex and difficult to predict international situation, in which a multipolar world and a more equitable world order are emerging. On this long journey, under the ashes of old ones, new conflicts break out. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), in 2023 there were 183 regional armed conflicts in the world. This is not only a grim picture of rising wars and violence in many regions of the planet, but also a record high for the last 30 years. In improving the international situation, the role of the SCO cannot be underestimated. The SCO from the first days of inception has been making its valuable contribution to the formation of a more just world and the humanization of international relations.

Second, the summit must respond to profound changes in the global trading system, which are causing irreparable damage to the sustainable development of economies around the world, especially developing countries.

Third, the SCO summit will be held on the eve of the Future Summit, which is scheduled to be held by the UN in September 2024. It is obvious that the decisions of the SCO, which includes countries with a combined population of over 3.5 billion people - about half of all humanity - will have not only regional, but also global significance. The SCO is expected to come up with the initiative "On World Unity for a Just Peace and Harmony," which could become the basis for a broad discussion in the community of nations and is designed to contribute to establishing a sustainable dialogue in the interests of maintaining peace and security.

GT: Last year, the SCO expanded its membership welcoming its ninth member - Iran. This year, the organization is likely to admit Belarus. Why are more and more countries interested in joining the SCO? What does the growing influence of the SCO mean for the world?

Alimov: Yes, as expected, one of the first decisions at the upcoming summit in Astana will be the SCO's decision to admit the Republic of Belarus as its tenth full member. At the same time, one must keep in mind that the size of the "SCO family," including observers and dialogue partners, has increased almost fivefold over the past 20 years, and the organization itself has become an integral part of the complex architecture of modern international relations. Over the past seven years, the SCO has experienced three powerful surges of strength and new energy, turning the organization into the largest trans-regional association of a new type.

Emerging at the dawn of the 21st century, the SCO introduced a new concept of "Shanghai Spirit," into international relations. Since then, interest in the SCO has continued to grow. The organization does not stop "the march," increasing its political weight and international authority, continuing to demonstrate a high level of cohesion and mutual trust, a collective vision of a common future. 

Discussions are currently ongoing on the draft of the SCO Development Strategy for the next 10 years (until 2035). This task is complex, since talks are taking place in the context of rapid and dramatic changes in the international affairs with unpredictable developments. In a period of political "storms and upheavals" that international relations are experiencing, the adoption of a strategy for a 10-year period is not an easy matter. Most likely, the discussion of the strategic document will continue, especially since the current strategy was designed to last until 2025.

In the SCO there are no "strong and weak," "rich and poor" states; all members of the organization are equal. All decisions taken by the SCO are verified and take into account the interests of each state. The "golden rule" of SCO diplomacy is to make all decisions based on consensus. It cannot be ruled out that the search for consensus in the "format of 10" member states will be even more difficult than in the "format of nine." However, ultimately, this will help the SCO member states hone their diplomatic skills and confirm their status as a new type of organization, which attracts more and more new partners.

GT: In today's chaotic world, what role can the SCO play in maintaining the multilateral system and improving the international order?

Alimov: First of all, I think it is important to note that the SCO is a creative organization. During its existence, the SCO has confirmed its commitment not to be directed against anyone and its openness to interaction with those who share the principles of the "Shanghai Spirit." The SCO has a positive program of activities that attracts external partners. It is enough to note that the SCO closely cooperates with the UN and its specialized institutions, with ASEAN and the League of Arab States, UNESCO and many other organizations. The role in countering transnational threats, primarily international terrorism and drug trafficking, is significant. Increasing the effectiveness of activities in these key areas will allow the SCO to make an even greater contribution to regional and global affairs.

GT: Specifically, what role do you think the SCO should play in addressing regional challenges such as the Ukraine conflict and the situation in Afghanistan?

Alimov: At the beginning of our conversation, we already touched on the topic of conflicts. The SCO initially advocated and continues to advocate a peaceful political and diplomatic settlement of existing conflicts. The policy of confrontation and mutual threats, interference in others' internal affairs, intimidation and the use of methods of economic pressure, as practice shows, is counterproductive. This line has already led to tectonic shifts in geopolitics and the creation of artificial barriers to world trade. Any issues, no matter how pressing, must be resolved through an honest, direct and open dialogue. The SCO, being a responsible trans-regional organization, is an example of such an approach.

GT: In recent years, there have been many discussions on further promoting economic cooperation within the SCO framework. What are your views on proposals to establish a common development fund and a free trade zone? Should the SCO establish a unified payment system?

Alimov: Before I answer your question, imagine the economic geography of the SCO, which potentially includes 10 countries. For the SCO, even in the most distant future, to become a single economic space or free trade zone, it is necessary to unify different trade, economic, investment and currency regimes, divergent production and financial standards, different business practices and much more. This is an unrealistic task. What is realistic is a step-by-step expansion of cooperation between relevant ministries and departments. This is being done quite successfully, especially in recent years. As an example, we can cite practical steps in the field of transport connectivity, in which the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) played an important role.

It is expected that the SCO will soon begin discussing the New Economic Dialogue Program, the main goal of which will be to find solutions to current and future problems of trade and economic cooperation and develop proposals for improving the architecture of global economic governance. Obviously, the issues you raised will be discussed as part of the upcoming dialogue.

GT: Last year, the first China-Central Asia Summit was held in Xi'an, China. How do you view the development of relations between China and Central Asia in recent years?

Alimov: The region has great hopes for the "Central Asia plus China" format. The first summit under the new format marked a qualitatively new stage in the development of cooperation between China and the countries of the region. All interaction mechanisms, which are the keys to opening "new gates" of cooperation, have started working. The agreements reached in Xi'an, along with other prospects, will significantly expand the modern caravan systems connecting China with the region, as well as speed up decision-making on key areas of cooperation.

It is enough to note that the increase in transport potential between China and the countries of Central Asia over the past 10 years has opened additional "windows" of opportunities for international trade and investment, tourism and other sectors of the economy. In 2023, Central Asian countries traded with China for almost $90 billion, which is 27 percent more than in 2022. It is important that the Chinese capital lands in the countries of Central Asia along with new technologies and best practices in the field of agriculture and water management, industry and mechanical engineering, and helps accelerate the process of transition to new industrial tracks, as well as jointly building new digital and "green" economies. All this creates conditions for achieving $100 billion in trade turnover between China and the five countries of the region in the coming years.

China's achievements are a driving force for the joint development of the Central Asian countries, injecting a powerful impetus to the process of regional modernization. They also provide a unique opportunity for intensive development, effective use of Chinese experience in overcoming poverty and achieving goals in science and technology. The strategic vision of the leaders of Central Asia and China goes far beyond the horizon of five or 10 years. Ultimately, we are talking about building a community of a common destiny, in which everyone would live with dignity and comfort in accordance with their national characteristics and their own path of development.

GT: Over the past decade, what political, economic and social changes has the BRI brought to Central Asia? The EU and the US have also formulated new development strategies for Central Asia. How do you compare the differences between the BRI and the development strategies of the EU and the US?

Alimov: A famous Chinese proverb says: "When the paths are unequal, they do not make plans together." The path of joint development proposed by China in the form of the BRI was accepted by most countries of the world, and the plans developed jointly began to be implemented. This is especially evident in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. We remember well the gloomy prospect that Western experts painted for developing countries that supported the BRI. They insisted that these countries would fall from the "poverty trap" into the "debt trap." Over the past 10 years, the BRI has made a significant contribution to building a better world. This is primarily felt by the countries of Central Asia.

This is not the first time that the US and the EU have developed their own development strategies for Central Asia. The first strategies turned out to be ineffective and did not leave behind a single infrastructure facility. The latest strategies also raise many questions, including their anti-Chinese and anti-Russian orientation, and the arrogant and condescending attitude toward partners from Central Asia on the part of Western leaders. A typical speech by Josep Borell at the Global Gateway Investors Forum for EU/Central Asia Transport Connectivity in Brussels: The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said that "I used to say that four years ago, when I came to Brussels, Central Asia was a little bit in the middle of nowhere - and now, you are in the middle of everything." 

The "golden rule" of the BRI is extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits. By what rules the cooperation of the Central Asian countries with the EU and the US will be structured is still far from clear. At the heart of the China-led initiative is a win-win situation that has already been felt in Central Asia. Only time will tell what practical impact will be obtained from the new strategies of the EU and the US.