The SCO’s Real Strategic Challenge

5 October 2021 Brigadier Saleem Qamar Butt (Retd), FDI Associate

The evolving strategic alignment in the Indo-Pacific has ramifications for the region, which could well be the harbinger of a New Cold War, with potential catastrophic consequences. Therefore, American and Chinese leaders will be well advised to manage their strategic competition without any military confrontation(s). The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation’s first real test would be to bring back normality and harmony in Afghanistan for overall peace, stability and prosperity in the wider region.



The 20th Shanghai Co-operation Organisation’s (SCO) Heads of State Summit took place in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on 16-17 September 2021, at which the participants mainly focussed their discussions on managing the situation arising from the exit of the US and its allies’ forces from Afghanistan and to galvanise regional support for war-ravaged Afghanistan to regain peace and economic and security stability under Afghan Taliban rule. The sideline meetings between the heads of states and their accompanying delegations also used the occasion to explore other avenues of bilateral and multilateral economic and security co-operation in accordance with the charter of SCO.

The SCO is a Eurasian political, economic and security alliance, the creation of which was announced on 15 June 2001 in Shanghai, China, by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation Charter, which formally established the organisation, was signed in June 2002 and entered into force on 19 September 2003. The SCO currently comprises nine permanent members: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India and Iran, which was approved as a member during the current summit. Three countries — Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia — have observer status with the SCO, and six countries — Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey and Sri Lanka — are dialogue partners. The guests included ASEAN, CIS, the UN and Turkmenistan. The Heads of State Council (HSC) is the supreme decision-making body in the SCO; it meets once a year and adopts decisions and guidelines on all important matters of the organisation.



The SCO is a permanent inter-governmental international organisation. Its main goals are strengthening mutual confidence and good-neighbourly relations among the member countries; promoting effective co-operation in politics, trade and economy, science and technology, culture as well as education, energy, transportation, tourism, environmental protection and other fields; making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region and the establishment of a new, democratic, just and rational political and economic international order. Military exercises are also regularly conducted among members to promote co-operation and co-ordination against terrorism and other threats, and to maintain regional peace and stability. SCO has three main components, i.e., political, economic and security that is a response to the EU and NATO with USA in the leadership role. The SCO is widely regarded as the “Alliance of the East”, due to its growing centrality in the Indo-Pacific and is a major regional security pillar. It is the largest regional organisation in the world in terms of geographical coverage and population, covering three-fifths of the Eurasian continent and nearly half of the human population.

In a June 2019 paper on the SCO, I remarked that the:

USA has paid a lot of heed to her former national security advisor and political scientist Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski’s book “The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives” (1997), who termed the landmass of Eurasia as the Centre of global power, and formulated a Eurasian geostrategy for the United States focusing on the exercise of power on the Eurasian landmass in a post-Soviet environment making good use of Halford J. Mackinder’s Heartland Theory. In particular, he wrote, “it is imperative that no Eurasian challenger should emerge capable of dominating Eurasia and thus also of challenging America’s global pre-eminence. According to Berezniki, “whosoever controls Eurasia landmass, will dominate the world; and key to Eurasia is Central Asia”. That explains US and allies’ invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and SCO’s evolution in the same year. While the USA regards China as a leading global economic competitor, resurgent Russia remains her primary military challenge on the global horizon. China led SCO and Russia led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) has gradually got good traction as an effective counter balance to American Asia Pivot renamed Asia-Pacific Rebalancing policy, that gave India strategic primacy in the region to take care of China and Pakistan, which is playing the key role in realisation of Chinese greatest economic and security connectivity programme called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) involving more than 60 countries and an investment of over a trillion dollars.

All the same, the SCO summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (12-14 June 2019), and the just-concluded summit in Dushanbe have established the organisation as a reinvigorated regional political, economic and military alliance that is ready to face the military threat that has risen from the withdrawal of the US and its allies’ from Afghanistan and the Middle East, the renewed  strategic alignment in the Indo-Pacific, the QUAD (US, Australia, Japan, India), and the new security partnership between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom (AUKUS), which has ramifications for the region. The latter development could well be the harbinger of a New Cold War in which NATO may be gradually replaced by the QUAD/AUKUS (both likely to be expanded) versus SCO/CSTO in the Indo-Pacific region, with potential catastrophic consequences. Therefore, American and Chinese leadership will be well advised to manage their strategic competition without any military confrontation(s).

I was singularly honoured to be Pakistan’s representative at the SCO Security Forum that was held in Beijing in early 2005, which paved the way for Islamabad’s invitation to the summit level later that same year. From 2007 to 2010, I was further honoured to be the Defence Advisor in the Central Asian Republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), that not only helped in developing very strong and cordial military to military relations with all CARs and Russia, but also helped to develop and project greater understanding of SCO and CSTO potentials and urge the Government of Pakistan to make serious efforts to become a permanent member of both the organisations for comprehensive security and economic interdependence and the mutual pursuit of regional and national security interests. It is a matter of great satisfaction that consistent efforts by military diplomacy and political diplomacy have yielded positive results; Pakistan is now a permanent member of SCO and membership of CSTO is around the corner, with just concluded outreach efforts by the Pakistani Prime Minister to the presidents of Russia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Iran, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to expand security and economic relations. It is satisfying to note that Pakistan’s stance on Afghanistan has been vindicated and all regional countries stand together to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.

Both SCO and CSTO not only provide joint security umbrellas to their member countries but also present greater opportunities to complete CASA-1000 projects, enhanced regional connectivity, co-operation, interdependence, conflict resolution, economic interaction especially in the fields of science and technology, defence production, energy, education, agriculture, sports and tourism. It may be prudent for the Government of Pakistan to give time-bound specific goals to be achieved by its missions abroad, particularly in SCO member countries. The implementation of a visa-free regime and the promotion of enhanced people-to-people contacts can further deepen ties. Pakistan has been blessed with infinite natural resources, four seasons, a resilient people and above all an advantageous geo-strategic location; sincere and visionary leadership could lead to long-awaited prosperity and comprehensive security.

Last, but not the least, regional or extra-regional countries should avoid an overbearing approach towards the Afghan interim government and give it time to explore what is best for the people of Afghanistan in accordance with their traditions, history and current challenges. It is of utmost importance that the national wealth of Afghanistan that has been withheld by the American and European banks be released to the interim Afghan government to allow it to administer the devastated state and avoid human catastrophe. Afghanistan’s relapse into chaos and the resurgence of terrorism could threaten not only the region but the whole world. While fulfilling the promises made by individual stakeholders is their respective responsibility, it is the Afghan Taliban government’s obligation to conduct elections with representation from non-hostile minorities, including Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, and Turkmen. The SCO’S first real test would be to bring back normality and harmony in Afghanistan for overall peace, stability and prosperity in the larger region.

About the Author

Now retired from the military, Brigadier Saleem Qamar Butt is a Geostrategic Analyst for the Pakistan Television Network and, as a freelance writer, has been published by the Daily Times, The Nation, Business News Pakistan, South Asia Pulse (Canada), South Asia Magazine and Future Directions International.

In his military career, Brig. Butt graduated from the Command and Staff College, Camberley, UK (1993) and the Japanese Combined Arms Institution, Mt Fuji (1989). He commanded an infantry regiment along the Line of Control during an active conflict period, served as Chief of Operational Staff in a Corps headquarters operating along the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders and participated in the planning and execution of medium- and large-scale anti-terror operations. He has also served as an instructor in the School of Infantry and Tactics and Directing Staff at the Command and Staff College in Quetta, and as Pakistan’s Defence Attaché to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. From 2010 to 2017, he served as Deputy Director-General, Strategic Analysis for the Government of Pakistan with focus on Pakistan’s relations with the USA, all other countries of the American continent, Central Asia and Afghanistan. In March 2020, he was selected as one of the four-member group advising Prime Minister Imran Khan on foreign relations with the United States.

Brig. Butt has a Master’s Degree in International Relations and an MSc in Defence and Warfare Studies. He has an Executive Diploma in Project Management and has studied Arabic, Japanese and Russian languages.

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