While the world fixated on the most iconic picture of this year's Group of Seven (G7) Summit, where U.S. President Donald Trump sat with his arms crossed as German Chancellor Angela Merkel glowered at him from across the table, the 18th Meeting of the Council of Heads of Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) kicked off in China's picturesque coastal city of Qingdao on June 9.
In stark contrast to the tension of the G7 Summit in Canada on June 8-9, which concluded with Trump's refusal to endorse a joint communiqué due to his rifts with other participants over trade policy, events in Qingdao proceeded smoothly with SCO member states demonstrating unity by further consolidating the Shanghai Spirit, premised on mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for cultural diversity and pursuit of common development.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (fourth right) pose for a group photo with leaders of other member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Qingdao, east China’s Shandong Province, on June 10 (XINHUA)
"We should, guided by the Shanghai Spirit, work closely to build an SCO community with a shared future, move toward a new type of international relations, and build an open, inclusive, clean and beautiful world that enjoys lasting peace, universal security and common prosperity," Chinese President Xi Jinping said.
During the meeting, the SCO leaders signed documents concerning security, trade facilitation and people-to-people exchanges.
Ling Shengli, an associate professor at China Foreign Affairs University, told Beijing Review that the meeting served as a link between the past and future development of the SCO. According to Ling, the summit reiterated the Shanghai Spirit as the principle for dealing with member state relations, indicating that the basic ideology of the organization will remain unchanged with its expansion.
Established as the Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) in 1996 with the objective of settling outstanding border disputes, Uzbekistan was welcomed into the fold in 2001, marking the creation of the SCO.
Since its foundation, regional security has always been at the top of the SCO's agenda. In his speech during the Qingdao Summit, Xi stressed the need to cooperate on combating terrorism, separatism and extremism, and conduct a "Peace Mission." He said China would train 2,000 law enforcement officers for other SCO members in the next three years.
The Qingdao Summit was the first gathering of SCO heads of state since the addition of India and Pakistan as full member states in 2017.
With the enlargement of the SCO, the construction and maintenance of internal mechanisms is the core issue, Ling noted. The original six members achieved trust and rapport through years of cooperation on regional security and economic issues, while India and Pakistan were absent from this process. At the Qingdao Summit, a series of documents were signed and consensus reached, which ensure the future direction of SCO development.
"The SCO brings peace and stability to Central Asia. With the participation of Pakistan and India, the organization looks set to play a positive role in helping to resolve their disputes and create stability for South Asia," Khan Abdul Wajid, a reporter with the Independent News Pakistan, told Beijing Review.
The logo of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with a Chinese and Russian message welcoming visitors to Qingdao, host city of the 2018 summit of the organization (XINHUA)
India and Pakistan have long been troubled by territorial and other disputes, and there is concern that they will bring this historical baggage with them into the SCO. Nonetheless, many observers are remaining positive on this issue.
According to Ling, the Shanghai Spirit and all SCO agreements advocate the peaceful resolution of disputes among member states. Adherence to the Shanghai Spirit and alignment with SCO agreements are a precondition for the participation of India and Pakistan in the SCO. Therefore, they should respect these commitments and promise to deal with disputes under the framework of the SCO.
Moreover, the SCO has successfully helped its member states to solve border issues in the past, and thus it could provide experience for India and Pakistan in areas such as avoiding military confrontation in border areas through ceasing military deployment and other measures to enhance reciprocal trust, Ling said.
It is neither the intention of India nor Pakistan to clash with one another, and while bilateral efforts to deal with disputes have failed, the SCO provides a multilateral platform which, according to Ling, could work as a buffer and decrease the possibility of military conflict.
Wajid agreed with Ling, noting that Pakistan and India could have more opportunities for communication through the meetings that take place at many levels under the framework of the SCO. Frequent and comprehensive bilateral communication at these meetings could enhance mutual understanding between the two, he added.
Avinash Agrawal, an Indian reporter, told Beijing Review that India and Pakistan would not bring their conflicts to the SCO and would instead benefit from the platforms for bilateral communication that the organization offers. According to him, more communication platforms are welcomed by the two countries as they provide opportunities for their respective leaders to establish personal contact. He also mentioned India's commitment to closer ties with Central Asian countries and its hope to import more energy from the region. It is then in India's interests to thaw relations with Pakistan in order to realize this plan.
India and Pakistan are both victims of terrorism, which is an international issue and cannot be resolved by any single nation. In Agrawal's opinion, India can gain experience from other member states, with the SCO having foiled hundreds of terrorism-related activities and having made significant contributions to the security of the region.
The SCO became the world's largest regional organization upon the inclusion of India and Pakistan, accounting for almost half of the world's population, 20 percent of its total GDP and over 60 percent of the Eurasian landmass. Through years of development, it has gradually evolved from a security bloc to one with more comprehensive goals, and building a community with a shared future for mankind is a common objective in the Qingdao Declaration of the SCO leaders.
According to the document, the member states support an open world economy, the strengthening of an open, inclusive, transparent, non-discriminative and rules-based multilateral trade system, the prevention of the fragmentation of international trade relations and the rejection of trade protectionism in any form.
A gantry crane loads goods onto a freight train heading to Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan, in an international logistics park in Qingdao on May 7 (XINHUA)
Yang Jin, an associate researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out that the levels of economic development among SCO member states are different, and yet they are consistent in defending an open world economy.
Concrete measures to facilitate regional cooperation were also announced at the summit, including a plan for China to establish a 30-billion-yuan ($4.7 billion) equivalent special lending facility within the framework of the SCO Inter-bank Consortium. Such moves evince the principle of mutual benefit and the pursuit of common interests embodied by the Shanghai Spirit, Yang said.
Wajid referred to the special lending facility as one of the highlights of the summit. Uncertainty abounds in today's world as unilateralism and anti-globalization prevail. China's efforts to promote regional cooperation and prosperity serve as a model for the whole world, he said.
According to Yang, member states should use the SCO as a platform to coordinate their development strategies with others, especially to align with the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative which is committed to enhancing regional connectivity and common prosperity.
Besides security and economic cooperation, the SCO also attaches great importance to people-to-people exchanges. Cultural diversity is a key characteristic of the SCO as an organization of multiple religions, including Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity.
According to the Shanghai Spirit, member states should respect cultural diversity. Since China took over the SCO rotating presidency in June 2017, many cultural exchange activities have been organized, including the SCO international marathon in Kunming, the first SCO media summit in Beijing and the first SCO film festival in Qingdao. All these activities created opportunities for direct exchange between the peoples of SCO nations.
The Qingdao Declaration reiterated that to achieve mutual enrichment and closer people-to-people relations, member states should maintain bilateral and multilateral cooperation in culture, education, science and technology, healthcare, tourism and the media.
China is making its own contributions to furthering exchanges between the peoples. Over the next three years, China will provide 3,000 human resource training opportunities for other SCO member states to enhance public understanding of and support for the SCO family, as well as providing meteorological services for all parties using its Fengyun-2 weather satellites.
For now, people-to-people exchanges within the SCO are far from sufficient, and opinions on how to enhance these interactions are varied. According to Agrawal, movies are an important way to spread culture as they can directly reflect people's lifestyle and customs or tell a country's history. Indian movies have recently gained in popularity with Chinese audiences and have played a key role in spreading knowledge of Indian culture in China.
Others mentioned the important role of tourism and the necessity to simplify visa application procedures. During the summit, SCO member states signed a joint action plan for 2019-20 to further boost tourism.
Xue Yaping, Director of the Tourism Promotion and International Cooperation Department of the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism, told the press that under the joint action plan, more measures would be taken in the coming years to simplify visa application and customs procedures in SCO nations.