Strategic Expansion: Untangling the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's Recent Enlargement
By Zeng Xianghong

Strategic Expansion: Untangling the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's Recent Enlargement

Jan. 15, 2024  |     |  0 comments

In the dynamic landscape of international alliances, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has emerged as a prominent regional coalition. Established with the intent to foster security and economic cooperation, the SCO has historically been cautious in its approach to expansion. However, the recent enlargement of the SCO has sparked interest and debate among scholars and policymakers alike. This unexpected growth prompts a need for a deeper understanding of the motives, methods, and implications behind such a strategic move. This article aims to dissect and provide insights into the SCO's unconventional path of expansion, exploring the underlying norms and strategies that have facilitated this process.

The SCO's latest expansion is characterized by three peculiarities: the decision to expand itself, the chosen path for expansion, and the unexpected success of the endeavor. Initially, the SCO took an unconventional route of "from the most difficult to the easiest" for its expansion. It began by admitting what was considered the most challenging countries – India and Pakistan – followed by contentious Iran and finally contemplated the inclusion of Belarus, a country with fewer disputes. Within the SCO's non-coercive internal structure, expansion is a complex decision-making process with far-reaching implications; yet, even with the admission of India, the SCO has not collapsed.

Why has the SCO's expansion been overall successful despite its atypical approach? I argue that the SCO has developed a strategy and ideology of "solidarity above all," which has ensured that enlargement did not lead to disruptive outcomes. Unity entails adherence to common values, underpinning mutual trust among member states; it underscores the close support between members and offers a moral compass for internal governance. The concept of "solidarity above all" serves both as an internal value system and a means to achieve internal governance.

Under the influence of "solidarity above all," member states have shown a degree of tolerance towards the loss of individual interests. This does not imply that states neglect or abandon the pursuit of their interests. On the contrary, they embrace and identify with the principle and norms of "solidarity above all" for the sake of broader collective benefits.

"Suspend, Restrain, and Guide" are the three main functions of "solidarity above all" – suspending disputes, restraining the publicization of conflicts, and guiding the adjustment of individual interests. The role of "solidarity above all" varies with different types of disagreements. To some extent, "solidarity above all" is also a strategy signaling member states to reach a consensus expeditiously, thereby facilitating the smooth progression of the expansion process.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's recent expansion is a testament to strategic adaptation and diplomatic finesse in the face of complex international challenges. The SCO's ability to expand in an anomalous yet successful manner highlights the effectiveness of "solidarity above all" as an operating principle. This ideology has not only sustained the organization's coherence during enlargement but has also provided a blueprint for managing diversity and fostering unity among member states with differing agendas.

By prioritizing unity and mutual respect, the SCO has successfully navigated the treacherous waters of international politics, setting a precedent for other multilateral organizations in an era marked by complex global interdependencies. The SCO's journey of expansion continues to serve as a fascinating case study for the resilience and adaptability of international alliances in the 21st century.