Opening up on the heels of the G7 gathering, the timing of the most recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) conference in Qingdao, China could not have been more apropos.
Since SCO nations try to present themselves as the counterforce to Western cohesion, the current period of growing tensions between the West the East is a time to pay attention to what the group is up to.
The actual focus of the summit was geared toward trade barriers and emerging health threats.
The communique on trade stated the group’s “intent of simplifying trade procedures between the countries.” Member states hit a number of points including “decreasing the number of customs formalities on imports, exports and transit of goods, increasing transparency, developing cooperation between border agencies, including customs, and expediting the transit of goods.” On the issue of disease prevention leaders highlighted the growing danger of epidemics in the SCO space due to “increased cross-border movement of people and trade liberalization.” Sicknesses that have been on the minds of state leaders include “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), viral haemorrhagic fevers (VHF), cholera and other particularly dangerous infectious diseases.” A joint statement emphasized the “resulting need to enhance the sanitary and epidemiological safety and the protection of public health.” To this end nations committed to “improvement of national laboratories, the development of research centres and joint research projects” on public health.
While the milestones of the summit seemed respectable, the SCO get-together also served as an opportunity for members to vent their grievances against the US and lambast the West.
As the summit was just beginning to get rolling on 10 June, Chinese President Xi Jinping praised the “unity” of SCO members in moving in advancing mutual interests. Xi was trying to draw a contrast to the recently ended G7 conference which wrapped up in what appeared to be disarray. Hours after the meeting ended, Trump disavowed the final communique of Western leaders, essentially withdrawing America’s commitment to any of the listed goals.
Xi assertion that SCO rejects “selfish, shortsighted, closed, narrow policies” and uphold “World Trade Organization rules, supports a multilateral trade system”, and aims to build “an open world economy" was a mocking of the Group of Seven’s inability to get their act together.
Xi’s criticism of G7 may be fair. But things need to be taken in perspective. SCO may be a huge organization--it is in fact the biggest international group in terms of geographical area--but it does not have close to the same economic weight as the West. Any threat posed by SCO to Western interests is not in directly opposing Western interests (at least in the short term) but rather in opening a place for nations that feel rebuffed by the West in general or the United States in particular, to find a political group-alliance. This is the concern America and its allies should keep in mind, and this is the lesson that should be taken from the recent conference in Qingdao.