Recent clashes between India and China over the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have created a potential existential crisis for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The dispute flared up in May of this year, escalating in June and resulting in the first deaths of Indian soldiers at the hands of Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers since 1967. Both China and India are members of the SCO cooperative security framework, which faces pressure to resolve the stand-off. Such pressure is increased by the potential for the border dispute to expand into a greater conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers.
The crisis erupted when China pushed back against Indian road construction, with Chinese troops repeatedly intruding across the LAC and into de facto Indian territory at various points along the Galwan valley, Pangong Tso, Hot Springs, and Depsang in the eastern Ladakh region (Global Times, June 16; China Brief, July 15). On June 15, PLA troops clashed with Indian Army soldiers. No firearms were used, as they had been banned by previous agreements, but casualties occurred on both sides. India and China traded blame for the outbreak of violence, and at the time of writing the specific origins of the incident remain uncertain (SCMP, July 2). Notably, the Galwan valley is an extension of the disputed Aksai Chin region, which China claims in its entirety (see image below). The Aksai Chin serves as a strategic corridor between China’s provincial-level Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and is seen by China’s leadership as being strategically vital to domestic security.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Role in Deescalating Tensions
Multiple rounds of diplomatic and military talks on the border conflict between India and China have taken place since June, including proposals for mutual troop withdrawals and “restoring [the] status quo ante” on the LAC (Bharat Shakti, November 11; Aljazeera, November 13). So far, the two sides have failed to reach an agreement (Daily Pioneer, November 24).
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is one of the few regional security organizations in which both India and China are members, and thus has taken on significance as a potential mechanism for resolving the border dispute, at least in the short-term. Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe (魏凤和) met face-to-face with his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh for the first time following the June hostilities on the sidelines of a SCO defense chiefs meeting on September 5 (SCMP, September 5; Press TV, September 6), where the two traded covert barbs but ultimately agreed to work towards easing tensions.
Image: Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe (middle left) held talks with Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh (middle right) on the sidelines of SCO meetings in Moscow on September 5 (Image Source: SCMP).
This was followed by a meeting between Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) on the sidelines of the SCO foreign ministers’ conference on September 10. The two issued a joint statement after their meeting promising that “both sides shall abide by the existing agreements and protocol on bilateral boundary affairs, maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas and avoid any action that could escalate matters” (PRC Foreign Ministry, September 11). They also agreed to a five-point plan laying out guidelines for resolving the issue (India Today, September 11). Since the September meetings, both sides have further signaled their intentions to de-escalate the dispute (South China Morning Post, October 1; The Diplomat, November 12).
On November 10, the annual SCO Heads of State meeting was held via videoconference and hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The leaders of the SCO member states subsequently issued a statement that confirmed that the SCO remained unified despite the border tension between India and China (Global Times, November 11). During the meeting, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told participants that India was ready to move forward on the border issue, as long as there was respect for “…each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” (Global Times, November 10). . Modi’s speech, while conciliatory, also included firm language directed at both China and Pakistan (India Blooms, November 10).
Despite the conciliatory rhetoric at the November 10 summit, the border situation between China and India remains tense. Indian news media recently reported an increase in Chinese military activity along the LAC, while media reports and satellite imagery show that both sides have increased their construction activities along the border ahead of winter (Hindustan Times: October 13, November 19). Any increase in troop deployments at the LAC by Beijing will likely be met in kind by New Delhi, and the situation could easily escalate dangerously out of control.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has always stressed the so-called “Shanghai Spirit” of cooperation and multilateralism (Xinhua, November 5). These concepts are ingrained in the organization’s founding charter. China has been the driving force behind the SCO since its inception, seeing it as a vehicle for regional stability. As a means of protecting the Shanghai Spirit, many of the SCO’s member states have been reluctant to involve it in bilateral disputes. While the SCO was born out of the 1990s Shanghai Process, which focused on resolving outstanding disputed borders between China and former members of the Soviet Union, it has not had any direct involvement in dispute resolutions of this magnitude since.
Limitations of the SCO Framework in Resolving Bilateral Disputes
In fact, bilateral hostility in the form of, for example, territorial disputes was expressly discouraged from the SCO agenda following India and Pakistan’s ascensions to the organization (Times of India, June 15, 2017). Even still, the inclusion of India and Pakistan as full members was bound to create tensions within the SCO. Surprisingly, there has been less overt tension between India and Pakistan than between India and China. Less than a week after India joined the SCO in 2017, a dispute over a Chinese-built road in the Doklam region broke out, causing both sides to increase their troop presence along the border (Xinhua, July 6, 2017). This served as a harbinger for the 2020 conflict. The dispute was resolved a few months later, with both sides removing troops. The SCO did not play any role in the de-escalation of this crisis.
Most recently, Russia backed India in response to Pakistan’s repeated efforts to raise India-Pakistan measures at the most recent SCO meeting, with the Russian Deputy Envoy to New Delhi saying, “This is a part of SCO charter and SCO basic documents not to bring the bilateral issue into the agenda [sic]. It has been made clear to all member states that [this] should be avoided…for the sake of the progress of multilateral cooperation” (Zee News, November 12). Critics might argue that this sets a poor precedent for the SCO’s utility as a mechanism to resolve the Sino-Indian border dispute, but if both sides were willing to engage on the issue via the SCO, it could still prove useful.
For Beijing, compromise on the border disputes with New Delhi is a non-starter. China’s strategic vision—as shaped by President Xi Jinping—has placed an emphasis on the “overbearing” (霸道, badao) nature of China’s strategic rivals who contest its so-called “peaceful rise” (中国和平崛起, zhongguo heping jueqi). In contrast, China’s own position is portrayed as rightful and “kingly” (王道, wangdao) (Xinhua, May 1, 2014). In other words, when faced with direct confrontation or even perceived hostile behavior, China will utilize its state resources to counter any aggression instead of seeking to conciliate and reassure, which was the preferred diplomatic approach prior to Xi’s leadership. With its newly assertive posture, China has limited its options for de-escalating disputes with other countries. In the best case scenario, the SCO could provide a framework for Xi and Modi to de-escalate tensions. It is worth noting that while China under Xi has been more than willing to express its new assertiveness on issues ranging from Taiwan and Hong Kong to its bilateral border dispute with India, that assertiveness has not made a significant appearance in Beijing’s dealings with the SCO. Here, at least, China still consistently stresses cooperation and reassurance (Xinhua, June 14, 2019).
In a multilateral setting, particularly with Russia in the role as a potential mediator, greater trust could be established in the Sino-Indian relationship. There are mechanisms within the SCO to facilitate that trust (e.g., joint military exercises, working groups, and sideline meetings) (Xinhua, November 9). Progress would occur only if the participants were willing to use the organization’s platforms for this purpose. So far, incremental steps have been taken in this direction, as seen by the Defense Ministers and Foreign Ministers meetings in September and Modi’s public airing of grievances at the Heads of State meeting in November.
No quick fix exists for the border dispute between the two nuclear powers. Although China has demonstrated its willingness in the past to make concessions on other disputed borders, the Aksai Chin region is a strategically vital corridor that Beijing refuses to compromise on. Furthermore, Xi has made assertiveness a focal point of China’s foreign policy, which has the potential to more easily escalate tensions with strategic rivals and near peer competitors. India also sees the Aksai Chin and Ladakh region as strategically vital grounds that are relevant to its long-standing dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir, historical claims notwithstanding.
The SCO recently provided opportunities for China and India to de-escalate tensions in September and November. Beyond this, however, it may ultimately be limited in what it can do. India has its own designs for great power status that may involve clashes with China on issues not limited to the border dispute. With time, it is likely that the most recent conflict over the Galwan valley will eventually de-escalate, but that still leaves the larger border conflict—as well as other growing tensions over nationalism, trade and technology in the bilateral relationship—unresolved.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a unique organization that maintains a strong security portfolio despite being rife with interstate rivalries. It excludes all Western states and does not promote democratic norms, but still emphasizes mutual cooperation and trust among members. So far, it has weathered multiple internal and external challenges to its durability (a partial list of such challenges would include: U.S. troops stationed in Central Asia; multiple conflict points between Central Asian members; India and Pakistan’s ongoing disputes), with no member state having ever left the organization. The continuing challenges of Indian membership to the SCO, may prove too much stress for it to bear, leading to the distant possibility of India’s withdrawal. The organization could become increasingly symbolic—and thus irrelevant—if it fails to curb further bilateral disputes, including future Sino-Indian clashes. In the most optimistic scenario, the SCO may prove to be resilient, and a restraining force on China overall. It could still provide China and India with a rare mutual platform for potential accommodation and compromise under the auspices of the “Shanghai Spirit.”
James MacHaffie is an independent analyst based in Japan. His research focuses on Chinese foreign and defense policy, as well as broader topics relevant to Asia-Pacific security. He holds a doctorate in international politics from the University of Leicester, and has published in Comparative Strategy, Alternatives, and the Australian Journal of Maritime & Ocean Affairs.
“The Jamestown Foundation”