NATO vs SCO: A New Multipolar Order

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently attended the 19th annual Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which was held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The aftermath of the summit raises some interesting questions about the global positioning of the SCO and its member states in the new world order. Can the Shanghai Cooperation Organization compete with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the global political arena?


The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a Political, Economic, and Security Alliance that was formed in 2001. Membership to the SCO consists of Member States, Observer States, and Dialogue Partners. It currently has eight member states including China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan. India and Pakistan are the latest additions to the alliance after being formally inducted in 2017. Observer states include Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia. The bloc’s Dialogue Partners include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. Combined, the members of the SCO make up almost half of the world’s population and nearly 3/5 of the Eurasian landmass making it the largest regional political alliance in the world. Often called the “Eastern Alliance”, the SCO aims to enhance trust and feelings of neighborliness among nations states, promote cooperation and collaboration in matters of security, trade, intelligence, technology, research, and culture, and collectively work to fight the three evils - Terrorism, Separatism, and Extremism.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an intergovernmental political and military alliance that was established in 1949 to implement the North Atlantic Treaty, signed after the end of WW2. The organization promotes a collective defense strategy in which all member-states pledge to align themselves together against a common foreign enemy. While the NATO started off with 12 members, it now boasts a membership of 29 states from North America and Europe with more states applying for membership. The original members were: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom, and United States. Montenegro is the latest member state, joining the NATO in 2017. NATO has also recognized five potential member states which are known as aspiring members – Bosnia, Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia, and Ukraine. 


Leaders from 8 SCO member states, as well as several other dignitaries, gathered together in Kyrgyztan last week to discuss matters of security, multilateral trade cooperation, economic development, and counter-terrorism.

We are witnessing the emergence of a strong East vs. West narrative in international politics which suggests that the contemporary balance of power is being dictated along a cultural and geographical faultline between the East and the West. In this context, one might wonder whether the SCO has grown to become NATO’s eastern counterpart in terms of global power and influence.

Although the SCO is not exclusively a military alliance, its member states do participate in joint military exercises and war games. With the induction of India and Pakistan, four SCO members have significant nuclear capabilities and this has definitely strengthened the bloc against NATO. But of all member states, very few meet NATO’s requirements for military spending (2% of GDP), which puts a great amount of pressure on a select few nations to carry the torch during a conflict. Plus, since member states have not pledged military support, they would be free to refuse involvement in future military conflicts.

But what SCO lacks in terms of joint military capacity, it might be able to make up for in terms of economic opportunities. The markets of several SCO nations have not yet been completely tapped into, and the bloc possesses vast natural and human resources. India and China are two of the world’s fastest growing economies, and with greater economic cooperation, other SCO member states might benefit from their growth as well. The SCO member states account for ¼ of the world’s GDP.

One of the biggest challenges facing the SCO is finding a way to reconcile the diverging political interests of its member states. The SCO’s aim of increasing cultural and humanitarian exchanges might help it overcome this hurdle. But the NATO isn’t as united as many may think either. Member states aren’t necessarily compelled to participate in NATO’s operations, and may even choose to conduct their own operations unilaterally.

More and more NATO nations are failing to meet the defense spending requirements with only 7 countries meeting the threshold in 2018. US president Donald Trump, who backed out of a landmark NATO nuclear deal with Iran, has suggested time and again that the NATO might be on the decline. If this is true, we might be witnessing a paradigm shift in international relations with the advent of a multipolar balance of power.


While the two organizations might have overlapping objectives, the mission and vision of these organizations are markedly different. The NATO seems to have a more global focus while the SCO seems more concerned about internal issues. It might not be the best idea, therefore, to make a comparison between the two at all. The SCO as a body will not pose a direct threat to NATO, but independently, Russia and China might be able to serve as formidable opponents in a conflict.


It is our assessment that while the sheer size and influence of the SCO can give NATO a run for its money, it cannot compete with NATO in the global political arena. This has less to do with the military and economic capabilities of both blocs, and more to do with the objectives of these organizations. The NATO was built to be an alliance against a common enemy, and in the absence of one, the western political bloc might lose its cohesive force. The SCO, on the other hand, was established during peace-time and has interests beyond military collaboration - including its various economic and cultural pursuits in the region.

We believe that establishing a powerful presence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East is the key for either of these organizations to be considered dominant. We feel that tensions between the two organizations could potentially arise in central and eastern Europe, where NATO is building up a presence to counter Russian advances in the region. With tensions rising, several eastern European countries might feel pressured to pick a side. Either way, we feel that the regions in question will remain divided between the two blocs – with neither organization establishing geopolitical dominance.

We think that SCO member states will be hesitant to push any sort of agenda in the Middle East, primarily because SCO member states including India and China, are dependent on the Gulf for oil. Besides this, advancing into the Middle East would be stepping on US toes. Amidst existing economic tensions between the US and China, and now India, it might not be wise to pursue anything that would harm American interests. We think that self-preservation would prevent SCO nations from displaying a united front against the western NATO bloc. However, we feel that his view is complicated by the fact that Iran is due to receive membership status to SCO anytime soon. Amidst growing tensions with the US and Iran as well as China, Iranian membership might force the SCO to set its sights on the Middle East. This could either strengthen the bloc or severely weaken it.


At the Summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a brief speech addressing the need for greater economic cooperation and coordinated efforts against terrorism. We think that the SCO serves as a powerful platform for India to engage in multilateral collaboration with Asian countries in order to further both domestic and regional interests.  

We feel that India’s membership to the SCO gives India greater access to Central Asian markets, which have been relatively elusive till now. China’s trade with Central Asia is worth over $50 billion compared to India’s $2 billion. The scope for Indian trade with energy-rich Central Asian countries is very broad, but we feel that India needs to act fast in the region to avoid losing opportunities to China. 

During the 2019 SCO Summit, India refused to endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and turned down an invitation to join the BRIs Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar corridor. While joining the BRI would significantly improve connectivity between India and Central Asia, this improved connectivity might come at the expense of Indian national interests in Kashmir and its Eastern provinces.