The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s Impact on the Region Part I & II

Part I

On June 15th the Shanghai Cooperation organisation will have its Summit meeting in Astana marking the 10th Anniversary of its founding. This organisation that brings together the two major powers of the region – China and Russia – had its origin in a Chinese initiative to enhance cooperation between the newly independent Central Asian states of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and China and Russia to combat the threat of “terrorism, separatism and extremism”, which, in the words of the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, are commonly known as the “three evil forces” and are held as the archenemy threatening regional security and stability.

“Cooperation in security is a top priority for the SCO,” according to a spokesman of the Chinese Defense Ministry speaking a few days earlier. Certainly the focus on security has not diminished over the years. In an article to mark the Astana Summit Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi recalled: “We have launched more than 10 joint anti-terror drills over the past decade and worked together to combat drug trafficking and cross-border organized crimes.” If I recall correctly the first Chinese participation in a joint military exercise with foreign forces was an anti terrorist exercise with Kyrgyzstan Oct. 2002 along the Kyrgyz border with China’s Xinjiang province.

So it would seem that there has been at least one joint anti terrorism exercise every year since then. This is a subject of abiding interest also to Russia which took the initiative under the banner of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to set up a branch of the Anti terrorism centre in Bishkek. Russia also participated in the first anti terrorism military exercise in 2003 when the then 5 members of the SCO (less Uzbekistan which joined the SCO later) sent large contingents to the Kazakh city of Ucharal that lies on the border of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. While I do not have the exact figures Russia has been conducting such exercises with its SCO partners with and without China’s participation also during this last decade. Russia’s interest it seems is two fold. First terrorist activity could be directed towards or support indigenous movements in Russia’s Muslim provinces. Second, much of the terrorist activity also serves as a cover for drug trafficking from Afghanistan, which has been, for many years now, a matter of enormous concern to Russia.

It is interesting however to note that in the ten years that the organization has been in existence other facets of the relations between the member countries have acquired an added significance. The host of the Summit, Kazakhstan, and China have under the framework of SCO set up the China-Kazakhstan Horgos International Border Cooperation Center, covering some 3.43 sq. kms. in China and 1.85 sq. kms in Kazakhstan at a cost of 880 million Yuan as a transnational cooperation zone and what they call a demonstration area of regional cooperation under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). President Hu Jintao who is paying a state visit for three days before attending the summit is expected to sign some further agreements on economic cooperation between the two countries to further enhance the trade between the two countries, which in 2010 was about 20.4 billion, or a fifty fold increase over the figures of a decade ago.

President Hu Jintao is expected to visit Russia immediately after the Astana Summit and will there commemorate the 10th anniversary of the China-Russia Treaty on Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation. There will also one can assume be a discussion of the long and protracted negotiations on the supply of Russian gas to China. During a recent visit to China President Medvedev had talked about the gap between the position of the two sides having been narrowed and seemed to suggest that an agreement in the near future was possible. This would be welcome news for energy hungry China and would provide the financing Russia needs to develop its energy potential further. Trade between the two countries, which stood at $60 billion in 2010 and made China Russia’s largest trading partner, could according to President Hu reach the figure of $100 billion in three to five years as proposed by President Medvedev.

On another plane the Chinese development of its military flows in part from its collaborative relations with Russia. China’s first aircraft carrier, which is still some time from completion, is apparently being built on the hull of a Russian warship that China acquired some years ago. Russia’s position as one of the biggest arms exporters in the world depends on the Chinese market for a major part of its sales.

While the two countries are probably not totally in agreement on the nature of the relationship each will maintain with the other members of the SCO – there are contending geopolitical considerations – there is no disagreement on the need to keep the region free of the “three evils”. There is also no doubt that both have a concern about the nature of the relationship that the USA in particular and the West in general maintains with the region and in this context the utilization of the enormous energy resources of the region.

Much has been made in part of the media in the SCO countries about the reservations that the USA has with regard to the SCO and its objectives. The fact is that the SCO’s principal reason for being -“fighting the three evils”- is a goal that the USA and its allies are supposed to share. For them the spread of an Al-Qaeda like ideology to the Central Asian Republics would multiply the problems they face and have been unsuccessful in resolving in Afghanistan. They know that in part the creation of the SCO was inspired not only by the “separatism’ by the ETIM (Eastern Turkestan Independence Movement) but by the widespread fear in the Central Asian Republics of the Taliban ideology which held sway in Afghanistan and by the shelter that Afghanistan provided for Numangani’s IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan). They cannot but acknowledge that success has attended the SCO efforts and this has helped their own anti terror campaign.

Since its inception as a regional anti terrorist organization the SCO has started evolving into a more comprehensive regional body concerned with tackling all the diverse problems that the region faces and that need regional solutions. This is a natural development and has to be accepted as such. I know that a large body of American analysts and academicians with whom I attended meetings devoted to the question of peace and stability in Asia argued strongly that the USA must seek observer status at the SCO and develop a cooperative relationship with that organization. Given the current situation in the region and the planned drawdown if not complete withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan this will now be something that the Washington pundits will have to consider seriously.

It would be right to say that the SCO countries can take pride in the degree to which they have through this cooperative mechanism been able to achieve their principal goal. The SCO may not have been able to do much during the upheaval in Kyrgyzstan or the civil rights abuses in Uzbekistan but that was not the stated objective. They can also take pride in what they have bee able to achieve in terms of furthering economic cooperation for the enhancement of which one would presume the Summit would provide new opportunities.

It is of course undeniable that in so far as the countries of the region are concerned the focus of attention will be on what the Summit chooses to do with regard to the question of expanding membership to the three states now enjoying “observer status” – Pakistan, India and Iran – and about granting observer status or more to Afghanistan…The foreign Ministers of the SCO countries have been discussing this question since last year and this year in their meeting in May they finalized a “the draft Memorandum of Obligations of a Candidate Country with the aim of obtaining SCO member status”. In the past the SCO had maintained that they had placed a bar on the expansion of the SCO. This was attributed to the differences between China and Russia on the eligibility for membership of Pakistan and India with Russia supporting the Indian cause and China the Pakistani. It is safe to presume that they have now moved towards establishing conditions on membership for which clearly the most eligible are Pakistan, India and Iran these differences have been resolved.

Of particular interest in this regard is also the application by Afghanistan for observer status. Virtually every communiqué issued after a SCO meeting has referred to the situation in Afghanistan and the efforts that the SCO countries have made towards normalizing the situation in that country. It would seem logical to assume that in these circumstances and given that concern about terrorism in Central Asia has focused on Afghanistan, that this application will be approved.

What changes will this expansion bring? More on that and the results of the Summit in my next article.


Part II

In my last article I had stated that the main interest of the countries of the region in the deliberations of the SCO summit would be the manner in which they handled the question of the granting of membership to the four countries-Pakistan, India, Iran and Mongolia – which now have observer status and the granting of observer status or more to the new applicant, Afghanistan.

It seems however that at the Summit while the matter was discussed and while there was a sense that the membership expansion would provide a significant boost to the SCO effort to combat the “3 evils” there was some measure of hesitancy about approving the membership requests until more time had been spent by the countries in question on meeting the criteria that the foreign Ministers had laid down in their May meeting and which had been approved by the Summit. In a sense the Summit took the view that procedural considerations required that a final decision on this matter be put off until the next Summit in 2012. The Declaration said that Member states pledged to strengthen cooperation with observers and dialogue partners, whose potential would provide a huge driving force for further strengthening the SCO but did not go further. Why did this happen?

Some reports suggested that the SCO Summit participants were anxious to ensure that all applicants were treated equally and that if membership was to be expanded such expansion should cover all observers who had sought membership. The last information that I have seen suggests that at the Summit perhaps because of hints from the member states Iran did not apply for membership and Mongolia for its own reasons also chose not to do so.

This left two countries, India and Pakistan. Pakistan of course had applied for membership and this request was reiterated in the speech that President Zardari made at the Summit. The Indian Foreign Minister, who represented India at the Summit, also made clear India’s anxiety to join the group. Both countries I understand were told that while the criteria for membership had been decided the members wanted to further consolidate the organisation before taking on new members.

The true reason, however, lay elsewhere. In an interview to the news agency Interfax as quoted by Xinhua, a member of the Russian delegation suggested that “the unsolved territorial problem between India and Pakistan is the main barrier to their accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization”. Paradoxically the same source also suggested that their desire to become members may stimulate their own efforts to settle the border dispute and went on to assert that “ the SCO is playing an irreplaceable role because it stimulates and encourages direct and more intensive talks on all outstanding issues”. There is of course no doubt that the interests of the two countries as also of the region dictate an early settlement of this dispute, which has brought years of misery to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. It would certainly be good if the SCO can provide an impetus to the two countries to hasten the process of settlement but it seems unlikely that the incentive of membership of the SCO alone would provide the spur if other factor do not work in the same direction.

Why did Iran not apply or why was it indicated to Iran that such an application would not be welcome? With Iran being under UN sanctions SCO current members are not certain about what sort of all round cooperation would be possible if Iran were to become a member. There is also some apprehension among the Central Asian States about the degree of influence that some factions of Iran’s rulers may seek to exercise in Central Asian countries where they have in the past enjoyed a degree of cultural and religious affinity.

Be that as it may it seems that for the moment membership will remain confined to the original members but there may be an expansion in the observer list since it seems that all members are anxious that Afghanistan which has in the past attended the summit as a “special guest” should be accorded this status. It is noteworthy that the Declaration at the end of the Summit said “The SCO backs the efforts to build Afghanistan into an independent, neutral, peaceful and prosperous country. Realizing peace and stability in Afghanistan constitutes an important part of maintaining regional and global security, the SCO will continue to help the friendly Afghan people rebuild their country,”

It did not however as it had done in 2005 call for setting a deadline for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Instead it stressed that military means alone could not solve Afghanistan’s problems and that attention must be first paid to its social and economic issues, including reconstruction of transportation and social infrastructure. It called upon member states to work together with international institutions and other parties to take part in economic reconstruction programs in Afghanistan. Commenting on President Karzai’s request for the granting of observer status to Afghanistan President Medvedev said, “Afghanistan is our neighbour, whose cooperation with the SCO could be stronger. I understand all participants in the forum agree with that.”

The Declaration issued by the summit was largely inward looking focusing on what the SCO vision should adopt, on the 10th Anniversary of the founding of the Organisation, and what path the member states should chart a for the next ten years of the organisation. In this vision for the future the anti drug campaign and greater economic cooperation figured just as prominently as the “3 evils” that had to my mind prompted the setting up of the organisation. On the security cooperation aspect there was a call for SCO to further improve its security cooperation mechanism and enhance its members’ interoperability to fight “the three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism as well as other menaces like narcotics and multinational organized crime. On the economic front President Hu Jintao called upon the member states to further expand economic cooperation, facilitate trade and investment, promote connectivity in transportation, energy and telecommunication infrastructure and steer the region toward economic integration, and promised that “China will continue delivering preferential loans to other SCO members. This was obviously a reference to the $10 billion loan facility that China had offered to its SCO partners when the global financial crisis had created difficulties within the region as much as in the rest of the world.

On international issues the most notable point in the SCO declaration was the assertion that “The unilateral and unlimited build-up of missile defence by a single state or by a narrow group of states could damage strategic stability and international security.” While some would interpret this as a reiteration of the long held opposition by Russia and China to the so-called missile defence that the United States is building with bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, to other observers the emphasis on “unilateral” and “unlimited” suggested that Russia and China along with their SCO partners wanted to keep alive the prospect of the cooperative construction of a defence shield which would then ensure that the nuclear deterrent of the two countries vis-à-vis the United States remained intact…

All in al the SCO summit could be termed a success at forging closer relations in a region where the expansion of cooperation poses many problems on such issues as the harmonising of customs regulations or the division of water resources etc. As these closer relations develop and as SCO expands outward, which it is bound to do, these problems will become easier to address.

Najmuddin A. SHAIKH

This article is obtained from Strategic Culture Foundation.

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