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Shanghai Co-operation Organisation: Countering NATO’s Move

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • August 26, 2008

    The August 28 SCO summit in Dushanbe will be viewed with keen concern by most international watchers. It comes on the heels of China’s successful conduct of the Olympics and Russia’s military assertion in Georgia. Both Russia and China have been keenly nurturing the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation as an exclusive nucleus to undercut the US strategic outreach.

    The message of Russia’s manoeuvre in Georgia has gone beyond protecting the pro-Russian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to warning the other former Soviet Republics to behave themselves or be ready to face similar action. Central Asian republics, like Georgia, have been suffering, though to a lesser degree, from strategic ambiguity and security dilemma. They too liked the idea of playing major powers off against each other. Like Mikheil Saakashvili, Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov too had once embraced the United States as an ally and offered it military bases for the war against terror after 9/11. US support had emboldened Karimov to pursue a belligerent stand against Moscow until 2005, when Islamic opposition groups, which he thought were covertly blessed by the West, revolted against his regime. Disheartened with the US, Karimov soon rejoined the Moscow-led CSTO and SCO camps.

    Russia’s action against Saakashvili should either reassure or cause despair among the Central Asian leaders many of whom have been vacillating so far. It may also signal China that the days of its flirtation with the former Central Asian republics are numbered.

    The SCO’s profile has grown since 2005 when it bluntly issued a quit notice to the US from Central Asia and decided to salvage an assortment of the region’s autocrats being ostracized by the West. Since then, even Iran has been seeking shelter under it. Projected as a robust architecture for Eurasia, SCO held a slew of high-profile annual summits with anti-US proclivities.

    Underlying the new game in Asia is energy. Washington's covert support for ‘colour revolutions’ were energy driven. The West accused Russia of energy blackmail and China of not playing by the rules of oil politics. Many in the West find the SCO a pillar of autocracy, ‘a league of dictators' and its growing axis with Iran could pose a danger for it could potentially control a large part of the world’s energy reserves and nuclear arsenal—essentially a new OPEC with bombs.

    For long, Central Asian regimes grudged Washington’s failure to provide them with the kind of benefits enjoyed by Afghanistan or Pakistan for supporting the war against terror. China and Russia were quick to exploit their distrust of the US and adopted a slew of economic measures to attract them to their side. The SCO pushed for stronger economic cooperation so as to exploit geographical proximity and economic complementarities. China alone invested $1.6 billion in 2003, besides committing $900 million as a subsidized commodity loan. The grouping also increased its military orientation, stepped-up cooperation against terrorism through intelligence consultations and large-scale military exercises. Many dubbed it as Asian NATO.

    But the grouping suffers from nebulous contradictions. Member states complain about China’s 'selfish' mercantile practice on the SCO’s template. They find severe economic and social risks of increased trade with China that has killed the domestic market and heavy industries. Russia’s defence and hi-tech items exports to China are steadily dropping. Alarmed by China's burgeoning appetite for natural resources, Moscow is dragging its feet on energy projects and ratcheting up restrictions on raw timber sale for fear of becoming a raw-material appendage to China. Like in Africa, Chinese firms are buying off resource mines by alluring and befriending the region’s corrupt regimes, entailing a trail of corruption and exploitation, and undermining a host of environmental and labour standards in its wake.

    In reality, the SCO is also a façade behind which China and Russia compete and network for bilateral deals with Central Asian states. Moscow thwarted China’s free-trade zone and a 20-year Development Fund proposal for Eurasia. While Beijing wants to build infrastructural projects and gain independent access to the region’s energy resources, Russia wants to retain its Soviet-built infrastructure intact and have Central Asia linked to its own interests. As Russia's economy has started to look up, Moscow is able to spurn several of Beijing's plans while diligently controlling Central Asian export routes.

    While Russia sees the SCO as useful for integration with Asia, China wants to see it developing into an Asian trading bloc. For Russia, SCO is about securing regional security, but for China it is a template for building a China-centric architecture or a Pax Sinica vis-à-vis the United States. Beijing is also using SCO as a template for its long-term power projection and enhancing capabilities to secure its vital energy pipelines. China sees the SCO emerging as a model of what security structure in Asia ought to be.

    Central Asians abhor a historically decomposed negative image of China, are wary about its long-term goals, especially the influx of Hans in search of lebensraum. Already, half a million Chinese are gobbling and plundering Russian oil and timber. The fear of the Yellow Threat is fast becoming an emotive issue. There are signs of incipient Sino-Russian rivalry in various fields, but for now Moscow may go along with China on the Asian scene.

    Transforming SCO into an Asian NATO appears to be a difficult endeavour. It is not able to prevent Central Asians joining NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme. The grouping has a dismal record of curbing terrorism. Upholding diverse civilizations is also hogwash. The reality is the opposite. Russia as part of the Western Civilization cannot be wished away. The Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas exposed the irreconcilable aspect of the Asian cultural paradox. Look at China itself. If the recent plight of the Tibetans and Uighurs are to prove anything, the SCO would take centuries to accomplish its cherished goals.

    SCO expansion plan is critical to all. Will it admit Iran this time? Given Tajikistan’s cultural links with Iran, Dushanbe will push for Iran’s entry. Russia may support but China will be cautious. But should Iran gain entry, the complexities of SCO will undergo serious change. There is talk about having an intermediate step to include dialogue partners and international observers. Pakistan desires full membership, but without India’s entry in a similar capacity it would cause balance of interest problem. What may irk observers like Mongolia and India is SCO’s fervent anti-US stance.

    Russia’s showdown with Georgia has changed the rules of the game. The summit may see some rhetorical speeches against NATO expansion plan, missile shield plan in Poland, how they threaten Asia and the need for a coordinated response. Being held in the backyard of troubled Afghanistan, the Summit may focus attention on NATO’s failure and may press the need for boosting the SCO-Afghan Contact Group.