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The SCO's Current Approach

Prof. Nivedita Das Kundu, Ph.D, Teaches at York University, Toronto, Canada, also President, Academic & International Collaboration, Liaison College, Brampton, Ontario, Canada.
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  • November 07, 2006

    The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is an intergovernmental international organization founded in Shanghai on June 15, 2001 by six countries: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Its member states cover an area of over 30 million square km or about three fifths of Eurasia, with a population of 1.455 billion, about a quarter of the world's total. The SCO's predecessor, the Shanghai Five mechanism, originated and grew from the endeavour by Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to strengthen confidence building and disarmament in their border regions. In 1996-97, their heads of state met in Shanghai and Moscow respectively and signed the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust and the Treaty on Reduction of Military Forces in the border regions. Since 2001 the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has developed into a potentially powerful regional security organisation. Its twin pillars are Russia and China. Russia is on the resurgence with immense energy potential and China is emerging as a major economic power.

    Through different kinds of multilateral and bilateral co-operation or consultations, as well as conference mechanisms, the SCO is trying to establish its importance and its regional and international status. Its current approach is to strengthen mutual trust and good-neighbourliness among member and observer states. It is trying to promote co-operation among its member and observer states in political, trade and economic, scientific-technical, energy and transportation spheres. The SCO is also working to fight against terrorism, separatism and drugs trafficking and striving to create a reasonable new international political and economic order. As the SCO's ideas are different from those of the US and many other Western nations, the major task that it faces today is countering the west's attempts to cause its disintegration. Its current approach is to emphasize on consolidation, long-term planning and avoiding marginalisation.

    While each member-state enhances its prestige by being an active member of the SCO, Russian and Chinese participation is intertwined with the status of the most significant member states. A cordial relationship between China and Russia is especially important, given that both are major players in the SCO. Beijing and Moscow are both carefully calibrating their bilateral relationship and trying to make an impact on global politics through this organization, which has both regional and global significance. The growing interdependence of the SCO member-states also makes the politico-economic negotiations a much easier and faster affair. There is an approach by the SCO to achieve consensus on setting up an interim body for trade facilitation and energy co-operation, with the observer states participating at an equal level with full members. By adopting this approach, it also hopes to facilitate the institutionalisation of greater regional dialogue. With the maturing of this new geopolitical entity five to ten years down the road, policy makers around the world will begin to think of SCO member states as a partner in a large politico-economic bloc with growing significance in world affairs.

    The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which earlier had no plans for expansion, seems to be changing its course now. India, along with Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan (all observer states) expressed their desire to become full members of the organisation. Though countries like Afghanistan and Georgia, in which NATO's presence is conspicuous, have also expressed their keenness to join the SCO as observers, the fact remains that NATO and SCO do not go together. Therefore, the SCO needs to be more realistic and play a substantive role before thinking of a larger membership. Its decision to expand its membership involves regional integration processes. Its enlargement move, in this regional context, might frustrate the entire Western strategy and if it manages to have a strong hold and name in Central Asia, South Asia and the Gulf, then NATO would be hard-pressed to explain the reasons for its expansion mainly into the territories of the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan. The interests of observer states like India, Iran and Pakistan in obtaining SCO membership is mainly for politico-economic reasons and the need to build an 'Asian policy' i.e. 'Look to the east policy'. Through these policies, these states can become more active actors in the international political scenario.

    The SCO's heavyweight, Russia, which has strong links with observer states like India and Iran, has shown an inclination for making these states full members in the foreseeable future. Other member states of SCO like Uzbekistan, though, have refrained from official comment on the topic of further expansion. But the Uzbek government might be keen to see the SCO becoming more anti-Western by including Iran into it, given that its ties with the US have been strained since a bloody crackdown in the eastern city of Andijon in May 2005. However, other Central Asian states do not appear to be as favourable about providing early membership to observer states, other than to Mongolia, which they feel is a natural ally of this organisation.

    Kazakhstan has cited procedural obstacles for accepting new members. It seems Kazakhstan is not too keen to see greater Iranian influence within the SCO. Kyrgyzstan feels that it is too early to talk about SCO expansion. It argued that the group must first focus on cementing ties among current member states. Tajikistan was more oblique and hinted at possible future support for Indian and Iranian membership. But it also warned that the SCO cannot extend its membership indefinitely. At the same time, it feels that economic incentives will play a major role in letting observer states become full members. The expansion of membership issue is a difficult, but necessary, policy line for the SCO member states, which needs to be taken keeping in mind the short as well as the long-term consequences.

    The full entry of the present observer states would add to the SCO's decisive role and efficiency. For example, there will be a possibility of building an Iran-Russia "gas-and-oil arc" by co-ordinating their activities as energy producing countries. By virtue of SCO membership, observer states like India and Iran can take up various SCO projects, which in turn would mean access to technology, increased investment, trade and infrastructure development apart from energy co-operation. Greater economic co-operation between these states can be coupled with various significant projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Gas Pipeline (TAP) and other projects channelled through Gwadar can make this part of the world a fulcrum for faster economic development. Powerful regional countries like India and Iran can provide a significant share in promoting the role of the SCO. An expanded SCO will be of great benefit to South, South-West and Central Asia. Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan possess vast energy resources and hydrocarbon fuel. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have immense hydroelectric energy resources, which, if jointly explored and rationally used, could tangibly improve the energy security of all the countries in the region.

    Over a period of time, the SCO has matured as an international organization and expanded its influence. Now the international community is showing greater interest in the SCO. It seems that within the organization there is an eagerness to expand the membership, which is increasingly seen as a counterbalance to western influence in this strategically located region. However, in today's world of integrated security, no region can develop without taking into consideration the role of strategically placed countries of that region. This factor has become a driving force behind all regional organizations today. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization cannot be an exception to this rule. By accepting India, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia as observers in 2005, the SCO expanded the scope of its activities and this process has to be taken to its logical end. Its current approach is to transform the region into an energy and economic powerhouse and reconfigure strategic alliances, which would be able to eradicate the unilateral approach of the post-cold war era.