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The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: A Critical Evaluation

Meena Singh Roy is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • July 04, 2006

    Over the last three years, the Central Asian Republics (CARs) have witnessed significant geopolitical shifts in the region - the resurgence of Russia, China's increasing influence, a colour revolution in Kyrgyzstan, unrest and shift in Uzbekistan's foreign policy, and the growing prominence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Since 2004, the SCO's influence and role has been growing in the Central Asian region and the last two summits of the SCO are significant in terms of making the international community take notice of this regional grouping. The Astana summit in 2005 was important for its declaration asking the United States to provide a time frame for the withdrawal of its military forces from SCO territories. The Summit in Shanghai on June 15, 2006, took place against the backdrop of the crisis over Iran's nuclear programme and Iran and Pakistan both seeking full membership in the organisation. The next meeting under the Kyrgyz presidency will be held in Bishkek in 2007.

    During the summit, ten documents were signed on a broad range of issues. Important among these are - declaration on the SCO's fifth anniversary, a joint communiqué on closer SCO cooperation, a statement on international information security, a resolution on fighting terrorism, separatism and extremism from 2007 to 2009, an agreement on joint anti-terrorism actions among member countries, an agreement on cutting off infiltration channels of terrorism, separatists and extremists, a resolution of the SCO Business Council, and an action plan of the SCO Interbank Association on supporting regional cooperation. An important aspect of this summit was the Russian proposal for creating an energy club within the SCO. On the sidelines of this summit, business contracts and loan agreements worth some US$ 2 billion were inked. These deals involve a highway project connecting Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, two high-voltage electricity lines in Tajikistan, a cement plant in Kyrgyzstan, and a hydropower station in Kazakhstan.

    The other important issue was of full membership for Iran and Pakistan. While Iran was keen to get full membership, President Pervez Musharraf lobbied hard for Islamabad's membership. But China and Russia withheld support for Iran's full membership and the CAR's, in particular Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, were also opposed to it. Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban was seen as a major obstacle in granting it permanent membership.

    Iran's participation at the summit was seen by the West as creating a security grouping to oppose the collective forces of the US and NATO. Iranian President Ahmadinejad said that the SCO could "ward off the threats of domineering powers to use their force against and interfere in the affairs of other states." The SCO declaration clearly stated that "diversity of civilization and model of development must be respected and upheld. Differences in culture traditions, political and social systems, values and model of development formed in the course of history should not be taken as pretexts to interfere in other countries' internal affairs. Model of social development should not be 'exported'…" These signals have caused trepidation in Washington.

    However, it would be difficult, given the nature of the complexities in Central Asia, for the SCO to become an "OPEC with nukes" or "Asian Warsaw Pact". China and its official media have denied any possibility of the SCO becoming a rival to the US and NATO. At the same time it is unlikely that China and Russia would allow the US to intervene and interfere in their backyard. The relevance and viability of the SCO as a multilateral body would depend on how it evolves in the next ten years.

    So far the results for the SCO have been somewhat mixed. The very fact that the SCO has been able to sustain and survive is in itself an achievement. It has managed to settle the border issues among the member states. Though, most delicate issues were resolved bilaterally rather than multilaterally. Central Asian states have been expecting more productive participation by the SCO in providing solutions.

    One can enumerate various reasons for the lack of conclusive results. The major shortcomings for the SCO have been mainly the absence of political will and confidence; difference in economic status of member states; competition with other organisations, lack of resources for development, cultural differences and domestic challenges of CAR's. In addition, opposition from the countries that are left out has been a major source of weakness. Finally, lack of clear direction for cooperative endeavours has prevented it from moving forward. However, it can be argued that it is too early to expect conclusive results from the SCO as it would need a time frame to mature and is still in the process of defining its political characteristics and functions.

    For China, the SCO provides a perfect political and economic mechanism to contain the Uighur separatist movement, access to Central Asian energy resources and economic benefits. The SCO provides China an opportunity to regain its strategic space which had started waning post 9/11 with increasing US influence. For Russia, the SCO provides an opportunity for strengthening its political, military and economic ties with CARs and for engaging China economically while at the same time balancing US influence. Recent developments indicate that for the time being cooperation between Moscow and Beijing within the SCO and further improvement in their ties may serve as a counterbalance to Washington's Central Asia policy.

    For Central Asians, the SCO provides greater manoeuvring capacity to balance the major powers and gain economic and military aid. CAR's are looking to reduce their vulnerability to external powers. Their responses to this new unfolding situation is driven more by their need for economic support and investments in various sectors, and fear of increasing political opposition, than by the fear of great power rivalry and hegemony. Central Asia's desire to cooperate with the SCO is driven not only because the current regimes wish to stay in power but also by the fact and realization on their part of the rise of China. Therefore, the SCO essentially provides a delicate equilibrium among the members in the post-cold war geopolitical paradigm.

    India has never featured in this equilibrium, even though Central Asians have always perceived India's potential to be a countervailing factor in this region. For India, containing the unstable situation in and around Afghanistan-Pakistan, ensuring its energy security and stability in CARs, all remain critical and paramount components of its policy towards Central Asia.

    India joined the SCO as an observer at the Astana summit. Given its past links with this region, its secular framework, growing economy and strong IT sector, India has much to contribute to the economic development of the CAR's. Though observer status cannot be seen as a step towards full membership, it provides India an opportunity to watch the developments within the SCO. The SCO can provide India a framework wherein it can engage China and Pakistan to improve its connectivity with CARs, address the problem of terrorism, enhance its trade with CAR's and tap its vast energy resources. It would not be in India's interest to be part of the organization if the SCO turns into some kind of military alliance.

    India sees no confrontation with China and looks for further cooperation with that country. The future strategic configuration of Central Asia will depend on how regional powers address the challenges and opportunities for cooperation arising from within Central Asia. But the Chinese, Russian and American national interests in Central Asia and Afghanistan will continue to determine the future course of security and stability in the region. India is an important, but not a key, player in Central Asia. Therefore India's primary focus in Central Asia should be damage control; preventing existing problems from escalating into crises to the scale of Afghanistan and working towards economic diplomacy. In this new security paradigm, India's interests require a cooperative relationship with SCO member states.

    The future of SCO would depend firstly on how it addresses the conflicting interests of member states and other regional and extra regional players in the region. Secondly, how cooperation and mutually advantageous equality would serve as the basis of the relations among member states and states with observer status. Thirdly, the question of expanding the organization would determine the scope and role of the SCO. Fourthly, the SCO's success in economic co-operation would be conditioned by the fear of smaller SCO members, in that smaller states might fear that their resources would become vulnerable to exploitation by larger members. The geographical configuration and political composition of the SCO reveal the asymmetry among member states. It consists of two major powers and four small states of Central Asia. If the SCO has to emerge as a successful regional organisation, it should develop into an effective multilateral organisation to address security and economic challenges in the region on the basis of mutually beneficial terms among its members.