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Mainstream, VOL XLIX No 31, July 23, 2011

SCO: The Great Game Expands

Monday 25 July 2011



The 10th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Astana (Kazakhstan) concluded with the members hailing the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ in determining a ‘new security order’ in Asia and adopting multilateral management as their future agenda. Several agreements were signed to promote regional trade and economic cooperation. The summit proposed to establish an energy club, an SCO development bank and a food security cooperation mechanism in order to encourage regional economic integration. As a leading Asian economic and political giant, China has volunteered to assist the other members with more than US $ 12 billion concession loans to expedite any large scale developmental projects in the region. A closer look at the geopolitics of this region forebodes caution and prudence.

Recent developments beg the following questions: what prospects does the SCO have for the region? Would the SCO emerge as the leading Asian forum or just remain a ‘paper tiger’? Does it have the capacity to fill the security vacuum in Central Asia especially after the US withdraws from Afghanistan? Or can it be compared with the NATO of the East? Should India become a member or just be an observer? With the sealing of the memorandum of obligations a way has been opened for further expansion of the SCO that will bear significant consequences in the region. This article explores these questions through a geopolitical lens.

Overall, the summit exhibited an extra-ordinary mix of political jockeying as well as hedging between China and Russia to strengthen their access in the neighbourhood. This was evident in the simultaneous endorsing and discarding of the candidature of observer countries according to the predilections of the two major powers. Currently, the organisation comprises of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as members, with India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan as observer countries and Belarus and Sri Lanka as dialogue partners. A growing schism is also quite palpable between China and Russia, who are vying against each other for a greater hold within the organisation. While Russia has made it explicit that it would welcome India’s entry into the SCO, with a covert aim to counter China’s mounting influence, China, on the other hand, has steadfastly rejected the inclusion of India as long as it does not resolve its boundary disputes with its neighbours.

Geopolitical Implications

THE smaller members of the SCO have interes-tingly emerged as significant players within the organisation. Kazakhstan and Mongolia have successfully manoeuvred China and Russia alike to gain concessions from both. For instance, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Mongolian Prime Minister Sukhbaataryn Batbold reiterated their adherence to the ‘one China policy’ and recognised the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole legitimate government representing China and Taiwan as an inseparable part of the country in the bilateral declarations signed on the sidelines of the Astana summit. Kazakhstan has also declared that it will not establish official ties or engage in official contacts with Taiwan.

For its part, China has recognised Kazakhstan’s efforts to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and its independent path of development. The two sides have set a formidable target of increasing their bilateral trade to US $ 40 billion by 2015 to recognise their growing economic linkages. The Sino-Kazak relationship is also witnessing an upswing due to the successful completion of the China-Kazakhstan Natural Gas Pipeline, the China-Kazakhstan Crude Oil Pipeline and a section of the China-Central Asia Natural Gas Pipeline that runs through Kazakhstan and their pledge to cooperate in nuclear field in the future. The two countries will also be collaborating on several river water-sharing projects as well as port building, like the Horgos port which is seen as a part of the larger new silk route revival. With reference to Mongolia, China announced that it will support Mongolia’s bid to become a member of the APEC, which will give a huge strategic leverage to Mongolia.

Similarly, Russia-Kazakhstan ties are also rising tremendously within the gamut of the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC). This customs union facilitates free trade, travel and transfer of resources and creates a single economic space in this region, which substantiates the notion that there is a deep power struggle impending between Russia and China in the region. This project brings together Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan while Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova remain as observers. These implicit forays into the European community show Russian intentions of engaging with the larger Eurasian community to check China’s rise in the SCO.

In other words, Russian endeavours are focused on retaining its hegemony in its backyard (Central Asia). While many analysts believe that the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) will remain as a dominant security alliance in the Eurasian region, the struggle between the two big powers is visible in their inability to reach a consensus on establishing a joint bank for the SCO members. This is despite their aspiration to provide a strategic reserve currency to the rest of the world in the wake of the global economic recession in the previous years.

Post-US Scenario Building in Central Asia

NOTWITHSTANDING the emerging schism, the SCO has surpassed the expectations of its founding members by providing a regional framework on countering terrorism, drug trafficking and has emerged as a formidable entity within a decade of its existence. So far, the SCO has conducted more than 10 anti-terrorism exercises aimed at combating transnational organised crime and drug smuggling which was emerging as a major threat to the region. For instance, the Peace Mission 2010 (Heping Shiming) aimed at improving the joint anti-terrorism combat readiness level of the law enforcement security departments and the “Tianshan-2-2011” exercise in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China on May 6, 2011 have proved immensely successful.

These exercises are significant to the member countries since the security situation in Central Asia and adjacent areas is highly unstable and beginning to deteriorate again. As the inter-national terrorist organisations are regrouping, terrorist activities in Central Asia have become more and more localised. Many terrorist organisations are posing a major security threat to all Central Asian countries. There is an imminent danger of revival of Islamic terrorism activities spreading from the Arab world and Afghanistan into Central Asia. This explicates Kazakhstan’s unequivocal support for China’s struggle against the three evils of ‘extremism, separatism and terrorism’ (which in the Chinese context is aimed specifically at Xinjiang and Tibet).

The US, along with the NATO, is preparing for its withdrawal in 2014 making the security situation of Afghanistan even more indecisive. In addition, the Central Asian countries enjoy closer economic and cultural ties with the Arab world which means that the instability there might reflect in Afghanistan. The SCO is at present contemplating on what approaches to adopt to help stabilise the Afghan nation. One needs to bear in mind that its insistence on a consensus-building approach in taking decisions on foreign policy matters might actually manifest in a much laidback response to situations which need immediate resolution. Moreover, it cannot be said for sure what will be the nature of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, if at all there will be.

For China, however, these exercises are not merely an instrument to tackle its terrorism menace, but also a part of its strategy to break away from the C-shaped encirclement by the US and thwart its strategic intent to “return to Asia” which was indicated by the US officials in their post-Osama agendas. The discomfort between China and the US is becoming prominent in the South China Sea region as well and China sees the SCO as a major tool to check the US’ intentions in Central Asia. China is also deter-mined to use the SCO as a forum to portray its peaceful rise and its ability to cooperate with its smaller neighbours thereby falsifying the China threat theory.

The alleged emergence of the SCO as an anti-NATO alliance is refuted by most SCO members who maintain that it is an organisation which targets regional terrorism, and is quite different from an alliance based on the military mechanism. SCO Secretary-General Muratbek Imanaliev corroborated this by clarifying that the organi-sation was committed to a regional approach for resolution of conflicts across borders and strengthening confidence-building exercises
to combat terrorism, thereby denying any possibility of the SCO turning into a defence arrangement.

The overall trade between China and the SCO has increased from US $ 12.1 billion to US $ 90 billion. But there is a huge trust-deficit between the Central Asian members and China given factors like illegal migration, China’s belief of Muslim fundamentalism being financed from the Central Asian territories and historical reasons. Moreover, the SCO and several other non-member countries combined do not have the resources to provide the same kind of security that the US provided in Afghanistan. It should not be assumed that the US will be completely absent from the Afghan territory, in fact US bases will remain while it transfers visible activism to economic realms.

Even more interesting to note is the emphasis in the Chinese official rhetoric of ‘playing its due role while maintaining a low profile’ in the international arena. Wang Jisi, an influential Professor at Peking University, argues that this approach remains a strategic thinking given the realist considerations of China’s role in international geo-politics. It reflects a shift in China’s perceptions of itself where it is choosing to remain laidback and avoid being in the forefront on taking decisions. However, before really rejoicing on this changed stance by China one should make way for the possibility that this might actually be a part of their strategy of deception.

India to Wait and Watch

IT cannot be denied that the SCO is emerging as a major body in the Central Asian geopolitics and in the Asian region at large. The member countries envisage it to become the second political pole of the world given the vast expanse of its operation. The territory of the member nations of the SCO makes up for three-fifths of the Eurasian continent and it is comprised of one-fourth of the world’s population. The member countries strongly complement each other economically and possess huge resources, vast markets which beckon greater potential for cooperation.

Chen Yurong, the Secretary-General of the Chinese Centre of SCO Studies, points out that the organisation is still in an emergent stage and there is a huge gap between the SCO’s economic potential and its actual development. Bilateral cooperation is preferred over multilateral cooperation and the renewed interest from the European Union and US is adding to its high-profiling. The Western powers are also awakening to the need for rapid engagement with the SCO. US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates in what is being considered as his farewell speech argued for NATO-SCO cooperation, to aid a US-Russia rapprochement and also ostensibly for the purpose of warding off radical elements through cooperative management. Moreover, the US is highly interested in benefiting from the Central Asian energy reserves for which it has mooted the formation of an energy club.

But India, for its part, has been a late entrant into the great game in Central Asia. It lost an important opportunity in 2001 to be a part of the organisation and is currently an observer (since 2004) being considered for full membership. If India joins the organisation, it will help to secure access to huge amounts of gas and oil reserves of the Central Asian countries. India needs to diversify and expand its energy options for which this region is a potential opportunity. India also shares similar objectives to that of the SCO in Afghanistan.

A flipside to the engagement also cannot be ruled out. India’s engagement with this organisation might not be seen favourably by the US which views the SCO as counter-strategic endeavour. Moreover, with China trying to assert itself within the SCO, the struggle between China and Russia will grow and it will be difficult for India to manage its long-standing sanguine relations with Russia. Hence, it will be best in India’s interest to remain an observer for a while continuing to engage both China and Russia at a distance. In fact many in the Indian strategic circles would appreciate if the two major players in the SCO reach a consensus within on India’s membership before offering it the same.

With the presidency of the organisation shifting to China in the coming year, there is a greater focus on maintain the strategic reassurance that SCO provides in the Central Asian region. Hu Jintao in his speech at the summit reiterated the aims of the original charter emphatically outlining four tasks: upholding the long-term good neighbourliness and friendly relations treaty to build a harmonious region; strengthening the organisation’s ability to resist real threats to ensure lasting peace and security in the region; promoting economic integration; and strengthening people-to-people contacts to advance friendship amongst the people.

Given the magnitude of attention it has managed to garner it will be difficult for the SCO to remain simply an economic forum or concen-trate on terrorism issues alone. Its resources will have to be stretched to handle the post-US scenario in Afghanistan and consistent efforts will need to be made to achieve the four-point blueprint set by the Chinese leaders. The major challenge for the SCO will come from within and its future will depend on how effectively China and Russia manage their internal competition.

The author is a Research Officer at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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