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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 39

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation - Towards New Dynamism

Tuesday 18 September 2007, by Ash Narain Roy


Russia, China and the US have spent the past few years jockeying for position in Central Asia, as have, to a lesser degree, regional powers like Turkey, Iran and India. Some would say, the geopolitical setting of the region being what it is, Central Asia will continue to be cast as the site of a new “great game” as far as global and regional powers are concerned. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the US began what it called “enhanced engagement” in Central Asia. The US goals included pushing the Central Asian states towards free markets and democratic politics, helping them to fight Islamic terrorism and, more importantly, shooing them away from Moscow. Washington established military-to-military relations with Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Russia and China, on the other hand, chose a different strategy. They brought countries like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrghyzstan into a regional economic grouping. Russia, in particular, used its soft power to re-establish its hold on the region.

Derided by the US as a talk shop of little importance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), known initially as the “Shanghai Five”, has come a long way having emerged as a formidable forum of regional cooperation with considerable weight. Is the SCO a regional security organisation? If yes, is it being propped up as a geopolitical counterbalance to NATO and the US? Or is it merely yet another energy club consisting of half democracies and what the Americans call “rogue” states?

When the Shanghai Five was formed in 1996, its primary objective was to boost border security and reduce troop levels along China’s frontiers with former Soviet republics. Initially the grouping looked a little tentative. Later on it became clear that the foremost objective of the two key members—China and Russia—was to secure their strategic interests and to insulate the region from the negative influences of the Afghanistan and Pakistan-inspired religious orthodoxy and terrorism. Today the SCO has a very different profile. It is a powerful grouping which has acquired a regional anti-terrorism structure and has sufficient resources to fight terrorism, separatism and extremism in Eurasia. It has created a joint mechanism to counter threats to regional peace, stability and security and to strengthen cooperation in fighting drug trafficking and illegal migration.

The recent SCO summit in Bishkek, Kyrghyzstan, signed eight declarations, including a treaty of friendship and cooperation, a Bishkek Declaration, a joint communiqué and a plan of action to ensure international information security. Energy security was very high on the summit agenda. The SCO leaders announced the creation of a “unified energy market”. The idea is to make the oil and natural gas of energy-rich states available to energy-deficient states for their development. President Putin has been working behind-the-scenes to create an energy club emphasising the need for greater energy cooperation that would give a “powerful impetus” to regional projects among the SCO countries. As he said, “I am convinced that energy dialogue, integration of our national energy concepts, and the creation of an energy club will set out the priorities for further cooperation.”

Security was another area that received ample attention of the summit leaders. There was consensus among all leaders on the imperative need to fight terrorism, illegal narcotics and weapons trafficking. President Putin’s call to create a “belt of counter-narcotics security” around Afghanistan and an aggressive hunt for the financial roots of the drug trade was well received by the SCO leaders. Putin went as far as to suggest that the SCO host an international conference on Afghanistan to boost stability in the country and the region.

Deliberations also revolved round military cooperation among the SCO states. The summit leaders even attended the final day of the military exercises among the armed forces of the member nations in Russia’s south Urals. President Putin described these exercises as “successful” demonstrating the member nations’ growing technical potential. Such joint exercises are likely to become a regular feature. The Russian President used the occasion to announce the resumption of regular long-range patrols by Russian strategic bombers for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Predictably, Americans responded with pique, saying “if Russia wants to take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again, that’s their decision.”

WITH the SCO gaining in strength, the US is feeling frustrated having failed to woo the Central Asian countries away from Russia. When states like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrghyzstan sought proximity to the US initially, they expected far greater additions to their annual foreign assistance packages than were forthcoming. Most states then thought security cooperation with the US would “fast-track” the upgrading of their military and technical services. Both Russia and China accepted the US military presence in Central Asia as an inevitable part of America’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But neither country was willing to have its national interests overshadowed in the region. Today, Russia and China have turned the table on the US. Moscow and Beijing appear less hegemonic to the Central Asian states. With time, Washington has come to be viewed as the greater threat to the region. That explains Uzbekistan’s request a few years ago that the US vacate its air base in that country. Tashkent saw the strategic value of casting its lot with Beijing and Moscow rather than with Washington. Today Manas in Kyrghyzstan is the only US military base in an SCO country. Curiously, unlike the earlier summit, no public mention of the Manas Air Base, just a few miles away from Bishkek, was made. Some analysts say given the worsening situation in Afghanistan, there is a tacit understanding to allow the base for now.

In contrast, the Russian strategy of sound pragmatism has paid rich dividends. The Russian-Uzbek Treaty on Strategic Partnership, signed in June 2004, has considerably strengthened Russia’s military-political presence in the region. In October 2004, a Russian military base was officially opened in Tajikistan. In April 2005, the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces held the Frontier 2005 military exercise in Tajikistan, which involved military units from all the Central Asian member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and Russia.

However, Russia’s strength lies elsewhere. Russia has successfully used its new soft power role in Central Asia which extends far beyond its energy resources. Russia’s greatest contribution to the security and stability of its southern tier has not been arms sale or military pacts. Moscow has provided the region’s biggest safety valve through migration to Russia. It has absorbed the surplus labour of the region by providing them jobs, markets for goods and consumer goods. As Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution says, “a range of new Russian products, a burgeoning popular culture spread by satellite television, a growing film industry, rock music, Russian popular novels, a revival of the crowning achievements of the Russian artistic tradition, and new jobs in the service and other sectors have made Russia an increasingly attractive country for the region around it.”

It is indeed sad that New Delhi should continue to underestimate the importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. India is, of course, an observer and as such participates in the SCO’s meetings, but it is like the US attending the NAM summit as an observer. So enamoured are our foreign policy mandarins of the new found friendship with Washington that they have found no time to evaluate the SCO’s great potential strategic importance to India. The US has sought to undermine the SCO and given an opportunity, it would have loved to throttle it in its infancy. By not seeking membership of the SCO or active engagement with the region, New Delhi is conveying a wrong message. As M. K. Bhadrakumar says, “The US must have been mightily pleased that India was placing itself on the American ‘side’ of the Asian divide.” India is emerging as a potential global power. It enjoys a lot of goodwill in the Central Asian region. India’s integration to the SCO will contribute immensely to the stability of the region. It is time New Delhi defined its own geopolitical goal in Central Asia. India is the most important “swing state” in the international system. It has the potential to emerge as a strong, independent centre of power. Must India allow the US to play midwife to the birth of a new great power?

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