THE SCO AND FOREIGN POWERS IN CENTRAL ASIA: SINO-RUSSIAN DIFFERENCES
As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) regional role has been increasing in past few years, the differences and ambitions among its member states are becoming more evident as well. One such sign of divergence among it most influential members – Russia and China – is their perception of the SCO’s relations with Western actors and their view of the Central Asian states’ autonomy in conducting international politics. While Russia seeks to be a dominating actor in the region and reduce the presence of Western actors, China agrees that Central Asian states have the right to form their own regional organizations.
BACKGROUND: The SCO represents a conglomerate of six members – China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, three observers – India, Mongolia, Pakistan, and three special guests – Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan. As the SCO has been expanding its areas of cooperation in the past years, differences are becoming more evident between the SCO’s major actors, China and Russia. According to Pan Guang, Head of SCO Studies Center in Shanghai, China affirms the right of Central Asian states to organize and deal with other states, while Russia alone opposes this. “China thinks that Central Asian states of course have the right to establish their own organizations. China will not oppose this”, said Guang at a recent Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Forum. He also stated that contrary to some experts’ speculations, including those residing in the U.S., the SCO is by no means an anti-American or anti-Western alliance. Indeed, some frictions between SCO members and the U.S. took place in the past, but “this does not mean that SCO members are encouraged to be anti-U.S.”, comments Guang. Furthermore, the SCO has ameliorated relations with EU, and both EU and U.S. might potentially acquire a special status within the organization. One possibility of adding EU, U.S. and, possibly, Japan would be to establish a “SCO+3” structure. Alternatively, this expansion would be creating a “SCO+1+1+1” type of organization where all countries would meet on an annual basis. However, according to Guang, Japan’s membership or observer status in the organization is questionable, while the intensification of the SCO’s cooperation with Western players would require Russia’s consent – another unlikely development.
Unlike China, Russia rarely supports economic cooperation with the SCO. Instead, former Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested to establish an energy club within the SCO framework. As Guang argues, Putin’s suggestion represents Russia’s interest to establish a price coordination mechanism amid uncertainties in the development of gas and oil commercial relations among SCO members. Putin’s suggestion is a rather reactive move following the growing energy cooperation between Kazakhstan and China, he says, to which may be added increased coordination between Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Kazakh-Chinese pipeline that has been successfully functioning since 2006 is a particularly important achievement for the SCO. The pipeline and numerous other economic agreements within the SCO testify that the organization can still play a major economic role in the region despite Russia. As Guang assesses it, “in the history of Central Asia the first pipeline to go east may reach the Pacific, Japan and South Korea bypassing Russia.”
As the organization’s regional importance has been growing, Russia has been seeking to gain greater leverage at the SCO. Previously, the Kremlin suggested to stage joint military exercises between the SCO and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Chinese experts often note that since the SCO is not a military alliance, it will not cooperate with the CSTO, which declares itself a military alliance. In the future, the SCO will refrain from participating in joint exercises with the CSTO.
IMPLICATIONS: To date, the SCO has been more successful in promoting bilateral links between its member states as opposed to multilateral ties. This is partly the reason why the SCO is rather inefficient in cooperative activities to improve stability in Afghanistan. The SCO has an official partnership institution with Afghanistan, located in Beijing, which seeks to jointly combat drug-trafficking and cross-border crime, control of weapons trafficking and improvement of intelligence sharing. Similar activities are carried out by other Central Asian members. But the SCO can hardly play a more important role in Afghanistan, whereas individual member states can produce a greater impact. As Guang argues, China in particular has a strategic interest in the stability of Afghanistan, but is not able to directly participate in peacekeeping activities there. Currently, China has over 1,000 troops in Sierra Leone, but Chinese experts consider Afghanistan to be much more important for China; they argue that Beijing should rather direct its troops to Afghanistan. Similar dilemmas are faced by India: Both China and India would be able to send their troops into Afghanistan if the UN deployed its peacekeeping missions there.
The SCO will refrain from accepting any new members or observers in the foreseeable future, but Turkmenistan is likely the next potential member in the organization. In 2007, Turkmenistan and China agreed to build a natural gas pipeline, increasing incentives for enlarging the SCO. At the SCO Bishkek summit in August 2007, Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov said that Turkmenistan might consider joining the SCO as a member, and Tajik president Emomali Rakhmon supported the idea. However, little support was expressed by other members. Part of the difficulty in accepting new members is the lack of regulations for accepting new members. The SCO so far has regulations only for observers, and until regulations for membership are developed, the SCO will not expand to include any other members.
India has been an active observer withing the SCO. India’s status within the SCO may allow it to establish its first airbase abroad, in Tajikistan. Potentially, similar to China, India could play an important role in Afghanistan as well. Along with India, Afghanistan is likely to become the next SCO observer. President Hamid Karzai participated in the Bishkek summit and will join the Dushanbe summit this summer. Turkey, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Belarus showed their interest in observing the SCO in 2007-2008. But it is unlikely that they will gain either observer or membership status. Among member states, Kazakhstan has been playing an increasingly assertive role in the organization.
The question of regional cultural dialogue was raised at the Bishkek summit in summer 2007. The SCO, together with its observer states, unites the world’s four major religions – Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam. Several projects were supported for developing cultural cooperation, among them in regard to the Beijing 2008 summer Olympics and Sochi 2014 winter Olympics in Russia. Furthermore, Kazakhstan is planning to organize a conference on cultural exchange among the SCO members, while China hosts a Silk Road Program that promotes inter-confessional cooperation with neighboring states.
CONCLUSIONS: The SCO has demonstrated rapid development in the past few years. The organization is becoming a major international player in the Central Asian region and beyond as its members’ see new possibilities for cooperation. SCO members might consolidate their efforts in Afghanistan to fight security threats there. Furthermore, SCO members are actively exploring opportunities for energy cooperation. But the organization’s major players envision relations with the West differently, with Russia counteracting the presence of foreign powers on the territory of Central Asia. By contrast, Chinese experts comment, China does not regard the SCO as an anti-Western organization and agrees that Central Asian states have the right to build the own regional organizations. The SCO’s internal dynamics and acceptance of new members and observers will play out depending on how its current members will be able to accommodate these differences.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Erica Marat is a Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.