SCO faces real challenges ahead

By Naveed Ahmad

Just about a fortnight ago the Kazakh capital of Astana was buzzing with diplomatic bustle as top leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gathered to mark the bloc’s 10th anniversary.

China joined the tough talking of Russia’s president over the US missile shield program. Though originally instituted to amicably address the monsters of separatism, terrorism and drug trafficking, the six-nation league takes stock of regional developments at large. Besides sharing mutual concern over the missile shield, the presence of NATO troops in Afghanistan and secret talks with the militia dominated the agenda of the Astana debate. Whether a military system with a joint pool of troops and hardware is yet to be agreed upon, the SCO’s aspirations to become the Asian equivalent of NATO are apparent.

With the signing of the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions on April 26, 1996, in China, Kazakhstan, the People’s Republic of China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan formed the Shanghai Five. The newly created Central Asian republics were not only a cause of concern but were also seen as an opportunity by both Moscow and Beijing.

Though the bloc signed the Treaty on Reduction of Military Forces in Border Regions within a year of formation, the world paid little attention until 2001, when Uzbekistan joined the group, which resulted in its being renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The June 2005 summit meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, caught the world’s attention with Mongolia, Pakistan, Iran and India being granted observer status. Kazakh interest in the bloc echoes with the telling words of its President Nursultan Nazabayev, who said, “The leaders of the states sitting at this negotiation table are representatives of half of humanity.”

The member states have been convening and interacting through focus groups on transportation, energy, telecommunications, military and commerce since then. Though the organization’s prime focus is combating non-state lawless actors, preventing terrorism, separatism, extremism and drug trafficking, mainly from Afghanistan, the increasing business interests of both China and Russia are transforming the SCO outlook.

Although the SCO has been holding joint military exercises since 2003, with the conclusion of Peace Mission 2007 war games, Russia floated the proposal of India participating in similar drills in the future. Over the years, the SCO military exercises have seen an increase in troops, diversity of terrain and use of sophisticated weaponry. Taking advantage of the improving strategic climate, Russia has announced that it will resume regular long-range patrols of its strategic bombers. Neither the Chinese president nor any other heads of state present objected to President Vladimir Putin’s announcement on the occasion or later. The resumption of Russian strategic bombers’ flights for the first time since the Cold War directly aims to not only contain the “advances” of NATO but also create a counterweight.
Sending a message to the West

The SCO has earned the repute of a forum meant to send a message to the West with slow progress toward goals set for itself. Given strong political will, the SCO may take years to assume a role similar to that of NATO. Though separatist tendencies are on the decline and border security-related programs have borne fruit, drug trafficking and extremism need more tangible investment within the bloc. Russia is challenged not only by the United States but also by European nations’ diplomatic engagement and warming relations with Central Asian members of the SCO. While Chinese leader Wen Jiabao dreams of an SCO free-trade area, Iranian Vice President Parviz Davoodi expects the birth of a new banking and economic system independent of the existing international monetary setup.

Rhetoric aside, the SCO interbank, agreed on in 2006, is inching towards daylight. Sooner or later, the SCO countries may have a joint banking mechanism, but similar expectations at the defense platform remain too far-fetched. Russia’s interest in exploiting the energy hub and China’s in grabbing new markets will define the future shape of the organization.

In June 2009, China pledged to extend a hefty $10 billion loan to SCO member states when the world economy went through a depression. Such a bilateral soft loan hardly comes without easier market access and a better image in the recipient nation. For Moscow, an alignment and functional relationship between the SCO and BRIC (comprising Brazil, Russia, India and China) remains a hope for the future. The marriage of the two economic blocs would quell the Russian quest for a bi- or multi-polar world system.

Though Russia and China agree on a wide range of issues, the question of India’s membership in the SCO is not going down well with Beijing. Russia, too, has experienced competition from Indian exporters in the Central Asian states. The energy and market pie may be further divided if another emerging giant enters the SCO. At the same time, the paradigm of an alternative political and security bloc could come as a serious blow, owing to New Delhi’s sweetening ties with Washington. China has not rejected India’s entry outright in the public sphere, while it backs Pakistan’s membership in the bloc.

Though Pakistan and India both hope to become full members after the recent SCO summit in Astana, the consequences of two nuclear-armed rivals sitting under one roof discussing global and regional security may lead the organization nowhere. Some Chinese analysts believe that India’s push for membership is aimed at inhibiting the emergence of a military and economic bloc with Beijing in the center seat.
Iran also a contender

Iran is also a contender for a SCO slot, but its application stands deferred due to UN Security Council sanctions. However, Moscow and Beijing can use prospects for its entry as a pressure-building tactic with the United States and the EU in any future complex situation. Nonetheless, even a decade after its creation, the SCO stands confused about its military posturing.

Last but not least, fresh talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan are arousing greater interest in the SCO member states. Though Afghanistan has not yet been granted member status, China and Russia look forward to an early exit of foreign troops from the country and no bases being given to the United States. Though the organization lacks NATO’s military muscle, its leaders wish to exert pressure to this end and play a role in post-withdrawal Afghanistan.

The SCO would lose its grip on core issues with full membership given to Pakistan, India and Iran. The bloc may become another kind of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), with Russia siding with India and China with Pakistan on critical issues, thus making even the existing slow growth hard to maintain. Yet expansion of the political and economic sphere can be achieved by extending better deals to observer countries.

While Iran supplements Russia’s “energy hub” doctrine, Pakistan offers warm water access for exports and India provides cheaper labor to the SCO. A conservative approach on the security umbrella front, while offering greater prospects for economic integration, may serve the SCO agenda more than maintaining the exclusivity of the club. Russia, China, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Iran have stakes in Afghanistan. The emerging situation in the war-torn Central Asian country is a litmus test for the SCO’s influence and clout.
Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic with a special focus on diplomacy, security and energy politics.
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