Astana, June 12: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which held a summit here in the Kazakh capital this month, has been around for a long time.But till date, it has little to show by way or concrete achievements whether in security or economic cooperation, because of a lack of internal cohesion, writes P.K.Balachandran in South Asian Monitor.
At the conclusion of the summit of the SCO held late last week, it was clear that the Eurasian body’s main concern will be to ensure the security of the Central Asian region against Islamic terrorism and externally-generated instability.
Attempts by China and Russia (two of its founder members) to give the SCO an economic dimension have not taken off and are not likely to take of anytime soon, because of the fragile security situation created by an upsurge of Islamic and ethno-centric terrorism in the neighborhood.
Therefore, it was only natural that the spotlight at the June 2017 summit was on combating extremism. The eight members of the SCO signed a convention on combating extremism and a declaration on jointly fighting international terrorism.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the Islamic State (IS) terror outfit had set its sights on the Central Asian Republics (CAR) and southern Russia. Clandestine cells of IS combatants have been created and are operating in the SCO countries, Putin said, as he called for stronger intelligence cooperation among member countries.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the inclusion of India in the SCO this year, will give a fresh impetus to the fight against terrorism in the region. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, another new entrant, said that the SCO would help improve security in his country wracked by Islamic terrorism.
Interestingly, the SCO was founded in 1996 to ensure security on the borders between China, Russia and in the rest of Central Asia, comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It was on April 26, 1996, that the “Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions” was signed in Shanghai, China, by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. .
At the 2000 summit in Dushanbe (capital of Tajikistan), members agreed to oppose intervention in other countries’ internal affairs on the pretext of humanitarianism or protecting human rights. They pledged to support each other in safeguarding national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and social stability.
However, it has not been easy for the member countries to see eye to eye on security matters with national interests intervening.
Russia has had reservations and suspicions about China’s intentions. There is an underlying fear in Moscow that Beijing may be wanting to use its multi-billion dollar Silk Route Economic Belt (SREB) reconstruction initiative to oust Russia from its historically-derived pre-eminent position in Central Asia. After all, the Central Asian Republics, comprising Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, had been part of the Tsarist Empire and later, the Soviet Union.
China is against the Russian policy of including the Central Asian Republics in other bodies which it has created such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
Russia has made Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan a part of the EEU Customs Union. In addition, Russia has a huge military presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) which it has set up in 2003.
China, which is pledged to ensuring the protection of existing borders and considers this to be a main concern of the SCO, sees the heavy Russian military presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as “Russian power projection” rather than a legitimate border security ensuring measure.
The Central Asian Republics themselves are split between antagonistic international groups. While the SCO is non-West if not anti-West, some Central Asian Republics are part of NATO initiatives. Some of them are part of NATO’s “Partners for Peace” Project and have held military exercises with NATO.
As they mature as independent entities after breaking away from the USSR, the Central Asian Republics are developing personalities of their own with new nationalistic interests which go with self awareness.
In 2010, there were violent clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in which hundreds were killed. But SCO did not intervene to stop it on the grounds that the organization had not worked out a legal framework for such interventions. The SCO still does not have a legal framework for military intervention.
Meanwhile, Russia’s aggressive assertion of its interests in Crimea and Georgia has created apprehensions in the minds of the leaders of the Central Asian Republics. While China has never attacked another country (except India in 1962 to force the latter to negotiate on the border dispute) ,Russia had invaded Crimea and Georgia, both UN members, raising questions about its commitment to protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of SCO member states.
The inclusion of India and Pakistan as full members at the latest SCO summit, has added another troublesome dimension to the SCO. When the idea of giving full membership to India was mooted, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had raised the issue of India and Pakistan being in perpetual conflict over territory. He feared that this conflict would vitiate the atmosphere in the SCO, even though the organization enjoins members to eschew contentious bilateral issues. Chinese President Xi Jinping has explicitly appealed to India and Pakistan to settle their disputes peacefully for the sake of the region’s economic development.
However, it is well known that organizations which have a stipulation against raising bilateral disputes have not succeeded in keeping such issues out. SAARC is a good example of an organization which has this rule but is nevertheless badly affected, if not ruined, by bilateral issues between India and Pakistan, and now, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The SCO countries have not evolved a common and consistent policy on pressing world issues. Though the collective official line is that the SCO should not express its opinion on contentious international issues, it expressed its opposition to giving India a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. One member supported Japan’s case to have a permanent seat in the council drawing flak from the SCO Secretary General who said that SCO should not take sides in these matters.
On the economic plane, progress has been nil. Plans and wishes are there but there has been no action because of mutual suspicions, lack of a mechanism to implement existing plans, and the deteriorating regional security situation.
China is very keen on reviving the ancient Silk Route connecting China and Europe by land. It has plans for highways and rail lines and has the money to pump in. Russia too is interested in connecting the North with the South to give it access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. India is interested in the Russian project as it would connect Mumbai with Central Asia through the Chabahar port in Iran. The Central Asian Republics, being landlocked, are seeking an outlet to the sea and al round connectivity to emerge from isolation.
But very little is happening on the ground to implement the grandiose schemes because of the worsening security situation. The future of Afghanistan is uncertain after the US announced a pull out of its troops. The Taliban is as violent and intractable as ever in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran and the Arab world are on the verge of war. India and Pakistan face each other eye ball to eye ball. China is vexed with India for not joining its One Belt One Road project on grounds of sovereignty over parts of Kashmir, and India is vexed with China for not supporting it on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, and its bid to enter the Nuclear Suppliers’ Club.
But still, the SCO is useful as it provides a forum for leaders of the member countries to meet regularly and talk things over on the sidelines of the summit. At the Astana summit this month, for example, India and Pakistan showed faint signs of a détente when Modi and Sharif shook hands warmly with a smile on their faces. Likewise, Chinese President Xi and Modi broke the ice when Xi said that he enjoyed the Bollywood blockbuster Dangal and announced a program for promoting yoga, and Modi said that it was heartening that in the last 30 years, not a bullet had been fired on the India-China border despite the existence of a boundary dispute. It is hoped that the breaking of ice would lead to substantive changes for the better on the ground.
(The featured image at the top is that of leaders at the SCO summit held in Astana ,Kazakhstan)