By P.K.Balachandran/Weekend Express
Colombo, November 13: An on-line summit of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) took place on November 10. The SCO comprises Russia, India, China, Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan and Belarus have an observer status, while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey have the status of dialogue partners. Russia is the Chair for the year 2019-2020.
Among those heads of government who participated in the virtual summit were Xi Jinping (China), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Narendra Modi (India) and Imran Khan (Pakistan). Others participants were heads of SCO Observer States: Ashraf Ghani (Afghanistan), Roman Golovchenko ( Belarus), Hassan Rouhani (Iran), and Khaltmaagiin Battulga (Mongolia). UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivered a welcome address.
SCO began as the Shanghai Five Group in 1996. China and Russia were its progenitors. The Shanghai Five Group expanded and became functional as Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2001. The SCO’s aim was to provide security and also enable economic and political cooperation in Eurasia, a new geo-political and economic entity which had arisen to resist the West. The re-emergence of Russia and the meteoric rise of China helped its emergence.
The SCO has held meetings at various levels several times since 2001 and has drawn up many plans for economic development and security in the region with a focus on terrorism, separatism and other international threats to member countries’ sovereignty.
According to TASS, the November 10 meeting approved the Plan of Action for 2021-2025 to implement the SCO Development Strategy until 2025; the SCO Concept of Cooperation in Developing Remote and Rural Territories in the Digital Era; and the Comprehensive Plan for the SCO Member States’ Joint Measures to Counteract Epidemic Threats in the Region.
In his keynote address, China’s President Xi Jinping voiced firm opposition to interference by external forces in the domestic affairs of SCO member states. On economic cooperation and development Xi said China cannot develop without the rest of the world, nor can the world as a whole prosper without China. He welcomed all parties to seize the opportunities brought by China’s development and make active endeavors to deepen cooperation with China. He proposed that hotline contacts be created between SCO members’ centers for disease control for timely updates on cross-border transmission of communicable diseases.
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Xi’s statement on the need to avoid politicizing the COVID-19 epidemic and cooperate in the eradication of the virus. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while pledging support to the SCO, said that India has a historical interest in striving for connectivity with Central Asia.
But what does the SCO’s score card look like in the 19 th. year of its existence? To its credit, it has achieved a lot in the fight against terrorism. Writing in www.un.org, Rashid Alimov says that between 2011 and 2015, SCO member States prevented 20 terrorist attacks while still in the planning stages, averted 650 crimes of terrorist and extremist nature, and neutralized 440 terrorist training camps and 1,700 members of international terrorist organizations.
More than 2,700 members of illicit armed groups, their accomplices, and persons suspected in criminal activity were arrested, while 213 people associated with terrorist or extremist organizations were extradited, with many sentenced to long terms of imprisonment; 180 suspects were placed on wanted lists, 600 undercover bases with weaponry were revealed, and more than 3,250 improvised explosive devices were confiscated, along with 10,000 weapons, approximately 450,000 pieces of ammunition, and more than 52 tons of explosives, Alimov says.
However, in the field of infrastructural development and financing of development projects, the SCO has little to shout about. Projects were drawn up but follow up was lacking. This is primarily because of the hidden economic and geo-political conflict between China and Russia, the SCO’s main pillars.
Then there is the standoff between China and India on border and sovereignty issues. In a veiled allusion to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through territory claimed by India, Modi told the summit said that connectivity projects should respect sovereignty and territorial integrity. He regretted that Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had raised the Kashmir dispute in the forum. Khan had said that “unilateral and illegal measures” to change the status of disputed territories were a violation of UNSC resolutions and the SCO charter. It is feared that Sino-Indian and Indo-Pak feuds could stymie cooperation in the SCO.
Fozil Mashrab, writing in Eurasia Daily Monitor alleges that Russia has long feared Chinese domination of the SCO and has consistently resisted the institutionalization of economic cooperation within the SCO framework. He points out that Moscow blocked Beijing’s initiatives to create an SCO Free Economic Zone, an SCO Development Bank and an SCO Development Fund, fearing that this will lead to China’s increasing influence in Russia’s backyard and weaken its own creation, the Eurasian Economic Union.
In his paper Russia-China Relations in Central Asia and the SCO, Mikhail Molchanov says that Putin’s Russia is primarily concerned about security including military security due to challenges to its existence from the US. It also prefers to work through organizations that it controls. It feels that economically powerful China has the upper hand in SCO. China, on the other hand, is more keen on economic cooperation than in the military-strategic aspect. And it would like to do this through its own self-funded Belt an Road Initiative (BRI). Russia can’t offer an alternative to this as it is economically much weaker.
According to Molchanov, when China offered of US$ 900 million preferential credit to Central Asian states during the 2005 Premiers’ summit, Moscow felt it was attempting to “buy” these States which Russia’s sees as its traditional allies. Russia suggested multilateral economic cooperation, such as the creation of an SCO Development Fund and Interbank Consortium but Beijing wanted to use its own institutions. The Russo-Chinese conflict is likely to get accentuated as the economic gap between the two countries increases. Molchanov predicts.
“All documents signed during the SCO’s annual summits are becoming declarative in nature, with little follow-through and wholly dependent on the goodwill of the member states. Moreover, most of the agreements remain unfulfilled due to the lack of mechanisms for monitoring their implementation, “ Molchanov observes.
Turning to the Central Asian countries, he says that they are finding it difficult to bring to the SCO’s agenda, issues that are relevant to their immediate interests, such as alleviating their debt burdens during the period of the pandemic. “They are frustrated by the SCO’s agenda which is increasingly dominated by issues related to great power politics and anti-Western rhetoric.”
SCO Is Still Useful
But in spite of the absence of immediate practical utility, many countries had wanted to, and are wanting to, join the SCO. Even the US wanted to join, but its case was rejected. India was eager to join the SCO, though its arch rival China was one of its founding members and its possible financier. This is because India is interested in forging ties with Central Asian countries to participate in their infrastructure and connectivity projects which will help it trade with the region. Pakistan too would like to reach out to Central Asia which, like it, are Islamic.
And despite their differences, China-Russia need each other. They have had to enter into a strategic partnership because both are being targeted by the US. The SCO gives them the much-needed community support against the US which is constantly aiming to bring about regime changes using economic and military pressure and allegations of human rights violations.
Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party paper pointed out that the SCO provides an informal forum for countries with differences like Pakistan and India to meet and thrash out their problems on the sidelines of its summits.