SCO as a mirror for the world

Source: RIA Novosti

Source: RIA Novosti

The successes of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is marking its tenth anniversary, are only partly due to its own efforts. Much of the credit must go to the Western powers and organisations that have grown markedly weaker over the same period. The SCO was created on the basis of the “Shanghai Five,” a group of countries engaged in sorting out the borders in Asia in the wake of the collapse of the USSR.  It happened shortly before 11 September 2001, which was a defining moment for global politics in the 2000s.

At the time, it seemed that nothing could prevent the USA from asserting its place as the pre-eminent world power, so the West took a rather dismissive and condescending attitude towards Moscow and Beijing’s Central Asian initiatives. Moscow was still not thought  capable of regaining any real power levers and the rise of Beijing did not appear as relentless and rapid as it later turned out to be. The events of 9/11 shifted Washington’s focus dramatically towards Central Eurasia. The US took for granted Vladimir Putin’s constructive stance in agreeing to the American military presence in Central Asia. China was merely notified of the decision and Beijing chose to maintain a discreet distance, though it was clear from the outset that it was not amused by the American military’s dash towards its borders. Nobody mentioned the SCO because the US Administration settled all the issues on a bilateral basis with each government.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation came into the spotlight in 2005 when its summit meeting asked Washington to make up its mind exactly how long its forces would remain in the region. This was not an ultimatum, just a reminder that this part of the world had its own “masters” and that “guests” could only stay as long as they were welcome.

This did not go down very well with the USA, which has been keeping an increasingly wary eye on SCO activities ever since.

Yet the tonality with regard to the SCO began changing noticeably in the second half of the 2000s, when American policy began suffering setbacks in many areas. The more difficult things became for the USA, the more talk there was about the anti-American aspirations of major non-democratic countries, especially Russia and China. The neoconservatives came up with the idea of a confrontation between liberal and authoritarian capitalism, the latter exemplified by Moscow and Beijing.

The attempt to recreate the customary binary world failed but it did add colour to the SCO stereotype, which was perceived as a club of America-bashers or a kind of anti-NATO. The admission of Iran as an observer completed the picture.

The West’s current perception of the SCO reflects its bewilderment in the face of the crumbling world mosaic, with the situation defying habitual schemes and new recipes failing to work. It is seen either as a growing threat or as a potentially important partner that could be helpful in solving acute problems -- such as Afghanistan.

What is the SCO really like today? It is a regional structure whose significance is growing, first, because it unites both Russia and China and second, because, as an organisation, it has greater influence in Central Asia than any other group of states.

Does the SCO offer an ideological alternative to the West? The jubilee session suggests that this is not ruled out, considering the new international situation. Significantly, the part of the final declaration dealing with developments in the Arab world stresses the need to resolve issues with due respect for the sovereignty of states. A negative attitude towards interference in the internal affairs of countries is a hallmark of the SCO, so there is nothing new there. What matters is that the statement was made now, after Russia and China, much to the surprise of many, failed to veto the UN SC resolution that allowed military action against Libya, while the Western countries are pressing for tougher action with regard to Syria.

There is a sense that the Libyan experience has led Moscow and Beijing to revert to their traditional approaches, especially since the long-drawn-out operation to neutralise Colonel Qaddafi makes many people even in the West wonder if the game is worth the candle.

Will the SCO be able to assume full responsibility for what is happening in the region, for example, after NATO and the US withdraw from Afghanistan? Most probably not. The two biggest countries in the organisation do not see eye-to-eye on what its priorities should be. Moscow tends to emphasise security issues. Beijing stresses economic cooperation. In other words, Russia would like to see the SCO as an instrument for strengthening its strategic presence in Central Asia, while China  perceives it as an instrument for economic expansion.

In the ten years since it inception, the SCO has achieved more than was initially expected. But there is no time to be lost. Looking at the way things are developing in the world, it is safe to say that the SCO’s second decade will be much stormier than the first.

Fyodor Lukyanov is the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

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