SCO’s next big challenge: Keeping the peace in Asia

Border guards on the China-Kazakhstan border. Source: Sergei Zhukov/TASS

Border guards on the China-Kazakhstan border. Source: Sergei Zhukov/TASS

The Shanghai Six are expanding from a powerful regional organisation into a serious player in a region that is important for global security.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – founded by Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – is often mocked in the western media as the ‘Club of Dictators’. With India, the world’s largest democracy, joining this regional security forum, such jokes have started going stale.

Unlike the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – which is a rock star in the global media, the SCO has mostly operated away from the limelight. But the SCO has a wider footprint that stretches from Europe to the Pacific Ocean. And with India’s inclusion the group now covers nearly half of the world’s population.

The group has been remarkably effective at keeping the peace in Central Asia. Pan Guang, Director of the SCO Studies Center in Shanghai, writes in 'The Architecture of Security in the Asia-Pacific' that the organisation has stabilised some 15,000 km of land borders in Asia, constituting a major contribution towards regional security.

“The SCO’s counter-terrorism campaign is of strategic significance for the whole of Asia. Not least because the terrorist groups in Southeast Asia (which are potentially capable of disrupting energy supplies throughout the Indonesian archipelago) have close ties with the groups in Central and South Asia,” he says.

In ‘Rising States, Rising Institutions: Challenges for Global Governance’, Gregory Chin writes: "Despite its brief history, some experts see the SCO as potentially evolving into one of the more powerful international organisations to emerge out of post-Cold War Asia."

Nikolas K. Gvosdev writes in the National Interest that the SCO was a product of efforts in the 1990s to finally and definitely resolve the border disputes between China and the successor states of the Soviet Union.

“When that process was completed, both Moscow and Beijing realised that the possibility for rivalry between them in Central Asia, plus the shared interests of all the states of the region in beating back challenges to the political status quo – particularly the threat of violent insurgencies against the existing authoritarian rulers – created a need for some sort of ongoing forum to continue the high-level contacts that had been forged during the negotiations over the final disposition of the frontiers.”

According to authors Zhang Yunling and Tang Shiping, "the SCO is becoming an anchor for stability in the Eurasian heartland" and is mainly a response to the growing western presence in the region. Gvosdev agrees. “Worries about the ability of the United States to project its power deep into the Eurasian heartland also helped to bring together Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Jiang Zemin to move ahead with the transformation of the more informal Shanghai dialogue into an actual international organisation in 2001,” he says.

To illustrate the success of the SCO’s counter-terrorism campaign, a quick flashback. Shortly after 9/11, the U.S. started moving into Central Asia to prosecute the so-called War On Terror. Uzbekistan, where Washington got its first base, soon began to witness an upsurge in Islamic terrorism. Disturbances took place in the ethnic alphabet soup that is the Ferghana Valley, which straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

In 2005 when Islamic insurgents rioted in the eastern Uzbek city of Andizhan and attempted to create yet another ‘colour’ revolution in the post-Soviet space, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov – instead of falling like a domino in the manner of the other ex-Soviet leaders – simply shot the protestors and expelled the Americans. Kyrgyzstan followed suit in 2009.

These small nations were able to stand up to foreign meddling because of the solid backing of the SCO.


Security for Asia

Clearly, regime stability is the club’s raison d’etre. "Although the sanctity of regime stability, state sovereignty and supportive intervention are not officially listed in the SCO's mandate, these norms and principles have provided the glue for SCO members for what they do," says Chin.

One area where the SCO differs from the likes of western outfits such as NATO is in its collective security approach that is opposed to the West’s so-called 'human rights' approach, which includes the right to intervene.

The SCO members fully understand that such forms of intervention are almost always directed at countries not aligned with – or opposed to – the West. This aspect of the SCO would particularly interest, say, Indonesia which saw a US-Australian invasion of its East Timor province on the pretext of protecting human rights. Observe that no such interventions are ever carried out in Gulf emirates such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, which are pro-West.


Settling boundaries

Asian countries continue to be bedevilled by land and maritime boundary disputes, thanks to the festering legacy of colonialism. China, which has the largest number of land borders in the world has a number of territorial wrangles in Asia. In this backdrop, the SCO’s success in border resolutions could be replicated in Asia.

The India-China and India-Pakistan borders as well as the South China Sea are among Asia’s flashpoints. So far these disputes have proved to be extremely hard to resolve. Since the United Nations is effectively on life support and western brokers are likely to be looked upon with suspicion by one side or the other, the SCO could well be the honest broker that could cut the many Gordian Knots of Asia.

Pan Guang says the SCO process has transformed Chinese diplomacy from its traditional focus on bilateral relations towards multilateral interactions. “Previously China chose bilateral rather than multilateral channels for resolving its disputes with other parties, but the SCO has given it greater confidence to participate in, and in some cases initiate, multilateral processes. China’s inclination to use the SCO’s military exercises as diplomatic statements of its ability to intervene in the region can be read in this light.”

Asian countries – with strong economic connections to the West – are generally not inclined to join a Russia-China led security forum. Gvosdev explains: “Reflecting Putin's cautious, step-by-step approach to institution building, the SCO did not set overly ambitious goals for itself. It initially concentrated on providing technical assistance in the area of antiterrorism and counterinsurgency for its member-states, and only slowly expanded its repertoire and its reach. It explicitly avoided any hint of being a formal military alliance that would obligate its members to any mutual-defence commitments – but, over the years, has steadily allowed for closer security cooperation – including ever-increasing joint military exercises between Russia and China.”

The SCO's "low-key" approach has also allowed for its expansion: beyond the original members. While India and Pakistan joined this year, other nations have sought "observer" and "dialogue partner" status. These include Iran, Turkey, Belarus, Sri Lanka, Mongolia and Cambodia.


Group synergies

The SCO’s other main draw is that its key members are also members of influential groups such as BRICS, Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Treaty Security Organization, the last of which is a mini-NATO comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. All four bodies are focussed on the security and economic growth of its members rather than having interventionist policies in the manner of NATO.

President Putin has described the SCO the “new model of successful international cooperation” that would render unipolarity obsolescent.

According to Anna Matveeva and Antonio Giustozzi of the London School of Economics Crisis States Research Centre, “Irrespective of its concrete activities, the organisation already carries a huge symbolic weight because of the political significance of both China and Russia in global and regional affairs. By its sheer presence, even without much activity, it projects an image of strength – or of a ‘grandiose geopolitical bluff’.”

SCO not anti-West

The problem with the western neocon commentators is when they see a rope in the dark, they mistake it for a snake. That is, they see a plot where there is none.

Daniyar Kosnazarov, head of the Central Asia and Caspian Region Department at the Analytical Complex of the Library of the First President of Kazakhstan, says Kazakhs want to avoid the SCO turning into an anti-western bloc.

According to Matveeva and Giustozzi, although it is not impossible that the SCO would turn into an anti-western organisation, a much bigger change would have to take place in international relations for this to happen, such as a US military strike on Iran. “Thus far, the SCO policy-planners are aware that it is not in the interests of the SCO and its members to become antagonists of the West, that there are limits to geopolitics and the rhetoric that accompanies it, and their interests are, if not identical, then at least parallel to those of the West.”

The future is best summed up by Gvosdev: “The SCO and BRICS may not come close to emulating the European Union and NATO, but they are inculcating and reinforcing habits of cooperation among their members that, over time, could become the foundations for more serious economic and security cooperation.”


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