Monday, 16 September 2013


SCO glimpses a new Eurasia in Bishkek
By Brendan P O'Reilly


The groundwork for a new Eurasian order was laid in remote Kyrgyzstan, even as the world's attention remains focused on diplomatic maneuvers over Syria. The annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) last week brought together an assembly of heads of state opposed to American unilateral dominance, from Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping to Iran's newly elected President Hassan Rouhani.

In the wake of the negotiated settlement over Syria's chemical weapons, and with the continuing waning of America's relative power, the SCO will be an increasingly relevant regional and global institution. Furthermore, this emerging alliance is poised to expand.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization was founded in 2001 by China, Russia, and the former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The primary goals of the SCO were combating the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. From this humble beginning, the SCO has evolved into a nascent political, economic, and military alliance broadly opposed to Western global dominance.

Chinese media boasts that the SCO is "the only regional inter-governmental organization founded in China, named after a Chinese city and headquartered in China". [1] Iran, Pakistan, India, Mongolia, and Afghanistan have signed on as observers, with Pakistan, India, and Iran openly interested in joining the organization. The United States applied for observer status, but its application was rejected in 2006.

At Friday's summit in Bishkek, SCO member states issued a series of joint statements bluntly rebuffing Western geopolitical aims in three of the world's most dangerous hotspots. Regarding Iran's nuclear program, the SCO said, "The threat of military force and unilateral sanctions against the independent state of [Iran] are unacceptable." Vladimir Putin went a step further, saying "Iran, the same as any other state, has the right to peaceful use of atomic energy, including enrichment operations." [2]

Interestingly enough, Iran has only been blocked from joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization by the ongoing United Nations sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program. At a meeting on the sidelines of the SCO summit, Iranian President Rouhani held discussions with Xi Jinping and reassured the Chinese leader of Iran's peaceful nuclear intentions: "Iran would like to accept supervision from the International Atomic Energy Agency and to eliminate worries from international society through cooperation." [3]

It appears Moscow and Beijing may seize on Rouhani's moderate credentials to push a negotiated resolution to Iran's nuclear standoff, which in turn could lead to the end of UN sanctions and pave the way for Iran's inclusion in the SCO. Indeed, the state-sponsored Russia Today ran an editorial entitled "Iran's membership would give a lot of advantages to SCO" during the summit in Bishkek. [4]

The heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization also came out strongly in favor of a negotiated settlement over the North Korean nuclear issue, staying "negotiations and consultations are the single effective way to preserve peace and stability on the Korean peninsula" [5].

Finally, regarding the evolving crisis in Syria, the SCO issued a statement firmly opposed to any military action, saying the grouping is "against Western intervention in Syria, as well as the loosening of internal and regional stability in the Middle East". [6] SCO members readily supported the Russian proposal for the Syrian government to give up chemical weapons in exchange for guarantees against a US-led strike.

The evolution of the SCO

How has the SCO developed from a regional bloc seeking to combat ethnic separatism and transnational Islamism into a unified voice against American political and military interventions? The answer lies in the mutual interests of SCO member states.

Russia and China share similar concerns about Washington's military assets deployed in Central Asia in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001. Other former Soviet states - the 'stans - were generally more welcome to the US presence, but soured after perceived US interference in their domestic affairs (ie, support for pro-Western political opposition groups) as well as pressure from Moscow and Beijing. The SCO has already been instrumental in convincing member states Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to halt cooperation with North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces seeking to supply troops in Afghanistan.

The SCO promotes the shared geopolitical interests of Russia and China, and also a nebulous ideology centered on the concept of national sovereignty. SCO member states offer mutual support in maintaining the status quo of their national borders and systems of government. They feel threatened in these areas by both Western promotion of political reforms, and the broader threat of transnational political Islam.

It is no small geopolitical irony that an organization founded to combat "terrorism" and "extremism" (presumably threatening to both SCO members and NATO states) now also finds itself firmly working against Western regional influence. Of course, politics makes strange bedfellows. SCO opposition against a bombing campaign targeting the Syrian government serves to counter both American militarism and jihadist militants in the same stroke.

The real news coming from the SCO summit is not the goals of the alliance, which have remained fairly consistent over the last decade, but rather the group's potential for expansion. Besides the previously mentioned possibility of Iranian acceptance into the group, China has now openly backs Pakistan's application to become a full-fledged member of the SCO. [7]

Pakistan's fraternal rival India also seeks membership in the SCO. Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Kurshid visited the SCO summit in Bishkek to make a push for India's inclusion in the group. He explained his motivation by saying: "We see SCO as a useful regional forum which can address issues relating to Afghanistan. We also see SCO as a useful forum in terms of our anti-terrorist stance in a regional context. The third thing is energy. As you are aware, we are interested in TAPI pipeline which is currently from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.'' [8]

For both India and Pakistan to join the SCO would be a significant geopolitical coup on the part of Moscow and Beijing. Pakistan has had long maintained close ties with both Beijing and Washington, while the American government has been keen on wooing New Delhi into a nascent anti-Chinese alliance.

All SCO member states must assent in order to let in any new member. It may only be possible to accept Pakistan and India into the organization simultaneously, so neither country could block the other's application. There are numerous advantages of SCO membership for both Islamabad and New Delhi. Both nations face security threats stemming from "terrorism, separatism, and extremism". Furthermore, the SCO could offer them a forum in which to achieve lasting peace - and mutually beneficial access to Central Asia's vast reserves of energy.

Veins of oil unite Asia

In the run-up to the SCO summit in the Kyrgyz capital, Xi Jinping made a series of visits to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. He signed important economic deals in these nations, calling for the construction of pipelines to bring precious Central Asian hydrocarbons to China's booming cities.

In the last decade, Chinese trade with Central Asian states has increased nearly 30-fold. Beijing's trade with the 'stans now surpasses Russia's economic influence in the region. One could imagine potential Russian trepidation at China's calls to create a "New Silk Road", dominated by Chinese business, in the region. For most of their shared history, Russia and China have been bitter enemies.

However, joint fears over US military and political pressure have brought the two powers closer. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's deepening ties and (probable) expansion represent a serious defeat for Washington's plans for a new American century.

Despite historical rivalry, China and Russia share immense common interests in maintaining the political status quo in Central Asia, and allowing mutual access to the region's energy reserves. The twin threats to their authority of political Islam and Western-backed political reforms further cement their relationship, and provide incentives for other, smaller states to join in their alliance.

There is some danger inherit in expanding the SCO. For example, allowing Pakistan into the grouping while excluding India could push New Delhi closer into Washington's orbit. However, if managed carefully, an SCO expansion could be effective at maintaining political stability throughout the Eurasian landmass, and perhaps providing a mechanism for lasting peace in South Asia.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is an increasingly relevant institution due to the deepening mutual interests of its member states. Central Asia's energy reserves will be vital to the global economy over the coming decades.

Terrorism, separatism, and extremism will continue to threaten regional governments for the foreseeable future. Washington's militarism and unilateral global ambitions show little signs of abating. Meanwhile, ongoing developments in Syria, Iran, and North Korea will demonstrate the effectiveness SCO members at forestalling Western efforts at regime change.

1. Backgrounder: Shanghai Cooperation Organization, CCTV, September 13, 2013.
2. Sanctions against Iran 'unacceptable' - Russia, China, other SCO nations, Russia Today, September 13, 2013.
3. Xi welcomes talks on Iran nuclear issue, China Daily, September 13, 2013.
4. Iran member would give lots of advantages to SCO, Russia Today, September 13, 2013.
5. Shanghai Cooperation Organization Discusses Syria in Bishkek, The Moscow Times, September 13, 2013.
6.Sanctions against Iran 'unacceptable' - Russia, China, other SCO nations, Russia Today, September 13, 2013.
7. China warmly welcomes Pakistan's desire to be full member of SCO, The Nation, August 27, 2013.
8. Kurshid to pitch for India's membership in Shanghai Cooperation Organization club, The Times of India, September 13, 2013.

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