On June 15th the Shanghai Cooperation organisation will have its Summit meeting in Astana marking the 10th Anniversary of its founding. This organisation that brings together the two major powers of the region – China and Russia – had its origin in a Chinese initiative to enhance cooperation between the newly independent Central Asian states of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and China and Russia to combat the threat of “terrorism, separatism and extremism”, which, in the words of the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, are commonly known as the "three evil forces" and are held as the archenemy threatening regional security and stability.
"Cooperation in security is a top priority for the SCO," according to a spokesman of the Chinese Defense Ministry speaking a few days earlier. Certainly the focus on security has not diminished over the years. In an article to mark the Astana Summit Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi recalled: "We have launched more than 10 joint anti-terror drills over the past decade and worked together to combat drug trafficking and cross-border organized crimes." If I recall correctly the first Chinese participation in a joint military exercise with foreign forces was an anti terrorist exercise with Kyrgyzstan Oct. 2002 along the Kyrgyz border with China’s Xinjiang province. So it would seem that there has been at least one joint anti terrorism exercise every year since then. This is a subject of abiding interest also to Russia which took the initiative under the banner of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to set up a branch of the Anti terrorism centre in Bishkek. Russia also participated in the first anti terrorism military exercise in 2003 when the then 5 members of the SCO (less Uzbekistan which joined the SCO later) sent large contingents to the Kazakh city of Ucharal that lies on the border of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. While I do not have the exact figures Russia has been conducting such exercises with its SCO partners with and without China’s participation also during this last decade. Russia’s interest it seems is two fold. First terrorist activity could be directed towards or support indigenous movements in Russia’s Muslim provinces. Second, much of the terrorist activity also serves as a cover for drug trafficking from Afghanistan, which has been, for many years now, a matter of enormous concern to Russia.
It is interesting however to note that in the ten years that the organization has been in existence other facets of the relations between the member countries have acquired an added significance. The host of the Summit, Kazakhstan, and China have under the framework of SCO set up the China-Kazakhstan Horgos International Border Cooperation Center, covering some 3.43 sq. kms. in China and 1.85 sq. kms in Kazakhstan at a cost of 880 million Yuan as a transnational cooperation zone and what they call a demonstration area of regional cooperation under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). President Hu Jintao who is paying a state visit for three days before attending the summit is expected to sign some further agreements on economic cooperation between the two countries to further enhance the trade between the two countries, which in 2010 was about 20.4 billion, or a fifty fold increase over the figures of a decade ago.
President Hu Jintao is expected to visit Russia immediately after the Astana Summit and will there commemorate the 10th anniversary of the China-Russia Treaty on Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation. There will also one can assume be a discussion of the long and protracted negotiations on the supply of Russian gas to China. During a recent visit to China President Medvedev had talked about the gap between the position of the two sides having been narrowed and seemed to suggest that an agreement in the near future was possible. This would be welcome news for energy hungry China and would provide the financing Russia needs to develop its energy potential further. Trade between the two countries, which stood at $60 billion in 2010 and made China Russia’s largest trading partner, could according to President Hu reach the figure of $100 billion in three to five years as proposed by President Medvedev.
On another plane the Chinese development of its military flows in part from its collaborative relations with Russia. China’s first aircraft carrier, which is still some time from completion, is apparently being built on the hull of a Russian warship that China acquired some years ago. Russia’s position as one of the biggest arms exporters in the world depends on the Chinese market for a major part of its sales.
While the two countries are probably not totally in agreement on the nature of the relationship each will maintain with the other members of the SCO – there are contending geopolitical considerations – there is no disagreement on the need to keep the region free of the “three evils”. There is also no doubt that both have a concern about the nature of the relationship that the USA in particular and the West in general maintains with the region and in this context the utilization of the enormous energy resources of the region.
Much has been made in part of the media in the SCO countries about the reservations that the USA has with regard to the SCO and its objectives. The fact is that the SCO’s principal reason for being -“fighting the three evils”- is a goal that the USA and its allies are supposed to share. For them the spread of an Al-Qaeda like ideology to the Central Asian Republics would multiply the problems they face and have been unsuccessful in resolving in Afghanistan. They know that in part the creation of the SCO was inspired not only by the “separatism’ by the ETIM (Eastern Turkestan Independence Movement) but by the widespread fear in the Central Asian Republics of the Taliban ideology which held sway in Afghanistan and by the shelter that Afghanistan provided for Numangani’s IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan). They cannot but acknowledge that success has attended the SCO efforts and this has helped their own anti terror campaign.
Since its inception as a regional anti terrorist organization the SCO has started evolving into a more comprehensive regional body concerned with tackling all the diverse problems that the region faces and that need regional solutions. This is a natural development and has to be accepted as such. I know that a large body of American analysts and academicians with whom I attended meetings devoted to the question of peace and stability in Asia argued strongly that the USA must seek observer status at the SCO and develop a cooperative relationship with that organization. Given the current situation in the region and the planned drawdown if not complete withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan this will now be something that the Washington pundits will have to consider seriously.
It would be right to say that the SCO countries can take pride in the degree to which they have through this cooperative mechanism been able to achieve their principal goal. The SCO may not have been able to do much during the upheaval in Kyrgyzstan or the civil rights abuses in Uzbekistan but that was not the stated objective. They can also take pride in what they have bee able to achieve in terms of furthering economic cooperation for the enhancement of which one would presume the Summit would provide new opportunities.
It is of course undeniable that in so far as the countries of the region are concerned the focus of attention will be on what the Summit chooses to do with regard to the question of expanding membership to the three states now enjoying “observer status” – Pakistan, India and Iran – and about granting observer status or more to Afghanistan…The foreign Ministers of the SCO countries have been discussing this question since last year and this year in their meeting in May they finalized a “the draft Memorandum of Obligations of a Candidate Country with the aim of obtaining SCO member status”. In the past the SCO had maintained that they had placed a bar on the expansion of the SCO. This was attributed to the differences between China and Russia on the eligibility for membership of Pakistan and India with Russia supporting the Indian cause and China the Pakistani. It is safe to presume that they have now moved towards establishing conditions on membership for which clearly the most eligible are Pakistan, India and Iran these differences have been resolved.
Of particular interest in this regard is also the application by Afghanistan for observer status. Virtually every communiqué issued after a SCO meeting has referred to the situation in Afghanistan and the efforts that the SCO countries have made towards normalizing the situation in that country. It would seem logical to assume that in these circumstances and given that concern about terrorism in Central Asia has focused on Afghanistan, that this application will be approved.
What changes will this expansion bring? More on that and the results of the Summit in my next article.