SCO: Security Challenges Dominate Agenda
Andrei AKULOV | 28.07.2013 | FEATURED STORY

SCO: Security Challenges Dominate Agenda

While the 2013 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Bishkek is getting closer, the Kyrgyz Republic, the host country, has launched a number of high-level meetings for preliminary consideration of the issues on the list, especially the ones related to security. 

The SCO foreign ministers concluded a meeting on July 13 pledging to expand cooperation under the regional framework. They lauded Kyrgyzstan's preparations for the upcoming SCO summit in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The final statement said the SCO members «hold the same or similar positions on major global and regional issues, which is conducive to the development of their partnership». The foreign policy chiefs pledged concerted efforts to fight terrorism, extremism and separatism, as well as transnational crime, drug-trafficking, illegal arms trade and other subversive activities. Other areas for increased cooperation also include trade, investment, finance, transportation, communications, agriculture and innovation, science, technology, culture, health, tourism and disaster relief.

The meeting’s international agenda encompassed the situation in West Asia and North Africa. The participants reaffirmed their support for using universally recognized international norms as the basis to achieve regional stability.. According to Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA) press-release «The substantial exchange of opinions on topical international and regional problems confirmed the matching or the proximity of foreign policy approaches of SCO member states, in particular, to the state of affairs in Afghanistan, Syria, in the Middle East, the situation around the Nuclear Program of Iran. The SCO advocates for building of an independent, neutral, peaceful state in Afghanistan and supports the coordinator’s role of the UN in international efforts on Afghan peace process and provision of assistance of Afghans in restoring their country». (1)

As Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, reported at a press briefing, SCO member-states Ministries of Foreign Affairs together with officials of the Secretariat and Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) discussed the summit's agenda and a set of documents expected to be signed. One of them is a draft action program for 2013-2017 to implement the provisions of the Treaty on Long-Term Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation between the Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. There will be one more important document submitted for approval – the Bishkek Declaration, which makes precise six key principles constituting a common basis for tackling international problems.

The SCO also contemplates expanding membership when the summit comes. The ministers agreed to continue working on the procedures for interested parties to join the SCO and become full-fledged SCO members. Adding India, Iran and Pakistan as full-fledged members will greatly increase the group’s international clout. Currently there are six members: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, four nations which have the status of observers: India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Iran and Afghanistan, and three dialogue partners including Sri Lanka, Belarus and Turkey. The heads of delegations instructed to continue work on the draft of the Procedure (the Rules) on Provision of the Status of the SCO Member State and the new version of the Model Memorandum on Obligations of Applicant State for Obtaining of SCO Member State Status. 

The heads of delegations pointed out that the stability in the region depends on the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in 2014. As experts say, the most troublesome scenario envisions the rapid mobilization of radical groups in the northern part of the country. A rising number of ethnic insurgent groups of Central Asian and North Caucasian origin are currently gathering in the Afghan part of Badakhshan, a geographical region divided between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In case their activities continue to intensify, the Central Asian states and Russia may face a direct threat of growing extremism not only in Afghanistan, but also at home. According to the UN 2012 Drug Report, Afghanistan accounts for over 60% of global opium poppy cultivation and remains the leading producer of opium in the world. A constant rise of the drug production since 2001 is currently acquiring new geographical dimension. The SCO wants Afghanistan to be an independent and thriving state free of terrorism and drug-related crime.

While dealing with Afghanistan, the expanded SCO will have much more weight while addressing the issue. The would-be members have stakes in this country. Pakistan and Iran share borders with Afghanistan. India has emerged as one of the most important assistance providers. A joint concerted regional effort for the Afghan settlement will certainly benefit all these states. Their SCO entry promotes a more comprehensive strategy to address the issue. It will also allow them to address the existing bilateral differences within the broader framework of the organization. 

The participants confirmed the intent to further strengthen cooperation in international and regional affairs with the UN and other international and regional bodies. 

SCO: organization with teeth

Just a month before the foreign policy chiefs meeting, the SCO Council of Defense Ministers got together and pledged to enhance coordination in maintaining regional peace and fighting terrorism and organized crime during a meeting on June 26 in Bishkek. The top military leaders exchanged views over major international and regional security issues. They agreed to boost effectiveness in crushing separatism, extremism, drug-trafficking and terrorist activities. To enhance the capabilities, the SCO members agreed to establish a special center which could work in close contact with the Regional Anti-terrorist Structure (RATS). The goal is to make the organization a viable tool for fending off regional security threats. The defense ministers also approved a cooperation plan for the SCO defense ministries between the year 2014 and 2015, and talked over preparations for a joint military exercise next year in China. 

It’s not about meetings, plans and discussions only. The SCO is becoming an organization with teeth. This summer Russia and China hold joint military exercises. The first, Naval Interaction 2013, was held in the Sea of Japan between July 5 and 12, and the other, Peace Mission 2013, is about to start in the Russia’s Urals region July 27 through August 15. The training events are arranged to hone interoperability. The Peace Mission 2013 drill will involve 600 personnel from each country. Russia and China have held several joint military exercises since 2005 under the framework of SCO.

The tenth joint counter terrorism SCO drill was held in Kazakhstan by member countries this June. According to the scenario, terrorists invaded Kazakhstan using helicopters and vehicles, hijacked hostages in a bordering village and attempted to stage terrorist acts. The mission for SCO joint ground and aerial components was to eliminate the invasion force and rescue hostages. 

Analysts say the SCO has achieved tangible results enhancing combat interaction. Although joint exercises have made progress in terms of scale, complexity and effectiveness, it does not mean that the SCO will turn into a military alliance. It is emphasized that the drills are never directed at any third party in particular.

SCO: Russian dimension

On May 8 President Vladimir Putin said Russia must beef up its defenses in the south and work with Central Asian allies to protect itself and neighbors against the threat of extremist violence emerging from Afghanistan. (2) The President told a meeting of his Security Council that «We need to strengthen the security system in the strategic southern area, including its military component». Russia, he said, must work with fellow members of regional security alliances, including the SCO. «There is every reason to believe that in the near future we may face a worsening of the situation. International terrorist and radical groups do not hide their plans to export instability»,said Putin. The head of state went further saying «international forces have done practically nothing to root out drug production in Afghanistan» and ignored Russian proposals to eradicate crops of poppies used to make heroin. Putin said Russia, which is separated geographically from Afghanistan by the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia, should step up migration controls on its southern border and «exponentially increase the effectiveness of work to stem drug trafficking». Putin said the Shanghai Cooperation Organization should be involved in efforts to improve security.

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With NATO gone from Afghanistan, the Taliban exercising control over large portions of the country against the backdrop of raging civil war is quite a probable scenario. The US has actually lost the war and failed to gain peace, so it is holding talks with Taliban on what some call «surrender terms». No matter unimaginably high military expenditure, the US fails to win, no matter what military adventure it gets involved in. Iraq and Afghanistan are the examples to corroborate the fact. But Afghanistan just cannot be left alone. The SCO has an important role to play here by gradually involving the war-torn country into the international cooperation process. No matter NATO rejects the very idea of dealing with the SCO, the time is ripe for the countries involved to get united and address the regional security agenda, there is not much time left till 2014. The SCO is doing the right thing by standing up to the challenge. No wasting time, it takes the bull by the horns. The forthcoming summit in Bishkek in September 2013 will be an occurrence of great importance taking decisions of not only regional, but rather global dimension, the events mentioned in the piece show the organization is working hard to stand up to the task for the benefit of all.