The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which was established in 2000, has evolved to become a potentially major player in the Central Asian region including Afghanistan and Iran. Initially proposed by China and supported by Russia as the Shanghai Five, the SCO today has China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as members. Pertinently, Chinese and Russian are its designated official languages. Prodded particularly by China’s initiatives, the SCO has steadily expanded its mandate. From being a vehicle to facilitate resolution of border disputes and maintain regional security in the area bounded by the member-states, the SCO today promotes economic cooperation, strategic collaboration and political interaction. As SCO seeks to broaden its remit, India needs to decide whether to retain observer status or opt for full membership.
The SCO has often declared, primarily in response to Western speculation, that its objective is to counter NATO, that it is not, and will not, develop into a military alliance and that its membership clauses do not require members to assume any obligations to provide each other with military assistance. Instead, the SCO asserts it is based on a common strategic requirement, namely to curb the ‘Three Evil Forces’ of terrorism, regional separatism and religious extremism. Nonetheless it has an, albeit understated, military content. To counter US efforts at acquiring a military foothold in the region by getting NATO to lease an airbase in Kyrgyzstan, for example, the SCO summit in 2005 pressurised Kyrgyzstan to declare a time-table for withdrawal of the US-led NATO airbase. They succeeded in September 2006.
The SCO has organised more than 10 anti-terrorism exercises to fight drug smuggling and transnational organised crime and launched cooperation in new fields, such as anti-money laundering and security of large-scale international activities. Special forces from the armed forces of participating countries have often been involved in these exercises. China’s official media has observed that these exercises benefit the Chinese armed forces by imparting valuable training, providing exposure to the advanced weaponry used by other nations, adding to their experience of operating in unfamiliar terrain and, transporting troops over long distances across military region boundaries and international borders.
The organisation gradually assumed a political role by commenting on international issues. The SCO leaders at the 10th SCO summit in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, on June 15 2011, called for ending the conflict in Libya and urged that UNSC resolutions be strictly observed. Leaders of member-states signed a number of documents including an Anti-Terrorist Strategy for 2011-2016. They said they would promote cooperation with the SCO observer nations namely India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan as well as dialogue partners, Belarus and Sri Lanka. Whether this implies future SCO activism in the region is yet unclear.
The international backdrop at the time of the SCO’s creation was the disintegration of the erstwhile USSR and emergence of the US as the sole and pre-eminent global superpower. Gorbachev’s failed experiment with Perestroika had had a deleterious effect on Russia’s economy. Moscow had to secure cash infusions to prevent the collapse of its economy, elicit adequately large orders to keep its mammoth defence-industrial complex afloat and, get huge supplies of essential food items to cater to the needs of its population, especially of the people residing in the inhospitably cold vast tracts of the Russian Far East, or Siberia. China had a booming economy with growing reserves of surplus cash; it urgently needed the latest advanced armaments, weapons and space technology; and its warehouses had abundant stocks of food supplies. The fit was ideal.
Additionally, near-to-medium term strategic objectives converged. This was reinforced by the comforting — to China — presence at key power centres in the Russian power structure of apparatchiks of the now dismantled Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Russia found US attempts at expanding influence in the former Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan etc, which constitute its vulnerable and soft underbelly, disconcerting. US attempts were accompanied by NATO’s eastward policy, which encouraged countries previously under the erstwhile USSR’s grip to apply for membership. Moscow viewed these efforts as intended to contain Russia’s future growth and keep it weakened. China was similarly apprehensive of the US’ newfound status as the sole global superpower. It perceived that the US would persist with efforts to bring about the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and acquire influence in Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics from where it would try to destabilise China. The growing influence of Islamist outfits in these countries and sizeable Uyghur diasporas especially in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, though each was currently governed by former soviet communist apparatchiks, worried Beijing. It anticipated that in future they could instigate trouble in China’s Muslim-dominated northwest. Separatist Uyghur outfits already obtain support and sanctuary in these countries. Beijing’s concern was manifest in the alacrity with which it concluded border control agreements with all these countries. China’s security establishment has since then regularly exchanged information and delegations to reinforce arrangements. Beijing simultaneously perceived economic and strategic opportunities in these very same areas and, therefore, its interests rivalled those of the US. A US application for observer status was rejected.
China’s interests have inherent the potential for rivalry with Russia, though both view the SCO as a platform that could safeguard their interests and, in due course, even further respective long-term strategic interests. They began with an equal say in the organisation, but China’s economic heft ensured that Beijing effectively assumed the more prominent role. In the Central Asian Republics, China quickly trumped Russia through its economic influence. Between 2002 and 2010, China’s trade with these countries rose exponentially from $1 billion to $26.8 billion. This was complemented by investments and communication links. This burgeoning trade, however, introduced a complication — the accompanying illegal migration of hundreds of thousands of Chinese which raised the spectre of a Chinese lebensraum. The developments generated suspicion in strategic circles in Russia, resulting in the slow down in supply of the latest advanced military hardware to China. The presence of Iran and Pakistan add to the potential for turbulence within the SCO. Iran’s leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has already upset Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and prompted Chinese President Hu Jintao to advise him to reassure the international community on the nuclear issue.
India needs to carefully consider its options. None of the SCO members can provide the fiscal investments, advanced technology or international clout necessary for India’s modernisation. Three among the SCO’s members and observers have abiding differences with India. Realpolitik dictates that India continues as observer thereby retaining space for manoeuvre when intra-organisational rivalries erupt.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India