Group photo with all the leaders and guests attending the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Astana, Kazakhstan, 15 June 2011.
Photo: Xinhua

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) marked its 10th anniversary at the summit meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday. Anniversaries divisible by five or 10 are almost sacrosanct occasions in international politics - especially for Central Asian countries and the adjacent capitals of Moscow and Beijing that have been weaned on the formalism of Marxism-Leninism. Much expectation was placed on the occasion at Astana.

In the event, it turned out to be a sober, introspective occasion for charting out a course rather than an excuse for grandstanding. No tall claims were made. There was sombre stocktaking that security threats remained and economic cooperation could be a lot better.

There is quiet satisfaction that the organization - comprising China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - is becoming increasingly influential and its multi-tiered consultative mechanisms have become operational, especially the Tashkent-based regional anti-terrorism center, which has succeeded in foiling over 500 terrorist plots.

Several new trends stand out as the SCO steps out of its infancy and adolescence. From a regional organization limited to Central Asia and its environs, SCO may well become the leading integration process over the entire Eurasian landmass, of which 40% still stands outside the ambit of the organization. Prior to his arrival in Astana to attend the summit, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Ukraine. Equally, Belarus has been admitted as a "dialogue partner".

Most certainly, SCO realizes that Central Asian and South Asian security are indivisible. Integration of two major South Asian countries - India and Pakistan - is in the cards - the summit finalized their membership norms and negotiations. Indian officials exude optimism. As and when the process is completed, SCO will have transformed beyond all recognition from its humble beginnings.

Mind-boggling South Asian amity

Put differently, for India and Pakistan, too, which have traditionally had strong strategic ties with the United States, this process becomes a leap of faith. They are quite aware that they are joining an organization that implicitly aims at keeping the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from establishing a permanent military presence in the region.

They should also be aware that the SCO they join, by the time they sign on, will also have acquired new orientations through its continuing evolution. For example, successive SCO security drills are beginning to acquire the nature of enhancing the "inter-operability" of militaries (ironically, US/NATO jargon) and law-enforcement agencies. Again, the military chiefs of the SCO countries commenced a new forum of interaction when they met for the first time in April in Shanghai and pledged to boost defense and security cooperation.

For the two South Asian adversaries, suffice to say, such experiences as and when their SCO membership materializes, would be not only novel but unthinkable so far in their troubled 64-year history. It boggles the mind that Indian and Pakistani army chiefs may someday chat up under a SCO canopy - and that too, without the ubiquitous American facilitator-cum-mediator. The strategic significance of the SCO fostering India-Pakistan amity cannot be underestimated.

In short, SCO has not only borrowed the US’s brilliant idea of a "Great Central Asia" strategy - aimed at fostering links between Central and South Asian regions and thereby weakening Russia and China’s SCO bonds - but is doing a one up by bringing the organization to the waters of the Indian Ocean. Incidentally, the Astana summit also admitted Sri Lanka as a "dialogue partner".

In sum, the SCO continues to insist that it does not aspire to be a "NATO of the East" or a military alliance. On the other hand, it is set on making NATO (and Pax Americana) simply irrelevant to an entire landmass, which with the induction of India and Pakistan will account for more than half of mankind. NATO may face a piquant situation when it aspires to claim that it is the only global security organization available in the 21st century.

A related aspect to be noted in this connection is that SCO is strengthening its formal links with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). A protocol was signed in Astana regarding "mutual understanding to step up efforts to counter terrorism". Present at the ceremony were CSTO secretary general Nikolai Bordyuzha and the director of the SCO’s anti-terrorist structure at Tashkent, Dzhenisbek Dzhumanbekov. CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Bordyuzha was quoted as saying, "The protocol [with SCO] offers an opportunity to coordinate our efforts in countering extremism more effectively. Cooperating on a regular basis and securing the normative foundation of this task will allow us to improve the effectiveness of our efforts in general."

He added that the two blocs proposed to enhance the effectiveness of special services in their law-enforcement agencies. The developing CSTO-SCO ties have introduced a new template.

Russia has been facing problems in strengthening CSTO’s activities in Central Asia. The CSTO’s impotence became quite apparent during the crisis in Kyrgyzstan last June when large-scale ethnic disturbances broke out and a serious possibility existed of religious extremists and terrorist elements exploiting the anarchy.

In this connection, the fact that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Tashkent first and held talks with his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov en route to Astana needs to be noted.

Uzbekistan is no doubt a key country in Central Asia and its apprehensions regarding the implications of "collective security" - where the border lines are to be drawn for the sacrosanct limits of national sovereignty - proved to be major factor for the evolution of CSTO. All indications were that Tashkent disfavored any CSTO intervention in Kyrgyzstan last year.

Security cooperation along with economic development have been described as the "two wheels" of the SCO by Zhang Deguang, the organization’s first secretary general.

China’s trade with SCO member countries shot up from US$12.1 billion to around $90 billion during the past 10 years, but if the $60 billion Sino-Russian trade volume is kept out, what emerges is that the track record on trade and economic cooperation has been far below its potential. The SCO plans to have a free-trade area by 2020.

China’s People’s Daily noted, "Among other concrete moves is the construction of a railway, highway and pipeline network linking landlocked Central Asia and its rich natural resources to the global economy." If these materialize and if the membership of India and Pakistan also were to be realized in the coming two to three years, the SCO may emerge by the time it celebrates its 20th anniversary as a grouping of immense consequence to the world economy.

"Nyet" to US military bases

The Astana summit has continued with the trend of recent years of the SCO articulating a common position on regional and international issues. The summit’s virtual endorsement of the Russian position with regard to missile defense and the SCO stance on the upheaval in the Middle East and the Afghan situation are of interest.

Interestingly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later claimed that the SCO members were unanimous in their criticism of the missile shield that the US is setting up not only in Europe but also in the Asia-Pacific and South Asia.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his address to the 10th SCO summit said Wednesday that the colonialist approach in the world management is the major cause of ’historical chaos."

The Astana summit has virtually endorsed the common stance of Russia and China with regard to Middle East developments. The accent is on regional stability; the importance of leaving it to the countries of the region to foster democratization in terms of their national conditions and in accordance with their historical and cultural traditions; the resolution of differences through dialogue; the role of the international community being limited to contributing to national reconciliation; and most important, the imperative of the international community abiding by international laws and non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states and respecting the territorial integrity of independent states.

The SCO stance is patently critical of the Western intervention in Libya and anticipates likely interventions in other Middle Eastern countries. But the SCO stance has another connotation insofar as there is rising apprehension that it is a matter of time before the Arab Spring arrives in the Central Asian steppes.

Russian experts have been openly hinting at such a strong possibility and some of them even anticipate that despite the few "European" features of its own political system, even Russia may be vulnerable to a popular rising for democratization. Both Russia and China would also estimate that any such wave of popular unrest would be almost certain to be exploited by the US to force "regime changes" in the Central Asia region and expand its own geopolitical influence.

The Astana summit’s call for a "neutral" Afghanistan is a major development. It now becomes the common position of Russia, China and the Central Asian states that they disfavor the establishment of any permanent US and/or NATO military presence in Afghanistan.

The SCO declaration comes at a time when the US is actively discussing a strategic partnership agreement with the government headed by President Hamid Karzai. Thus, it is a point of interest that Karzai himself was at Astana when the SCO declaration was formally approved.

Karazai in Pakistan to discuss US-exit and SCO strategy.
(Image via Wikipedia)

Obviously, detailed discussions have been held behind the curtain between Karzai and the SCO leaders on the big questions of the post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan. Kazakh President Nurusultan Nazarbayev gave a valuable clue to SCO thought processes when he openly anticipated, "It is possible that the SCO will assume responsibility for many issues in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014."

The US is indeed coming across a major problem by way of the hardening of regional opinion with regard to its hidden agenda to establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan beyond 2014. South Asian opinion is already weighed against any US military bases in Afghanistan. The discord lies at the core of US-Pakistan tensions. Iran has never minced words on the issue. India has quietly indicated its aversion to "new cold war" tensions appearing in the region.

The implications are serious for the US’s "containment strategy" toward China and Russia. Clearly, Russia and China are convinced that the US game plan is to deploy components of the missile defense system in Afghanistan. The Astana summit has reiterated its basic ideology that the countries of the region possess the genius and resources to solve their problems of development and security and outside intervention is unwarranted.

Historically, though, the summit may have signified China’s entry into the Eurasian landmass. As happened over Central Asia, China will take the utmost care to coordinate with Russia.

Any eventual SCO expansion into the Eurasian landmass to bring Belarus and Ukraine into its fold as partners can only be based on commonality of interests between Russia and China, which are today helped in large measure by the steady dissipation of the US-Russia "reset", the impasse over the US’s missile defense deployments on Russia’s "near abroad" and the challenges posed by the US’s growing strategic presence in the Black Sea region.