SCO: 10 years of evolution and impact

The 10th anniversary summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 15, will be a historic event in terms of the security group's evolution and its impact on the line-up of forces in the region.

The leaders of the six-member SCO are expected to induct Afghanistan as an observer and flag off the process of admitting India and Pakistan as full members. The moves will place Afghanistan at the top of the SCO agenda and dramatically increase the weight and reach of the organisation. It will also be a major victory for Russian diplomacy.

Russia has been steadily working to include Afghanistan in the SCO's zone of responsibility. The SCO established a contact group with Afghanistan, and President Hamid Karzai has attended all its recent summits as a special guest. Russia has also formed a quadrilateral grouping with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan to promote multilateral economic projects. Its efforts met with understanding in Kabul as it sought to diversify its external relations. According to Russian officials, President Karzai made the request to join the SCO during his visit to Moscow in January.

Moscow has also consistently championed the admission of India to the SCO to balance China's dominance and strengthen the grouping's clout. “Geopolitically, the induction of India will help refocus its interests from the West towards Russia and Asian states,” said Dr. Alexander Lukin, director of East Asia and SCO studies at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Institute of International Relations.

China has long resisted SCO expansion citing lack of standards and procedures. However, fears of chaos in Afghanistan and a spill-over of instability to neighbouring regions of Central Asia and China in the wake of the planned drawdown of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have prompted the SCO to review its unofficial moratorium on admitting new members.

According to SCO Secretary-General Muratbek Imanaliyev, the summit in Astana will endorse Afghanistan's application for observer status and approve a memorandum on legal and financial obligations of would-be member-states. After that, he said, “we can start negotiations with the nations applying to join the SCO.” Currently the SCO comprises China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan are observer states, while Belarus and Sri Lanka are dialogue partners.

Pakistan formally applied for full SCO membership in 2006, Iran filed its application a year later. Last year, India registered its desire to upgrade its observer status to full membership. Iran, for now, stands disqualified under a SCO provision that aspiring candidates must not be under United Nations sanctions or involved in an armed conflict. That leaves India and Pakistan as the only credible candidates.

President Dmitry Medvedev last month publicly voiced support for Pakistan joining the SCO “together with other candidates.” Moscow recently turned around on its frosty relations with Islamabad hoping to make Pakistan play a more constructive role in Afghanistan. A joint statement issued during Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to Moscow voiced “support for Afghan-led and Afghan-owned efforts towards promoting national reconciliation in Afghanistan.”

Unique consensus

The lifting of the moratorium on SCO expansion is the result of a unique consensus that has emerged among its members in recent months on the role the security group should play in the region as the U.S.-led NATO forces prepare to pull out of Afghanistan. It is based on the shared belief that the problem of Afghanistan can be solved only in a regional format and that the SCO is the best instrument for facilitating such a solution.

“The SCO believes with good reason that Afghanistan holds the key to the future of the entire region,” Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose country holds the rotating chairmanship of the SCO, said in an article devoted to the Astana summit. “We cannot rule out that the SCO may have to bear the brunt of resolving many problems that Afghanistan will face after the withdrawal of the international coalition forces in 2014.”

Ahead of the SCO summit in Astana, Russia voiced concern that the situation in Afghanistan would deteriorate in the coming months and years. “The unfolding process of handing over responsibility from the NATO forces to the Afghan authorities will heighten tension. The situation in Afghanistan is steadily worsening,” Russia's special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov told a recent press conference in Moscow. “The security forces of Afghanistan — police and the army — are not ready to assume control even in a few provinces, let alone the entire country.”

The U.S. had 10 years to create a combat-ready army in Afghanistan, Mr. Kabulov said, but time had been lost. Russia was providing transit and other assistance to the coalition forces to help them finish the job and go. “The presence of U.S. military bases in Afghanistan on a long-term basis can greatly aggravate the situation in the region and become a source of tension,” Mr. Kabulov said.

However, experts warned that Washington had no intention of leaving the region. “Afghanistan takes a back seat in the U.S. calculus,” said Sultan Akimbekov, director of Kazakhstan's Institute of World Economy and Politics. “Washington's main goal is to get entrenched in Central Asia under the cover of combating terrorism.” He spoke at an international conference on Afghanistan and regional security held in Almaty on June 9-10 as a curtain raiser for the SCO summit in Astana.

“I think by 2014, the Americans will redeploy their forces in Afghanistan. They will most likely stay at several bases in southern and central regions and move their main forces to the country's north, with subsequent relocation to Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and probably Uzbekistan,” said Dr. Alexander Knyazev, Russia's leading expert on Central Asia who helped organise the conference.

The U.S. already has an airbase near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek in the north and plans to set up a military training centre in the south of Kyrgyzstan and an anti-narcotics training facility in Tajikistan. “These bases will have nothing to do with the fight against terrorism, but will serve as bridgeheads for U.S. geopolitical and geo-economic designs against Russia, Iran and China,” Dr. Knyazev said.

The expert believes that the U.S.' hidden agenda in the region also includes fragmentation of Afghanistan into two or more ethnically defined parts in keeping with the concept of creating “controlled crises.”

The dangers of the endgame in Afghanistan will be high on the minds of the SCO leaders as they seek to energise the group's regional policies at the Astana summit. Russian officials admit though that the SCO at this stage has limited possibilities to influence the situation in Afghanistan. The Russian President's special representative for SCO affairs, Leonid Moiseyev, said the traumatic experience of the 10-year war the Soviet Union waged in Afghanistan made Russia and the new Central Asian states reluctant to work on security issues in Afghanistan.

“We are ready to work on the perimeter borders of Afghanistan and use the potential of observer states, Iran first of all,” Mr. Moiseyev said at a media event in Moscow last week. “But inside Afghanistan, SCO member states are ready to work only on an individual basis and mainly on economic issues.”

The SCO's most successful project so far is the Regional Antiterrorism Structure (RATS) set up in 2004. The member-states have since conducted several major anti-terror military drills. Another area where the SCO has acted in concert is in fighting drug trafficking from Afghanistan. The Astana summit will approve an anti-narcotics strategy for 2011-2016.

New challenges

The proposed expansion poses new challenges for the 10-year-old SCO. “The main question facing the SCO today is whether it will develop as a discussion club that occasionally makes loud statements or evolve into a serious international mechanism on a par with or probably more influential than the ASEAN or APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] forum,” said Dr. Lukin of the Moscow-based Institute of International Relations.

The expert called for organisational reforms to strengthen the SCO, first of all by enhancing the role and independence of the Secretariat, whose officials today are more accountable to their respective Foreign Ministries than to the SCO Secretary General. The consensus principle of decision-taking also needs to be modified to allow joint programmes to go ahead even if a member is unwilling to take part. The expert urged Russia to drop its “shortsighted” opposition to the Chinese proposal for setting up a SCO bank that would create a much needed mechanism for financing multilateral projects and enable the SCO to make full use of the economic potential of new members.

“Given the unpredictable situation in Central Asia, where one cannot rule out events similar to the ‘Arab awakening', the SCO may soon be called upon to prove its worth as the most representative regional organisation,” the Russian expert said.

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