SCO: Signpost to the new global politics

After its fifth anniversary summit, there is no doubt that the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has come of age. It is emerging as a major factor in global politics and one to decisively influence the balance of power in Asia, and in fact globally. Established in June 2001, the regional organisation comprises China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Its member-states take up 60 per cent of Euroasia and a quarter of the world’s population. It is the successor organisation of the ‘Shanghai Five’ –” China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan. Set up in 1996 as the Shanghai Five, its objective was to resolve border disputes and terrorism that emerged as a corollary of the international war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Now, five years after it was established, the SCO is clearly graduating beyond its original mandate of dealing with security threats.

In a gradual and organic growth, the SCO has been dictated by its own contextual logic as opposed to an external logic. The countries of the Asian chessboard themselves want to be calling the shots on their own affairs. And they are preparing themselves for this role. The SCO is now expanding. This includes its agenda, its capacity and also the number of members with observer status. Its Secretariat, the Executive Committee of the SCO Regional Anti-terrorist Structure have also been set up. For genuine and rapid economic development, the banks of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) signed the ‘Programme of Action to support regional economic cooperation between the member-banks of the Interbank Association of SCO’ on 15 June during the anniversary of Shanghai Summit. It is pursuing its own independent policy on key global security issues. It seems Beijing’s ‘soft’ diplomacy, especially in dealing with smaller powers has been adopted by the SCO. The declaration adopted at Shanghai also called on the international community to "show respect and understanding of the unique historical and cultural traditions of Central Asian nations."

There are four factors that create an ‘enabling’ context for the SCO’s growth as a powerful Asian organisation.

One, the strengthening of Sino-Russian ties is giving special momentum to SCO. The year 2006 is the Year of Russia and Year 2007 the Year of China. The two believe that "China and Russia should strengthen support and strategic coordination when the international and regional situation is becoming increasingly complex." The volume of bilateral trade has been growing at a rate of more than 30 per cent for a seventh consecutive year. The Sino-Russian trade volume in 2005 hit an all-time high of $29.1 billion, a 37.1 per cent jump on the previous year.

Two, what gives a special momentum to SCO’s growth is the energy that political commitment of the top leadership of China and Russia brings to the SCO. The fact is that the SCO has been driven by these two major powers.

Three after China, Russia too is emerging as a major economic power. The value of its energy resources gives Russia that standing and its involvement in the SCO.

Four, direct US military presence in the region. Until July 2005, US had two bases in Central Asia. Having been turned out of Uzbekistan, they have bases only in one country. The SCO grouping is also making an effort to prevent US presence in Central Asia along the post-war East Asian lines. China continues to view Washington as a factor in the Japanese hostility towards it. Similarly, many view the South-North Korean tensions also indirectly, encouraged by Washington’s need to justify its military presence in East Asia.

Clearly, all these reasons have prompted Asia’s potentially most powerful organisation to also stake a role for itself in global affairs. It will be a major player in the energy wars. But also built into its expansion is its emergence as an Asian organisation that will challenge the US-dictated global norms. The reiterative message that comes from the two major partners is that without multi-lateralism and multi-culturalism, it is impossible to deal with the multiple challenges. Three are continuously underlined –” terrorism, extremism and separation.

This has been illustrated through three specific steps taken over the last one year. First, the July 5 SCO leadership call that the US remove its troops from Central Asia. That led to the Uzbekistan government’s decision to close down the US base in Uzbekistan. Second, Moscow’s decision to invite the Hamas Foreign Minister to Russia. This was done in the face of stinging criticism of the US. The third major step which evoked an open reaction from Washington was the Iran question. More specifically about inviting the Iranian President at the SCO summit. Early this month, the US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld criticised Russia and China for seeking to draw Iran closer to the SCO. "It strikes me as strange that one would want to bring into an organisation that says it’s against terrorism, one of the leading terrorist nations in the world, Iran," Rumsfeld said. The SCO hit back. Zhang Deguang, Secretary-General of the SCO, responded to Rumsfeld’s comment by stating that he did not consider Iran a terrorist state.

Reasons for Washington’s military, political and economic involvement in the region include controlling energy resources and fighting anti-US militants. The United States has supported a new oil pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Ceyhan, Turkey. This has led some to charge that the United States is really after the region’s oil. The stated objective is often to prevent any neo-imperial revival in Eurasia, fighting terrorism, and promoting democracy.

China and Russia have meanwhile long wanted US troops out of Central Asia, an energy-rich region both consider within their sphere of influence, experts say. Many in Moscow argue the so-called ‘colour revolutions’ were the work of US-funded non-governmental organisations. Experts also say Beijing sees the US military presence along its western border as part of Washington’s strategy to contain China. Energy is another major Chinese concern, especially securing access to oil and natural gas from the Caspian Basin located roughly 1,500 miles to the west."

In the coming years, the role of two main countries –” India and Japan –” will be decisive. India, although having tactically given a cold shoulder to the SCO, had lobbied hard for observer status. It is now seeking full membership. With Japan, China has continuously sought normalisation of its ties with Japan. If India and Japan both come within the SCO fold, it would spell more cooperative competition for Asia, rather than confrontation and competitiveness.

Washington’s own response to a strengthening SCO will deeply impact future global politics. There is risk of world affairs coming full circle. Another cold war? No, because there are intricately interwoven economic ties between US and the SCO principles. But too much suspicion of the SCO by Washington will create more instability within the region. Finally, for SCO itself, the foremost challenge will be on the homefront. How to take along their own population, make them stakeholders in this vision for a sane, new world. That will need more cordial relations between the state and society in the SCO countries. And that is essential to ensuring that the SCO continues to expand its influence as a major force in international affairs.