The importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is on the rise, especially as it is the only major international organization which the US or any chief allies of the US are not party to. The meeting of the SCO held in Kazakhstan mid June was watched carefully by international observers, as issues close to the heart of US interests in the region were on the agenda.
The six-members of the SCO (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) were joined in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana by leaders from observer nations Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, India and Mongolia to discuss issues of the Afghan war, the contagious Arab Spring, energy cooperation and other regional issues.
For analyzing the role of the SCO, PoliTact also interviewed:
DA Wei, Director, Presidents Office, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor, Global Affairs, Moscow.Inderjit Singh, Professor of Political Economy and National Strategy, National War College, National Defense University, USA.
Arab Spring and Central Asia
The Arab Spring was one of the main issues that the SCO were keen to discuss, particularly as the specter of unrest has been stirring in these countries as well. Uzbekistan is especially concerning, as the ramifications of widespread unrest in the country would be felt keenly by its neighbors. China and Russia are paying close attention to the situation in Uzbekistan, whose leader, Islam Karimov is a very heavy-handed autocrat who would come down strongly on any disturbances.
If the Arab Spring were to spread to Central Asia, the implications would be dire locally and internationally especially for the energy sector, as the region is a key strategic area for the transportation of natural gas and oil. The spread of revolution and state dissolution to Central Asia would also directly impact the US war in Afghanistan, as supply routes go through a number of countries in the region, not to mention the spillover effect of the unrest fuelling further conflict in Afghanistan.
It is expected that China and Russia will become involved in subduing any popular unrest in the region, if only because the status quo, while not ideal, is much more manageable and predictable as opposed to the current state of the Middle East and North Africa. It is believed that Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev has already tried to preempt an uprising in Uzbekistan by urging its overbearing leader to allow the people more rights, freer religious expression and political diversity. However, Karimov is notoriously hard to argue with, so the outcome of Medvedev’s meeting with Karimov is uncertain at best.
US Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Missile Defense System and NATO
Russia was especially pleased with China joining the condemnation of the planned US globe-spanning anti missile defense system. Both China and Russia feel the US’s increasing influence in their neighborhood keenly, and the thought of a global shield operated by the US is very disturbing for both countries. The SCO summit saw Russia and China make good headway into their agenda for bilateral energy cooperation among other business agreements.
The future of the US presence in the region was also a central theme on the agenda of the SCO, with the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan set to begin in July and be completed by 2014. The fear is that Afghanistan will descent into anarchy when the US withdraws, given that the US and NATO efforts have done very little to bring about a stable, democratic and cohesive governing body in the country.
President Medvedev made it plain that the future of Afghanistan was directly relational to security and stability in all SCO countries and most observer countries, and that the SCO must endeavor to increase cooperation and involvement in Afghanistan to try and ensure stability in a post-US scenario.
The US presence in Central and South Asia came into stark relief with the unilateral action in Pakistan to take out Osama bin Laden, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as well as Pakistani officials have criticized the role the US is playing in the region. Karzai in particular has been vocal about his misgivings regarding the US position in Afghanistan and the reconciliation processes with the Taliban. He has made it explicit that he is not involved in the US negotiations with the Taliban.
Karzai has been especially vocal over NATO strikes on civilian homes, issuing a statement in the end of May disallowing such strikes, saying they will not be tolerated any longer. As the end-date of the UN mandate for US and NATO troops runs out in October of this year, US and NATO leaders are finding it increasingly complicated to come to an agreement with the Karzai government about the terms of foreign troops staying on in the country. It is expected Karzai will try and impose strict limitations on the conduct of US and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.
There has been some conjecture whether or not the SCO will in some regards step in for NATO in Afghanistan and the region at large. While the SCO is as yet not a military alliance, it provides the framework for such an alliance to be formed in Central Asia. However, there would be great hesitation on all parties to create a military alliance in the region, especially given the waning efficacy of NATO.
NATO’s role in the region, as well as its entanglement in Libya is calling into question the future of the organization. Indeed Robert Gates, who left his office as Defense Secretary on June 30 delivered a scathing review of NATO in one of his last addresses in Brussels on June 10. Gates criticized Europe for not carrying their share of the work in NATO, with the US picking up the slack of up to 75 percent of the military expenditure of the organization.
Many saw the Libya mission as the nail in the coffin for the alliance, although the demise would likely be slow and drawn out. Gates warned his European counterparts that younger generations of US politicians will not see the value in the alliance if the lack of political will, motivation and energy displayed by the Europeans regarding NATO were to continue. With the situation in Syria quickly deteriorating, and a NATO mission there becoming more and more possible, Gate’s comments can be taken as a warning that if NATO is to expand it’s engagements in the Middle East, Europe must play a larger role, or risk the US pulling the plug.
For the SCO this comes as a warning, especially to the two larger members Russia and China, who, if a NATO-style alliance were formed from the organization, would likely pick up most of the slack.
To explore the answer to this question, PoliTact interviewed:
DA Wei, Director, Presidents Office, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor, Global Affairs, Moscow.
Inderjit Singh, Professor of Political Economy and National Strategy, National War College, National Defense University, USA
Future of Afghanistan and SCO
While replying to a question from PoliTact on the future of NATO and SCO, the editor of Global Affairs Mocow, Fyodor Lukyanov, emphasized the role of the SCO in Afghanistan. He stated, “The SCO now is primarily about Afghanistan because this [is] a matter of huge concern for all countries of Central Euro Asia what will happen in Afghanistan after American and NATO exit, and no body can answer it.” He added that NATO should be very much interested and should encourage the SCO to take over the settlement of this issue and that it’s the only organization that is very well placed to take on this responsibility.
Da Wei of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) distinguished the role the BRICS countries and the SCO, and avoided making any comparison of the SCO with NATO, or comment on the role of SCO in Afghanistan. He clarified that the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are focused on global economic and political affairs while the SCO is more concerned with security issues. He added that BRICS membership is open to other countries and is a forum for emerging powers to dialogue amongst member countries and with other institutions like SCO. He clarified further that BRIC and SCO are not very “strict-tight” organizations.
Dr. Inderjist Singh who is a Professor of Political Economy and National Strategy at the US National Defense University emphasized the role of a regional solution to Afghanistan that does not leave out the interests of India, Russia, China, and Iran. He noted that the invitation recently from Medvedev to Karzai to join the SCO does not carry much significance as the country cannot yet ensure its own security and that’s why the role of Pakistan is important. He commented that Pakistan should not attempt to marginalize the interests of the Northern Alliance and India through the Haqqani network because a stable solution for Afghanistan would have to involve regional powers and the route of negotiations would be better than the use of force.