Some Thoughts On How To Make Sco More Relevant
The 12th summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit meeting was held in Beijing on June 6-7, 2012. It came out with several notable outcomes, the most significant among them being the unanimous rejection of military intervention by any country as a way to resolve international hotspot issues, including Syria and Iran’s nuclear issue. The leaders recognized that their own countries’ stability is inherently linked to the stability in troubled regions. They pointed to the mood of pessimism over Afghanistan’s potential to remain stable after the ISAF recall in 2014 as an example of why military interventions do not work.
China denied the possibility that the SCO would ever evolve into a military and political bloc. Indeed, SCO’s charter mandates that the organisation will remain one of non-alliance, non-confrontation, not targeting at any third country or organisation and openness to outside parties. China described the SCO’s mission as a quest for a new model of partnership for regional organisation.
The organisation was born in 1996 out of an economic agreement among Russia, China, and three Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in a meeting in Shanghai. Uzbekistan joined the group during the Moscow summit on June 15, 2001 in which the group was promoted to an organisation named as the SCO. Since then, the SCO has expanded its scope from economic cooperation to include security and military issues as well. The organisation has gradually expanded its activities, including accepting observer members. In the latest meeting, Afghanistan was accepted as a new observer, thereby increasing the number of the organisation’s observers to five, which included Iran, India, Mongolia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Belarus and Sri Lanka are dialogue partners.
Regional economic cooperation has been increasing rapidly since the six member countries signed a document to promote their trade ties. The potential for further economic cooperation has its challenges since the members have different development levels and plans. As it transpired at the Beijing summit, the organisation plays a crucial role in facing challenges together. Finance, manufacturing, tourism, and infrastructure are particularly primed for more cooperation.
The Beijing summit coincided with major global developments, including the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s third term in office as the President of Russia. Iran was also able to use the summit’s opportunity to give voice to its positions on various issues. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made several proposals at the summit, including: strengthening convergence among international and regional countries pursuing justice, fostering economic cooperation and planning for new financial system, establishing international bodies free from the hegemonic domination, and promoting political and cultural cooperation in order to deepen friendship. Ahmadinejad called on the world nations to try to remove the existing global problems, adding that the inefficient and discriminatory system now ruling the world has pushed the world to a critical and irreversible point which imposes unwanted problems for all countries. He also described the former colonial powers’ acute desire to revive the old world, when they enjoyed looting of nations especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America, under the deceiving claims of defending freedom and democracy as the main cause of clashes, wars and crises worldwide.
Iran’s proposals were not welcome by the member states as they have been consistently rejected by other members for different reasons. Had Iran’s proposals been more practical, they would have stood a better chance of being accepted.
The most important outcome of the summit was its final statement. The prominent feature of the statement was the SCO’s rejection to deployment of NATO missile shield in the region. The heads of states also called for peaceful solution to the Middle East problems, thus rejecting any military intervention in Syria. Other important highlights of the final statement were supporting Iran’s right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, emphasis on fighting terrorism, opposition to the US unilateralism and accepting Afghanistan as a new observer.
Embracing Afghanistan as an observer signaled SCO’s efforts to improve regional economic integration and combat drug trafficking, extremism and terrorism. Closer ties with Afghanistan are significant as most international combat troops prepare to pull out by the end of 2014. Russia and China have long seen the SCO as a way to counter US influence in Central Asia and hope to play a significant role in Afghanistan’s future development. Both China and Russia are using the SCO to blunt US dominance of global affairs and shielded Syria from international moves to halt its crackdown on a 15-month uprising.
Indeed, China’s growing economic dominance in Central Asia is already visible. While opening the summit, President Hu Jintao said that China would offer a $10 billion loan to support economic development and cooperation among SCO member states, though no details were given on how the money would be used.
The Chief of General Staff of the SCO Chen Bingde noted that the region’s defense and security cooperation has gradually expanded along with the joint efforts of the SCO member states over the past 10 years. As a result, positive contributions have been made in jointly responding to various threats and safeguarding regional peace and stability. An example of this was the anti-terrorism exercise Peace Mission 2012, the 9th joint military exercise of the SCO. National military representatives held the event up as a demonstration of the will, determination and capability of the militaries of the SCO member states to jointly fight against terrorism, separatism and extremism.
As an observer state, India expressed its admiration for the SCO for its contribution to peace, stability and prosperity in the region. India welcomed the process of introspection among SCO members on the challenges of the next decade and the role of the body in a fast-evolving world. As a promising alternative regional platform, India is a willingly associated and is happy to share its unique experiences. It hopes to become a full member. To this end, Putin proposed a study by the national Foreign Ministries to prepare a decision on universal financial, legal and administrative conditions for the admission of new members. The SCO has not expanded since its inception.
Despite all the claimed success over the past decade, SCO faces several challenges ahead. First: Though in theory the members and observes put together would account for about one-third of the world’s population with great capacities and the organisation has big potential for playing an active role in international developments, in practice its role remained constrained by the fact that important countries such as India, Pakistan and Iran are still observer members and their requests for permanent membership is yet to be accepted. SCO lacks a single leadership and the leaders of member states lack coordination. Second: Divergent stages of economic development among member states results in hiatus of policy making. Third: The influence of the US on some member states hinders coordination in policies. Fourth: There is a lot of ambiguity in the organisation’s identity; it lacks a single definition for its identity. The SCO is neither anti-US like the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, nor has it an economic identity with centralised programs like Comecon which was dissolved after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. Lastly, Iran’s membership issue is also a contentious one. Russia announced clearly that Iran cannot join the SCO as long as its nuclear issue has not been resolved. In other words, resolutions against Iran bar its membership. The SCO’s identity issue may possibly be resolved if the states with observer status are accepted as full members. These are some of the critical issues that SCO faces and its relevance in the future is contingent upon how it addressed to the above issues.
By Rajaram Panda
(The author until recently was a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses)