SCO and Regionalism in Central Asia
Weekly Pulse
26 Nov-2 Dec 2010
In a relatively short period since its creation in Shanghai in June 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has emerged as a viable regional integration initiative in Central Asia. The organization has established a proper organizational structure, expanded its activities and participation in them by states across the region. Like the years before, the SCO held its annual summit of Heads of Government Council meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on November 24-25, in which the leaders and representatives from the participating nations made another head way in fostering multi-faceted regional cooperation.

A successor to the Shanghai Five, which was established in April 1996, SCO has six permanent members, including China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. India, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia enjoy observer status in the organization, while Sri Lanka and Belarus are its dialogue partners. SCO has a contact group with Afghanistan. Together, SCO members and observers govern 44 per cent of the world’s population, control 18 per cent of the world’s military forces, and control 23 per cent of the world’s known oil reserves and the two largest proven gas deposits.

The organisation has two permanent bodies – the Secretariat in Beijing and the Regional Anti-Terror Structure (RATS) in Tashkent, and its stated goals in the 2001 Shanghai Declaration, among others, include: strengthening mutual confidence and good-neighbourly relations among the member countries; promoting effective cooperation in politics, trade and economy, science and technology, culture as well as education, energy, transportation, tourism, environmental protection and other fields; and making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region, moving towards the establishment of a new, democratic, just and rational political and economic international order.

Despite being an observer state, Pakistan was represented in the SCO summit by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. This indicates how much significance Pakistan attaches to SCO. Islamabad’s desire to a permanent member of the organization is motivated by the country’s objective reality of being a potentially viable route in future for Central Asian hydrocarbon riches to be marketed to South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific region. Pakistan can play a significant role in the economic development of the region and turn it into a trade and energy corridor by providing land and sea route to the SCO member countries, particularly the land-locked Central Asian countries.

Remarkable Success

Like Pakistan, India and Iran are also desirous of permanent membership of the SCO, which itself indicates the organization’s growing success as a regional initiative. The past over nine years have seen SCO attempting to realize the goals set in the Shanghai Declaration by creating appropriate institutional mechanisms and undertaking various cooperative steps. Its original agenda has not fundamentally changed; rather, its focus has expanded overtime. The organization has achieved significant progress in establishing mechanisms to deal with security issues, particularly terrorism, and fostering economic cooperation among the member-states.

Take terrorism, for instance. This has always been a priority area for SCO states. RATS is the main platform for cooperation in counter-terrorism for the member-states. For this purpose and to manage other security dangers, the member-states have held several joint military exercises. The most recent one, called ‘Peace Mission 2010’, concluded in September in Kazakhstan, in which some 5,000 troops from the member-states took part.

Fostering security cooperation among the member countries may be a priority matter for the SCO, but closer look at its activities in recent years reveals a significant shift in the organizational focus from security to economic cooperation. Slowly but surely, SCO is doing what the other most successful regionalism initiative in Asia, the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), did: harnessing the collective economic potential of its member-states, promoting their economic development and trade, and developing communication links among them.

SCO is a win-win option for everyone, including the member-states. No other organization has as quickly tackled Central Asian states’ economic and security problem as SCO has. Being land-locked, Central Asian states need an outlet for economic development. This outlet is provided by China and Russia, the two great powers, which have realistic reasons for the region’s development and integration, as it ensures the growth of their own global economic potential. In short, it is the mutual compatibility of economic interests that has made SCO a success and the same factor explains why countries like Pakistan are so much interested in joining it as permanent members.

Comparative Distinction

In the post-Cold War period, regionalism in Central Asia has also involved other initiatives such as the Economic Cooperation organization (ECO), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Collective Security Treaty organization (CSTO) and Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO). However, SCO seems to have proven its comparative distinctiveness by serving its participating nations’, especially member-states’, objective needs and interests in a host of security, economic and political spheres in an era of globalization and terrorism.

Unlike SCO, other initiatives of regionalism have not been truly comprehensive in approach. The relative success of SCO can also be attributed to its membership, primarily that of China and Russia. SCO provides China with a security protection mechanism, and a platform for China to cooperate with Central Asia comprehensively. China can contribute more to Central Asia’s development than any other external actor due to its geographical proximity with the region and also because of its fast economic growth and technological capacity, which is not matched by any other regional actor.

As for Russia, it has significantly recovered the lost influence in the aftermath of the Soviet demise. It is an important power in the region, with profound political, economic, military and cultural ties with its countries. Hence, Russian and Chinese interests, along with Central Asian states’ interests, can be achieved with the diversified agenda and unique membership of SCO. Even otherwise, SCO does not perceive other regionalism initiatives such as CIS or CSTO to be hostile to its interests. In 2006, for instance, it signed an agreement with CSTO to broaden cooperation on issues of security, such as crime and drug trafficking. Joint action plans for the purpose were subsequently concluded in 2008.

Remaining Challenges

However, despite a huge success achieved by the organisation in the past over nine years, it needs to settle institutional issues pertaining to membership, conflict resolution and crisis management. SCO countries have to compromise on the remaining areas of conflict between them, and give more priority to the organization’s collective developmental goals over their specific national interests. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing SCO concerns the economic sector. Several cooperative projects have been identified, but without a follow-up agreement. Many agreements remain to be implemented.

Last but not the least is the image problem that SCO continues to face. The dominant scholarly discourse still treats this organization as a Sino-Russian effort to curtail the US-led Western influence in Central Asia. This discourse by the proponents of the New Great Game negates reality, and is grounded on a fear that is largely exaggerated and misplaced. Great powers do compete and will always compete in future. However, what we cannot ignore in an era of globalization and terrorism, is that their interests are more compatibly now than before.

For instance, for both China and Russia, maintaining friendly relations with the United States and Europe are economically very crucial. The same goes for the United States, which has significant stakes in its investment in China and does not aspire for a confrontational approach towards Russia. China and Russia as much attach importance to countering terrorism in the region as the United States—sometime even more. So do the Central Asian states, which are free to bolster bilateral ties with extra-regional powers such the US, NATO and the European Union. All of the Central Asian members of SCO, for instance, have participated in military activities of NATO-sponsored Partnership for Peace programme. They are also free to interact with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). If SCO-level cooperation leads of regional trade liberalization, why should it bother the US or the EU?