SCO and strategic perspective of Central Asia | By Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer

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SCO and strategic perspective of Central Asia

THE Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a leading organization for political, economic, and security concerns.

Security challenges of the post-Cold War era necessitate new thinking of cooperation and security at the state level.

In 1990, China decided to undertake a more active role in developing a new forum to address security problems, especially on its periphery.

The converging policies of China and Russia founded the forum of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

China and Russia are two major members of the organization. As the primary leader of the organization, China offers economic cooperation to Central Asian States whereas Russia offers political-military cooperation.

The SCO brought together China, Russia and the Central Asian States with six dialogue partners and four observers.

The membership was extended further outwards with India and Pakistan as full members of the organization.

Turkmenistan is the only Central Asian State which is not a member of the SCO and sends her representative as a guest due to endless neutrality.

The initial mandate of the organization was to promote regional security and protect member states from non-state security threats.

The SCO’s policymakers always argue that the organization is not an alliance and not a balancing tool against the West or any other state.

In the region, China is a key player of the Central Asian States’ economies, especially after the development of the One Belt One Road, and Russia is still acting as an elder in Eurasian politics and security.

By contrast, the United States started disengaging from the region under the Obama Administration, but under the administration of Trump, there are signs that US forces may stay in Afghanistan.

The geographic reach of the organization significantly expanded to India and Pakistan. Security problems and conflicts, especially the issue of Kashmir, became the extensive agenda of the organization.

China was worried about the dilution of her role in the SCO after the inclusion of India while Russia understands that the inclusion of India as a full member of the organization would be a check on Chinese influence within the group, unlike India-Russia relations which have been cool since the last decade.

India understands that Chinese economic diplomacy in South Asia, particularly CPEC, may be a plan against Delhi to contain her regional strategic interests.

India is the only country in the SCO which does not endorse the Chinese project BRI (Belt and Road Initiative).

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has developed as a border arm control organization via its regional counterterrorism body.

Cooperation among the members and observers is at a great level but lacks common targets.

The wideranging agenda of the SCO and diverse membership weaken its capabilities and potential.

The member states and observers of the organization have their own agendas and national interests.

For instance, Russia is keen to reestablish its previous status in Central Asia as well as its superpower one at the international level.

All the while, China is seeking markets in Central Asia for expanding its economy and energy resources to keep her industries going.

Some regional states consider the organization as a guarantee for survival, especially with the protection of China and Russia.

The mixture of divergent objectives of each member and observer of the organization is not common.

There is no limit of divergent objectives to aforesaid China-Russia relations but they are found within the SCO.

For instance, China-Kazakhstan relations were also disturbed during the Peace Mission drills in 2007.

However, Kazakhstan was a member and participant of the exercises, but could not conduct them due to internal problems of legislation and thus did not allow Chinese troops to go through her territory.

A year later, Kazakhstan offered to host SCO war games. Another issue is the rivalry of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

During Peace Mission 2012, Uzbekistan didn’t participate in exercises and refused the request of Kazakhstan for passing through her soil.

The Uzbek troops made a detour through Kyrgyzstan to reach Tajikistan. These issues are a question mark on the unity of SCO members.

It looks that the organization is still unable to resolve some basic issues such as military transit via member states’ territories.

Such differences and divergence of national interests and present cooperation among the states might change into disputes when considering the tense relations between Pakistan and India.

There are opportunities for the member States to explore business and economic cooperation with one another.

The Central Asian states pursue their own national interests within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

China-Russia are the leading powers that contest each other and therefore are incapable of unilaterally ruling the other members of the organization.

The SCO is the best forum for the regional states; moreover the SCO demands lesser rule than the CSTO.

The CSTO is under the control of Russia and without China as a counter-balance. Moscow has superiority in the CSTO and limits the liberty of the member states.

The SCO is providing a platform for bilateral arrangement and lot of liberty for its member states.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are depending on Russia to fulfil their security and energy needs. On the other hand, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan do not depend on Moscow for security but have intentions of friendly and pragmatic relations.

Beijing and Moscow are eager to share the burden of security of the region at the expense of their own strategic interests without demanding any domestic transformations from the regional states.

Consequently, the SCO has emerged as a convenient place for the member states, particularly the Central Asian ones, to preserve the domestic status quo by accommodating the ambitions of China and Russia within a single framework.

—The writer, a PhD scholar, is associated with Islamia University Bahawalpur.