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Making Sense of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s Enlargement

The conversion of India and Pakistan into full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) during the summit in Tashkent highlights the importance of the stabilisation of the wider Asian region. This will be the organisation’s first ever enlargement since its inception in 2001 when Uzbekistan, having no direct border with China, was impressed by the Shanghai Five’s performance in reducing conflict potential along China’s border with the Central Asian states. Having observed the organisation’s growing potential Uzbekistan chose to join. At this point the the group changed its name to the SCO and outlined principles that would shape their fair and mutually beneficial cooperation. The chief principle was the status of partners. Introducing equality to the region, formerly dominated by Russian-led blocs, critically separated the SCO from any other organisation.

June 20, 2016 - David Erkomaishvili - Articles and Commentary

The added value that China introduced by reaching out to the traditionally Russian sphere of influence was a strategic parity. For the post-Soviet Central Asian states this was a welcome addition as they could now freely balance Russian and Chinese influences via the organisation and share their vision for the region. The stabilisation function of the SCO was also reflected in its stance on resistance to American interventionism and Russian pressures.

India and its strategic rival Pakistan expressed their interest in SCO accession and were the first in line to join the expanded format when the organisation introduced the observer status. What was missing was the mechanism for enlargement. The bloc quickly grew into a forum for shaping agenda and addressing the challenges of the Central Asian region.

For China, the most acute risk is its internal economic discrepancy. This creates tensions within Chinese society and further alienates the population in the region of Xinjiang, which in turn facilitates internal instability. To manage those domestic issues Beijing is in permanent need of stability and a predictable situation in the region. Ever since the 1969 conflict between the Soviet Union and China, which almost led to all out nuclear war between the two states, Beijing has learnt just how dangerous unresolved border issues can be. In border conflicts no obstacle is too small.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Central Asia has seen increasing involvement from China. The new tendencies of the post-Cold war period prompted two important strategies: to redress militarised borders and start constructing relations with the new states of Central Asia on a basis that would avoid Soviet heritage; and to address the rapidly rising Islamic fundamentalism. This approach laid the foundation for the consequent development of the SCO.

China is a rising power. Looking at Beijing’s neighbours, the situation is the obverse of stability. Russia confronts the West and aggressively militarises the post-Soviet area. Since the early 2000s Moscow has successfully invaded and partitioned Georgia and effectively helped to undermine Ukrainian statehood. While relations between India and Pakistan have been improving they are far from being friendly. Afghanistan is being engulfed by religious and political radicalism projecting volatility for the whole Asian region. Vietnam is on the rise and challenges China in the South East.

For China trade is another important aspect for keeping Central Asia safe and insulated. The only viable alternative to the coastline route for Chinese goods to reach global markets is the route via Xinjiang into Central Asia and further into Europe. For much of the twentieth century this route was cut off due to Russian dominance of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, China could not afford to neglect Russia’s influence. However, the extreme differences in their strategic narratives led to the Sino-Russian partnership which is based on the three no’s policy: no alliance, no confrontation, no targeting of third countries. For the last two decades Beijing has been busy bankrolling development west of its borders, building infrastructure across the region, including in Central Asia, which would allow it to implement massive projects, such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and to expand economically.

Having invested significant resources in Central Asia and the neighbourhood Beijing has become a stakeholder with credible interests to protect. The SCO in this view helps regulate preferences and build rules and policies in the region.

There is a logic which explains the enlargement of the SCO. For China, managing competing interests with powerful neighbours without open confrontation is an essential condition. Linked to this is stability which offers the expansion of economic possibilities and trade. Deflecting radicalism and separatism becomes a critical task. The very word ‘separatism’ in the SCO’s vocabulary is indicative of the leading Chinese position. There are many political and economic issues in Central Asia, but one aspect is remarkably absent. Separatism is a quandary of Russia and China, not Central Asian states.

One cannot make India or Pakistan full members separately, in the same way that NATO could not invite Greece in without Turkey. India and Pakistan are regional rising powers. Both are members of the nuclear club. India is China’s economic competitor. Membership for both states with voting rights will allow China to extend its own influence onto a much wider arena than is accessible today.

Such an expansion will inevitably forego the exclusively post-Soviet focus that the bloc has enjoyed since 2001 and will inevitably detract from the concerns of the Central Asian states. This was an opinion voiced in Tashkent. Uzbekistan was the only power in Central Asia to raise the concern about SCO’s enlargement. Such an expansion extends the purely regional focus of the group and leads to a significant shift of the agenda. It also diminishes the importance of Central Asian powers. Having China, Russia and India on board will force the rest of the SCO to consider highly politicised international issues that Central Asian states have always preferred to avoid due to the unease about placing their fragile relations with the West under stress.

For Beijing the bloc’s expansion is less of a problem. China is not a post-Soviet state. From the Russian perspective, the expansion of the bloc allows it to prop up its stance against the United States, but more importantly add parties capable of balancing China. The removal of the exclusively post-Soviet membership bar and the introduction of enlargement procedures will pave the way for further regional growth of the SCO. Iran would be the most probable candidate for membership outside of the post-Soviet area. Turkey will take a closer look at the SCO especially against the background of its prolonged membership dispute with the European Union.

India’s accession to the SCO as a full member will not necessarily lead to the resolution of all of the old animosities that it shares with China. For India, however, this move aligns it with China on the important issues of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism; what the Chinese call the fight with the “three evil” forces. All in the free format of the SCO and without any allied military commitments.

David Erkomaishvili is the Executive Editor of Central European Journal of International and Security Studies and  a lecturer of International Relations at Metropolitan University Prague. His main area of expertise includes alignments, alliance theory, spatial analysis of alignments and development of the post-Soviet and wider Eurasian regions with a special focus on the Caucasus, Central Asia and Russia.

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