The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) celebrated its 10th anniversary in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, on June 15, an event that went largely uncommented on by the world's media.
But history often operates silently and strikes unnoticed, and the journey of the six member group – Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – sometimes referred to as ‘the orphans of the Cold War,’ has been a relatively quiet but steady one.
Some call the SCO an anti-Western and anti-NATO alliance, some see it as China taking its place in a new world order, while others refer to it as an alliance that can bring Eurasia to the fore of the international strategic map. But while there are many interpretations of the SCO, one thing is clear – it’s the only international organisation outside the sphere of influence of the United States and its allies, and the only other international group that has the power to influence events not only in central Asia, but also in Southern Asia.
The very composition of the group points to both its strength and weakness. But broadly speaking, despite its inherent contradictions, the SCO has managed to stand the test of time, and is now gearing up to assume a bigger role by expanding its membership and agenda.
The summit came just as the United States was preparing to announce the downsizing of its military presence in Afghanistan and the withdrawal from combat operations by 2014. The SCO wants to play a bigger role in stabilising Afghanistan, which it feels has again fallen into a state of chaos similar to when the Soviet Union withdrew from the country in the late 1980s.
‘Russia is calling for more intensive and deeper cooperation between the SCO and Afghanistan’ Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said at the summit. ‘Eventually, the process of political stabilisation in Afghanistan depends on this (extended cooperation with the SCO), and the security of our states to a great degree depends on the situation in this country.’
At a time when the mood in Afghanistan has turned against the presence of the Western forces in the country, the SCO can boost its activities to ensure that, once the withdrawal of international forces has been completed, Kabul has the capacity to deal with the challenges it faces. Both China and Russia have experienced Islamic extremism and understand the consequences of instability in the wider region.
The SCO can play an important role in tackling this, and Moscow for one has been looking for avenues to rebuild its influence with Kabul by investing in infrastructure projects, sales of helicopters, and increasing cooperation with Western forces in combating the massive narcotics smuggling that has flooded the Central Asian republics. China, meanwhile, is also getting more deeply involved in the economic activities of the landlocked nation (as well as being sucked into the politics of the Hindu Kush through its closeness with Pakistan).
Afghanistan is more comfortable dealing with both these SCO member states, and Kabul’s tilt towards this regional club gives the nation a new sense of confidence and enhances the regime’s credibility. The presence of Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the summit has only reinforced the growing warmth in ties.
Under this evolving scenario, it’s important for India to take a long-term view of the strategic significance of associating with the SCO. For New Delhi, it’s not a geo-political choice between the ‘continental’ Sino-Russian entente that beckons it from the north, and the Asian maritime coalition, led by the United States, tempting it from the south. Instead, India needs to pursue some pragmatic internationalism and align with a group that connects both South and Central Asia.
India, along with Pakistan, will likely become permanent members of the SCO sooner rather than later. As a result, the SCO provides the best platform for both South Asian rivals to work out a productive working relationship not only in terms of economic development, but also politically. Both countries can also develop a mechanism for cooperation in Afghanistan without viewing each other’s intentions with suspicion.
A non-NATO group that’s based on regional understanding and needs, yet with a global focus, could mean different things to different people. In the present context, with the West’s global mosaic crumbling before its eyes, the SCO offers an alternative world view, and a tool for solving acute problems.
The ideological differences between the Western alliance and the SCO can be seen through their respective handling of the crisis in Libya and the wider Arab world. While the China-Russia entente advocates non-interference in internal affairs, the West prefers a military solution.
The interesting question now is whether the SCO will assume a bigger role in South Asia after the withdrawal of NATO and US troops from Afghanistan. ‘Most probably not,’ writes Russia in Global Affairs editor Fydor Lukyanov. ‘The two biggest countries in the organisation do not see eye to eye on what its priorities should be. Moscow tends to emphasise security issues. Beijing stresses economic cooperation,’ he writes. ‘In other words, Russia would like to see the SCO as an instrument for strengthening its strategic presence in Central Asia, while China perceives it as an instrument for economic expansion.’
But another international watcher, C Raja Mohan, writing in the Indian Express, suggests that ‘the SCO could provide the regional framework that everyone now wants for the stabilisation of Afghanistan,’ to help fight ‘what China calls the “three evils” – separatism, religious extremism and terrorism’ and would promote ‘economic integration between Central Asia and India.’
It’s clear the SCO holds ample potential. Seeing it as simply another multilateral organisation and Asian NATO would be to undermine its value as a great stabiliser in the world’s most volatile region.