Presaging his stopover in Kyrgyzstan, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in Kazakhstan in which he spoke of establishing a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that would bind China to its Eurasian neighborhood. A trip so far focused largely on Afghanistan and trade, the stopover in Bishkek for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit is the capstone to what has been a successful trip, tidily wrapping the two subjects up in a bow largely of China’s making.
Of course, there are numerous other topics on the table at the summit beyond Afghanistan. Expanding membership looks like it is going to remain unresolved again – India and Pakistan continue to knock loudly on the door. Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani has announced he will attend, possibly highlighting the new regime’s diplomatic approach (although it is unclear what the SCO means within this context), and it seems likely that further agreements about closer cooperation and discussion are likely to be held. Beijing will undoubtedly push an economic agenda – though this will find hostility from the other member states fearful of dominance. The question over the SCO development bank will remain unresolved.
Inevitably, Afghanistan will feature as a major topic of conversation. Just prior to the delegates meeting in Bishkek, units from SCO member states will have just completed a training exercise near Lake Issyk-Kul in the northeast of Kyrgyzstan. This comes after an earlier SCO flagged exercise, in which Chinese and Kyrgyz troops trained in their border areas, and a larger “Peace Mission” exercise involving Chinese and Russian formations. All of these training missions are described as being focused on countering terrorism: large-scale military activity that in fact seems more aimed at border protection and countering insurgent groups rather than urban terrorists. Useful skills if you are worried about overspill from Afghanistan.
The reality, however, is that the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is still largely considered the main regional security player by most Central Asians, backed as it is by Russian guarantees and equipment. The Chinese-led SCO still plays a second fiddle to the Russian endeavor, though the SCO has spoken at length about counter-narcotics, countering the “Three Evils” of “extremism, separatism and terrorism,” and now has a Chinese head of its security structure in Tashkent – the unfortunately named RATS center (Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure).
The problem for the SCO is that it remains an organization lacking a clear sense of its role in the world. This is a problem that is fundamentally about the very divergent views among the member state capitals (all of whom have equal weighting within the institution’s decision-making processes), and in particular Beijing’s desire to create a positive umbrella under which to shelter its efforts in Central Asia, even as other members worry about Chinese dominance.
The result is a half-baked multilateral vehicle that focuses on arcane discussions about membership with no conclusion, and holds military exercises aimed at unspecified enemies. On the one hand, this helps develop relations and bonds in a region rife with internal tensions, but on the other it fails to deliver much in the way of practical progress. The real progress during Xi’s trip has already been made. The SCO summit merely provides a tidy bookend.
Raffaello Pantucci is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the co-editor of China in Central Asia. Li Lifan is secretary general of the Centre for SCO Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.