Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Is there any place left for the SCO?

In my previous post I have argued that a new status quo has emerged in Central Asia over the past few years. During this period Russia and China have worked out and tailored their respective strategies of pursuing their interests in the region: selective multilateralism and bilateralism. Moscow has strived to secure its grip on Central Asia by means of integrating Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan into the Eurasian Union and by maintaining a military presence under the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Beijing has focused on the establishment of bilateral economic ties. A series of agreements have been concluded with Central Asian states since the late-2000s involving multi-billion dollar loans and investments, in particular in energy exploration and infrastructure. As a result, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was supposed to be the most suitable structure for region-wide cooperation, has found itself side-tracked. The summit of the SCO, which took place in Bishkek in mid-September, has only testified to the continuing stagnation.

The fundamental bone of contention concerns what type of organization the SCO should be: a vehicle that facilitates the pursuit of the global interests of great powers (i.e. of Russia and China), or the framework for cooperation in Central Asia which would not be dominated by any single actor.

The Bishkek declaration conforms to the former vision, promoted first and foremost by the Kremlin. With the focus on global challenges and strategic issues, this document resembles those issued regularly at the Russo-Chinese bilateral summits and reflects concerns which predominate in Moscow and Beijing. In the declaration the SCO members have: criticized the West’s propensity to use force and its disrespect for international law; called for UN principles to be respected and for the organization to be reformed; expressed concerns related to climate change and food security. They have taken a stance with regard to almost all on-going international crises and contentious issues: they have supported Russia’s initiative concerning Syria’s chemical weapons, opposed the threats of the use of force against Iran and deemed the development of regional or global missile defence unacceptable.

Regional affairs are barely mentioned in the Bishkek declaration. The dispute on how the SCO should finance joint projects – by creating a development fund (promoted by Russia) or a development bank (promoted by China) – has not been solved and the mutually exclusive ideas have found their way into the final document. Russia is not interested in establishing yet another international bank in the post-Soviet space as it is already financing the Eurasian Development Bank. China, on its part, is seeking a flexible formula which could facilitate the implementation of its region-wide energy- and infrastructure-related projects.

This disagreement goes beyond rhetoric or purely economic calculations and reveals a fundamental difference between Moscow and Beijing that prevents greater cooperation among the SCO members. Russia would prefer an organization with global reach and objectives. This is because Moscow already has an abundance of organizations at its disposal in the post-Soviet space, including the Eurasian Union, EurAsEC and CSTO. Conversely, China is in need of a regional organization which would help neutralize the fears of smaller Central Asian states and smooth China’s economic expansion, providing multilateral clout. One of the outstanding consequences of the Russo-Chinese difference is the persistent absence of agreement on the issue of the enlargement of the SCO. The temporary solution, which may prove long-lasting, has been to introduce different association categories, such as observers (e.g. India and Mongolia) and ‘partners in dialogue’ (e.g. Belarus and Turkey).

The only issue which the SCO leaders fully agree on seems to be the necessity to protect their regimes from real and imagined enemies. The attention paid to the Arab revolutions as well as the focus on information security illustrate deep-seated fears of autocrats. The ‘authoritarian security community’ may turn out to be the only possible path for the development of the SCO. But, if that is the case, should not Kyrgyzstan be replaced by Turkmenistan?