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Little Hope for Entry into the SCO

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • May 26, 2014

    As the dateline for NATO troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan reaches near, the SCO states are worried about the possible fallouts of the situation on Central Asia. Interestingly, Tajikistan that borders with Afghanistan will take over as the next Chairmanship of the SCO and countries like Pakistan, India and Iran would hope to become full members of the grouping. The Afghan pull out comes amidst renewed tention between Russia and the West over Ukraine. Clearly, Tajikistan, which has closed military ties with Russia, would be worried about the probable challenges the changing security situation may pose. Clearly, the SCO Track II conference held recently in Duhanbe was not really an academic exercise but more nuanced to assess, as well as, to transmit mainly the following key points:

    • To contextualize the current economic and financial crises and justify China’s “New Silk Route” proposal for Eurasian region;
    • To assess the Afghan situation and the regional fallout-post 2014;
    • To provide a long-term strategy for the SCO’s role, function and enlargement;
    • To build the intellectual base and public opinion to highlight the SCO’s contribution;
    • To bring legislative changes and structural reforms in the SCO;
    • To resolve the financial issues of the SCO;
    • To enunciate the rightful influence of Russia and China in Central Asia;
    • To assess the prospect of SCO’s expansion idea;

    The multiple security threats, the cast of international players and their implications for the SCO countries was compelling the need for closer coordination between the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and SCO. Yet, confronting NATO was not the preferred choice for many. They wished SCO as a regional based body.

    To be sure, some rang the alarm bell of the possible chaos in the region, a la Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine-type implosion spreading across Eurasia. Yet the idea for countering the Western democarcy drive was lacking. Some see potential in the Indian model, but not clearly by the majority.

    The SCO draws satisfaction over the way it prevented crises like Osh from flaring up. The agreements that are more robust exist since 2010, they believe, could fully meet the future crisis. The confidence also lay in SCO’s RATS ability to counter the Afghan fallout. However, for the Uzbek, primary concerns emanates from with the region from conflict over water and resources. Mongolia’s commitment to its closer ties with the US and Japan makes it less interested in SCO’s future direction. For Sri Lanka, need for joing SCO is important to garner larger organizational support to deal with any internal conflict. Surely, to some “Shanghai” sounded more Martime than Continental, thus change in the title of SCO.

    It is the Afghan challenges that worry the most, especially the Tajiks who see the Islamists spreading across Afghanistan into Central Asia using better technologies. The critical points of infiltration are Badakhshan and Khorog. However, the Tajiks see little effort by the SCO Contact Group on Afghanistan to think about solution. The killing of Rasul Rabbani gives little hope among the Tajiks for peace process in Afghanstan. Notably, the SCO member states are said to be more enthusiastic for having dialogue with the Taliban than thinking about achieving a broad-based Afghan government. Message for Russia against replacing NATO in Afghanistan was laud and clear. Nonetheless, experts did not think that terrorists trying to infiltrate into Central Asia are in big number. Even for many Russian experts, not all Islamic elements are terrorists. For the, those in Pakistan’s FATA region and in the Ferghana Valley are simply fighting for new political “ideas”. Al-Qaida elements may have thrived in North Africa and Middle East but unable to set their footing in Eurasia. Interestingly for the Afghans, the source of trouble in Afghanistan emanates from the FATA (Pakistan), Ferghana (Central Asia), and Chechnya (Russia) to which Afghanistan can do litle about.

    The geopolitical approach is unlikely to be helpful in resolving the Afghan situation. Like India, Turkey thinks that terrorism has roots in the socio-economic problems of the society and as such, focus needs more on soft security challenges rather than on the combat dimension. Introducing moderate Islam to influence the Taliban attitudes seemed the main Turkish goal. Clealy, they seemed mindful about West Asian conflict spilling over into Central Asia. Notably, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry does have impact on the Afghan-Tajik border.

    The prospects for new states becoming SCO members seem more difficult than before. The draft document and rule for expansion ready since 2010 is held up probaly for the reseaons unexplained. The new clause that requires all heads of the member states to sign the membership document is the main obscticle. Iran was about to be made a member in 2010 but the UN Sanction prevented China and Russia from signing Iran entry. The thinking now revolves more around realizing a process of regional integration within Eurasia given the regions’s vast natural resources plus the ability of China to invest in the region. Many see China as a great opportunity. This also goes for its geopolitical potential to resolve issues peacefully. Pakistan and Iran are viewed as having better prospects for joining the SCO, but many wished to draw difference between expansion and cooperation. The SCO has neither the criteria not a timetable for expansion. The example of European Union (EU), which took a gradual path for expansion, was cited for SCO to emulate. Interestingly, an issue cited as “technical” diffuclty was SCO “official language”. Except for Russian and Chinese, no other language can be SCO’s official language; is clearly meant to ban the entry of English speaking members. The SCO either not serious or taking a cautious if not an isolationist position on the expansion issue. The members appear careful about the intentions and behaviors of the observers-states as they see expansion could against the organizational interests. Unwillingness to get gragged into the Indo-Pak row seems apparent.

    The Chinese-led SCO will be 15 years of existance next year, however, there remains no clarity on how to make it more than a paper tiger. Some remain disappointed with its performance on the ground, but China and its new “Silk Route” projects keep their optimism alive. The financial incentives keep the SCO afloat. The lingering fear is that the West would do everything to stifle the process of SCO’s growth. The fallout of situation in West Asia and even the current West-Russia stanoff over Ukraine could affect the Eurasian space.

    While Mongolia remains non-committal about joining the SCO as a full member, China’s offer of building economic projects across the Gobi may have induced the Mongolia thinking. However, Mongolia is still holding a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. The Uzbeks have strong interest albeit with an aim to pursue their own agenda. Pakistan’s desire for a full membership appeared very clear. The Central Asian tendency to treat India and Pakistan with the same yardstick is not a good sign – reflects on our diplomacy.

    Although, the internal insecurity, particularly the US sponsored ‘regime change’ or crisis in Ukraine seem creating an atmosphere and an urge to strengthen as well as shield the SCO against the external strategic pinpricks. However, substantive change will remain elusive if the SCO envisages stability of the region by seeking regime security. China remains the ultimate boss of the Eurasian body and membership entry including that for India will come with a great deal of prescribed terms and conditions.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.