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The 9th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit: An Assessment

Meena Singh Roy is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • June 24, 2009

    The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) held its ninth summit on June15 -16, 2009 in Yekaterinburg. The Heads of the SCO member states, observer states and guests of the host state - President of Afghanistan, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Executive Secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Secretary-General of the Eurasian Economic Community, and Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, participated in the meeting.

    SCO leaders signed several documents at the end of the summit, including the Yekaterinburg Declaration, a Joint Communiqué, and the SCO Counter-Terrorism Convention which provides the legal base for counter-terrorism interaction. The plenipotentiaries of member states also signed agreements on international information security, training of officers for Counter-Terrorism Agencies of member states, and on financial cooperation.

    During the summit, SCO leaders discussed a wide range of issues including how to mitigate the impact of the financial crisis through regional efforts, expand inter-member economic cooperation, counter terrorism, drug trafficking and trans-national organised crime. For the first time observer countries participated in a restricted meeting with the SCO Head of States Council, in a new measure to strengthen cooperation.

    What makes this Summit special is that it was held under the shadow of emerging security challenges particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama’s new Af-Pak strategy, the internal crisis in Iran, the spreading financial crisis, the Kyrgyz parliament asking the US to close its military base in Manas, and increasing US-Russia confrontation over Georgia.

    In the Yekaterinburg Declaration the leaders called for building a more just world order, to cement international stability and economic development. The emphasis on multipolarity and growing significance of regional mechanisms in settling global problems was once again stressed by the member states. The Declaration noted that “SCO states believe that international cooperation is a basic and efficient instrument for countering new challenges and threats, coping with the global financial crisis, ensuring energy and food security and settling such pressing issues as climate change.” It also called for strengthening the potential of the region as a transcontinental bridge and providing a new impulse to the development of economic links between Europe and Asia. Member states noted the significance of the energy sector for economic development of the region.

    The need to strengthen the role of the United Nations Organisation in world affairs and reform of the UN Security Council was noted by member states in the Declaration. They reaffirmed their strong support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty and welcomed multilateral efforts to strengthen it on the basis of three key components - non-proliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The Declaration also called on member states to stand up for resuming the process of negotiating on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and search for mutually accepted solution on the basis of the previously agreed arrangement.

    The situation in Afghanistan came up for discussion at the summit. It was noted that given the current situation in Afghanistan, there is need to increase interaction with SCO Observer states, Afghanistan and other states concerned, along with regional and international organizations. To address the situation in Afghanistan role of the UN and its specialised institutions was acknowledged in the Declaration. The creation of an anti-narcotic and financial security belt in the region by member states, in close interaction with other states and international organizations, was noted in the adopted Declaration.

    Member states attached special importance to strengthening cooperation against the threat of dangerous infections and other infectious diseases. The Declaration acknowledged the need to mobilise existing resources and take up joint work to prevent the spread of epidemic diseases. Member states expressed the hope of strengthening practical cooperation by implementing joint projects to tackle the financial crisis. The Russian and Kazakh leaders suggested the establishment of a unified, supra-national settlement unit within the SCO framework. The summit adopted a declaration urging a fair global financial order.

    On the issue of addressing the global financial crisis, SCO member states acknowledged the need for adopting effective measures aimed at minimizing the impact of the global crisis and boosting closer regional trade, as well as economic and investment cooperation in the SCO region. Implementation of multilateral projects was stressed by all member states. SCO countries agreed to the Russian proposal on using their national currencies in mutual settlements and introducing a common currency within the SCO framework for its members. The Russian President pointed out that “The current set of reserve currencies and the main reserve currency - the U.S. dollar - have failed to function as they should.” Both Russia and China favour cautious global currency reform, while preserving the value of the dollar.

    On the issue of admitting new members to the SCO, no final decision was taken during this summit meeting. The Special Expert Group was instructed to carry out its work on the draft document of regulations for admitting new members. However, with a view to expand cooperation with new countries without giving them full membership within the SCO framework, Sri Lanka and Belarus were granted the status of dialogue partners. It is important to note that the SCO Declaration welcomed the end of the internal conflict in Sri Lanka and expressed the hope for “establishing firm peace, strengthening security and stability in the country on the basis of ensuring its state sovereignty and territorial integrity, guaranteeing the right of all ethnic and religious groups.” Sri Lanka’s inclusion as a dialogue partner should be viewed against the background of China’s increasing defence and strategic cooperation with Colombo with an aim of bringing it into its strategic fold.

    In addition to these developments at the SCO summit, there were significant bilateral and trilateral meetings that were conducted on the sidelines of this summit. These meetings on the side lines of the summit are indicative of important regional trends which are still unfolding. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met President Asif Ali Zardari for the first time after the 26/11Mumbai terror attacks. During the 40 minute meeting Prime Minister Singh was reported to have conveyed to President Zardari that “My mandate is to tell you that Pakistani territory should not be used for terrorism against India”. India has suspended the comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan until Islamabad brings the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice. Though Pakistan’s foreign office called this meeting a positive development, the much publicised meeting did not result in a major breakthrough.

    Another important development was the meeting of the Russian and Pakistani leaders. Dmitry Medvedev and Asif Ali Zardari opened a new chapter of bilateral cooperation by calling for boosting economic relations and jointly tackling the threats of terrorism and extremism during their first meeting on the sidelines of the SCO summit. This bilateral meeting indicates the new foreign policy course which Russia is likely to adopt in South Asia.

    In addition, on the initiative of the Russian President, the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Russian Presidents held a trilateral meeting for the first time to stress the need for joint efforts to address the common problems of terrorism, extremism and narcotics, to promote intra-regional trade and cooperation and enhance regional infrastructure and energy connectivity. Given the current developments in the Af-Pak region and demand for a regional initiative to address the problems in this volatile region, this trilateral meeting should be viewed from the point of view of resurging Russia attempting to play an assertive role in the region.

    What does it mean for India to be in this important regional organisation? India has observer status in the organisation and in past summits it was represented at the ministerial level. However, this year Prime Minister Manmohan Singh represented India at the SCO summit. This was in many ways a recognition of the importance that India gives to its long term strategic partner – Russia. India also has deep strategic and economic interests in the Central Asian region. However, the driving forces for India to engage with this organisation are mainly the emerging new security challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the need to keep watch over developments within this regional organization where China has been increasing its influence.

    Speaking at the summit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh identified terrorism, extremist ideologies and illicit drug trafficking as posing serious security challenge to the entire Asian region and called for resolute cooperation at the regional and global levels. He stated that India’s growing economy has “opened up opportunities to intensify our interaction with the outside world in the areas of trade and investment, science and technology, and in the revival of the global economy.” Speaking on the financial crisis he said that there is a need to “convert this crisis into an opportunity for greater economic cooperation between the members of the SCO and India.” This is possible because there exist a vast market, a large industrial base, a talented human resource base and above all the political will among the countries of the region. He pointed out that India was interested in strengthening connectivity with SCO countries as well as strengthen people-to-people contacts, exchange of business persons, scholars and trade, investment and technology flows. In addition India welcomes enhanced cooperation in the fields of energy, food security, and infrastructure development. Though India may not be able to achieve much as long as China remains in the driver’s seat of the SCO, at the same time because of its strategic interests in the Eurasian region it will have to utilise its engagement with the SCO to further its economic ties with member countries and remain part of the Eurasian energy game.

    This summit could also be seen as a further projection of China’s increasing influence in the Central Asian region and Russia’s assertive role in the regional and international arena. China and Russia sought greater international clout at this SCO summit. China put forward a series of substantial proposals for boosting economic cooperation among member states and extended a US $10 billion loan for joint economic projects within the SCO framework. President Hu Jintao said that there is great potential for member states to cooperate economically but that SCO efforts fall short of the developmental goals set by the organisation. He also said that China would send trade and investment delegations to SCO member countries to promote and enhance import-export and two way investments. In an effort to cement its existing ties with Pakistan, President Hu Jintao committed to provide an additional $8.82 million aid to Pakistan to help with the relocation of civilians displaced by ongoing military operations in Swat. This was a clear demonstration of its economic muscle and its increasing influence in the SCO, not only challenging Western influence but also the Russian role in the region. China’s economic help to SCO countries and Pakistan should be seen in the context of its policy of expanding its influence through such measures to access the energy resources of this region and create favorable conditions to achieve its strategic goals.

    For its part, Russia challenged the domination of the US dollar as a global reserve currency. It also welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad amid massive protests in Iran over the allegedly rigged elections. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said that “the election issue is an internal matter for the Iranian people.” Ahmadinejad once again articulated his anti-US stance at the summit by stating that “America is consumed by economic and political crisis, and there is no hope for an immediate resolution to these issues.” He also stated that “international mechanisms which are based around imperial ambitions are surrendering their position”.

    Did the 9th SCO summit conclude by setting a new geopolitical role for this important regional organisation or was it like any other summit meeting which sets high goal for itself without having enough capability to produce concrete results? It would be appropriate to say that the current summit indicated new regional trends – an assertive projecting the new role which it sees for itself in Eurasia and Southern Asia, and China with enhanced economic clout projecting its increasing influence in the Central Asian region. From India’s point of view the participation of the Prime Minister in the summit indicates the growing importance of Russia in its foreign policy thinking and also its concerns about growing instability in the Af-Pak region.

    Overall, it can be concluded that the SCO has emerged as an important factor in the Eurasian security architecture. Today, the SCO has expanded to include Southern and West Asian countries within its fold. It would therefore be appropriate to rename it as the ‘Asian Cooperation Organisation’, if it wishes to emerge as a significant Asian multilateral body seeking to play a greater role in the Asian Region. But despite its growing role, the organization has major shortcomings. So long as it is allowed to further the interests of bigger nations and to ignore the interests of smaller countries, its effectiveness in addressing the problems of the region will be limited.