Russia Direct interviewed top Russian and foreign experts to figure out the implications of the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit for Russia and other nations, including those of Central Asia.
From the left: Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, China’s Chinese President Xi Jinping, Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, prepare to pose for a photo during the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) summit in Ufa, Russia, Friday, July 10, 2015. Photo: AP
Last week the annual summit of the Russian-chaired Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) concluded in Ufa. The summit launched the process of accession for India and Pakistan and adopted the Ufa Declaration on SCO Development to 2025.
Below, experts interviewed by Russia Direct explain the risks and opportunities facing Delhi and Islamabad and how their accession will affect the balance of power within the organization. In addition, these analysts analyze the development prospects of the new-look SCO.
Alexander Gabuev, head of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Region program of the Carnegie Moscow Center
The SCO is changing quantitatively but not qualitatively. Its population, territory and share of global GDP are increasing, but the main problem is that this regional organization lacks a specific function to deliver something tangible.
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As before, nothing that the SCO does has any real effect, and that was evident to all. Neither its physical expansion, nor the tighter Russian-Chinese cooperation of the past two years can do anything to change the sluggish dynamics of the organization.
The SCO continues its search for a mission. New countries are seeking to join not because of the great prospects, but for fear of falling behind the powers of continental Eurasia already inside. That is the main motivation for India and Pakistan to join the SCO.
Russia supported India’s entry into the SCO as a balancer against the weight of China, but it will have no effect on the long-term viability of the organization. China agreed to the accession of India and Pakistan precisely because the SCO is being transformed from a tool for achieving pragmatic goals — namely the expansion of economic and cultural influence in Central Asia with Russian approval — into a symbolic organization.
The membership of India and Pakistan in the SCO is not that important for China. It has its own projects now, primarily One Belt One Road. The country is following a pragmatic route by creating domestic institutions underpinned by own financial resources, which all countries are now lining up to tap, including Russia, which is blocking the economic track of the SCO.
The SCO is becoming an emblematic club of like-minded members who do nothing except talk about how much population, land and global GDP they control.
Alexander Knyazev, expert on Central Asia and the Middle East
The accession process launched in Ufa for India and Pakistan to join the SCO is not clear-cut. SCO membership does not delegate new responsibilities to these countries, and neither does it impart new functionality to the organization.
The SCO was originally created as a border security organization between China, Russia and the five Central Asian republics. But security is no longer the priority, and the emphasis has shifted to economic relations, which China dominates. Not even India will be able to challenge the Celestial Empire’s leadership.
On the eve of the SCO summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid an official visit to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan — two key Central Asian republics inside the SCO — and concluded a number of economic agreements.
I believe that Moscow supports Delhi’s activation in the region, including under the auspices of the SCO, as a counterweight to the growing influence of China. The ingrained territorial disputes between China and India could be rekindled under the SCO and spill over into fierce competition for Central Asia.
Similarly, the conflict between India and Pakistan could shift to the SCO platform. The antagonisms between the two countries have always had a Central Asian dimension. Islamabad is no less active than Delhi in Central Asia.
India’s interest in the region has military overtones, too. A major dispute erupted a few years back over the Ayni Air Force Base in Tajikistan, the reconstruction of which was financed by Indian loans. India clearly views Central Asia as a strategic clamp with which to exert pressure on Pakistan from the rear should the situation on the Indian-Pakistani border flare up.
The statement that the SCO will not be a platform for regulating conflicts between member countries is a major flaw. Why then does the SCO need quantitative expansion that does not solve any problems, but merely burdens its agenda?
Abdugani Mamadazimov, Chairman of the Association of Political Scientists of the Republic of Tajikistan
The Ufa Declaration traces a line of continuity from the provisions adopted at the 2014 SCO summit in Dushanbe, where it was decided to lift the moratorium on the accession of new members and the expansion of partner countries in dialogue with the SCO.
Dushanbe, which borders Pakistan, is not interested in exacerbating the Indian-Pakistani conflict under the SCO, and seeks to conduct a balanced policy in dealing with these two nuclear countries. Tajikistan sees SCO membership of India and Pakistan, and potentially Iran, as a possible means to solve the Afghan problem.
Cooperation under the SCO between these three major countries on Afghanistan’s borders could expedite the process of an Afghan settlement: Afghanistan will be surrounded by a powerful regional association with common values and approaches to resolving issues.
Over the next ten years the SCO will intensify its peacekeeping activity across the whole organization. China is very keen to ensure the security of its borders to the south, where there are separatist tendencies, as well as to the west. The SCO, which includes all of Beijing’s adjacent surroundings, will contribute to maintaining this security, so interest in the organization will grow.
Sanat Kushkumbayev, deputy director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan’s participation in the SCO dovetails with the country’s multi-vector policy, allowing it to promote national interests and make adjustments to the agenda, for which reason Astana remains committed to the organization. But the results in Ufa should not be overvalued. The SCO summit was used more as a platform for political statements in the complex international environment that Russia finds itself.
The start of India and Pakistan’s accession to the SCO was top of the agenda, but de jure the process has yet to be fully clarified. It is quite possible that an existing SCO member could block their entry.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov noted with good reason that the entry of nuclear India and Pakistan to the SCO could change the balance of power inside the organization and internationally. There are many unresolved issues between Delhi and Islamabad, and how this will square with the SCO’s declared spirit of cooperation is unclear.
There is a risk that SCO expansion could overshadow the importance of Central Asia and other more urgent matters, and alter the initial structure and concept of the organization. Central Asia will find it harder to advance its own positions and cooperate on regional issues.
Nandan Unnikrishnan, Vice President of the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi
There are two or more views in the Indian strategic community on the question of SCO membership, for which the process has only begun.
The most widespread is, firstly, that India should join the SCO because it is a body that could play an important role in stabilizing the security situation in the region given the drawdown of U.S.-led international forces. Also, that SCO membership will help India raise its profile in Central Asia and ease its participation in development projects.
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Secondly, SCO membership does not really confer on India any advantages. China and Russia, which lead the SCO, are currently in anti-West mode. India is being allowed to join the SCO to mask this. Also that China will not permit India to get any significant economic benefits from joining the SCO.
Thirdly, China has dropped its opposition to India’s membership because it has lost interest in the SCO and is pursuing its agenda independently through bilateral contacts and the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. Therefore, there is no real benefit for India as China is the driving force in the SCO.
Farkhod Tolipov, director of the non-governmental scientific and educational center “Knowledge Caravan” in Tashkent
For Uzbekistan, the focus of the SCO’s geopolitical agenda is still considered to be Central Asia. The inclusion of the South Asian agenda could overburden the organization, and complicate matters for the Central Asian republics. In an expanded SCO, Tashkent would be in the thick of a multilateral and eclectic policy, something that it has sought to avoid through giving priority to bilateral cooperation.
Speaking in Ufa, Uzbek President Islam Karimov drew attention to the fact that the SCO is about to be joined by two nuclear powers in a state of permanent conflict with each other. Central Asia, a recognized nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ), suddenly finds itself in a club with four nuclear-armed countries. This new configuration forces a rethink of the whole NWFZ concept, if it means anything at all to the region and the world.
The Afghan factor will serve as a touchstone of the effectiveness of the revamped SCO, particularly in the context of the drawdown of U.S. forces in the country. Efforts to settle the conflict in Afghanistan have always gone hand in hand with criticism of Pakistan for its support of the Taliban, which is an obstacle to peace.
Adil Kaukenov, China expert and political scientist in Kazakhstan
The start of the process to admit India and Pakistan to the SCO was a predictable result of the SCO summit in Ufa. India would not have applied for SCO membership if there had been no preliminary agreement on the table. In view of the complex relations between Delhi and Beijing, including territorial issues, rejection would have been unpleasant for India in terms of its foreign policy image. Therefore, it was agreed in advance. It represents a turning point in the SCO’s history of development, as it is now many times bigger and has moved beyond the Central Asian region to include the problems of South Asia.
The expansion of the SCO is a victory for Moscow, which has long wanted to take the organization out of Central Asia and onto the world stage. In Central Asia, Russia has its own organizations, and regional consolidation under the SCO would have strengthened Beijing’s hand.
On the world stage, however, particularly in the light of Russia’s confrontation with the West, the presence of an amorphous organization that nevertheless includes major players such as China and India is an additional bargaining chip. Realizing that Russia will not allow the organization to develop regionally, China agreed to its expansion. What’s more, Beijing has its own differences with the West, and also needs to improve relations with India and supports its ally Pakistan.
For Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries, there no space left in the geopolitical park for ball games of their own. Astana wanted the SCO to introduce real credit mechanisms, but encountered fierce resistance from Moscow at the regional level. Elevation to the global level opens the door to the prospect of project financing mechanisms within the SCO. That is Astana’s primary hope for expansion — the injection of Chinese and Indian capital in the development of infrastructure and energy.