SCO: Coping with changing times
By M K Bhadrakumar
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has always been the sum total of the concord available in the relationship between China and Russia. This is also where the grouping's strength and weakness would lie. The SCO's summit meeting in Beijing last week bears this out.
Ten years on, the identity of SCO - which includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - is still evolving. It is far less than a formal alliance but is much more than a mere "talking shop". It still has no "leader" as such and it takes pride in being a novel form of multilateralism, but then, nothing can move on the SCO agenda without China and/or Russia nodding assent.
Thus, Russia would favor India's admission as a full member but China wouldn't; Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would favor Iran's admission, but Russia and China wouldn't; China wants Turkey in as "dialogue partner" and Russia wouldn't mind; most certainly, both Russia and China want Afghanistan in as an "observer" and Kabul is indeed "in".
The SCO has no "implementation" agencies but its voice is increasingly getting heard. Its primary focus used to be Central Asia but it is beginning to cast its net wide in Eurasia as a whole and in neighboring regions. It has a focal point of cooperation in anti-terrorist activity but has no unified "command and control" structure and ultimately it is up to the member countries individually to follow through. It is not a military bloc but its military exercises are all the same enhancing its strategic cohesion and deepening its defense and security cooperation.
On the whole, it may still be possible to muster arguments to show the SCO is inconsequential on a practical plane, but the fact that a critical mass has formed and the grouping is gaining traction also needs to be conceded.
This year's SCO summit in Beijing (June 6-7) drew extra attention. Four factors could be attributed to this high level of interest.
First and foremost, Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin as president has "electrified" regional and world politics. The jury is still out whether he will "tilt" toward the "orientalists" among the Russian foreign policy elites and distance himself from the "Westernists" who tend to dominate the scene; or whether he will have merely selective use for "orientalism" in order to gain leverage vis-a-vis the West which is where Russia culturally belongs; or even whether he would navigate a middle course between the East and West so as to optimize the gains for Russia out of China's rise as well as any rift that may ensue in China's relations with the West, while Russia concentrates on its own political, social and economic regeneration as an independent world power and a great "balancer" in the international system.
Second, a certain haziness also prevails about the prospects ahead in big-power relations until there is greater clarity regarding the new leaderships in Washington and Beijing. This will have to wait for another year or so. Russia, in a manner of speaking, arrived a little too early for the party and has to wait in the ante-room for the moment while the night is still young and the US and China are still searching their cavernous wardrobes to make up their mind what appropriate party attire to wear.
Meanwhile, Russia and China's respective relationships with the United States have come under the weather lately (for different reasons), which necessitate that the two countries reach out for each other and are seen holding hands. Third, the geopolitical reality in the SCO's home ground is that the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are in the final stages of establishing a long-term military presence in Central Asia.
Neither the SCO (which has been around for a decade already) nor Russia and China individually, has been able to stop the US and NATO on their tracks. The emergent reality calls for big adjustments on the part of SCO. Plainly put, the wolf-whistle by the newly arrived sailors in the harbor is becoming louder and more penetrating, and Russia and China sense they would have a hard time keeping the Central Asian damsels occupied at home.
Fourth, no matter the tortuous course of the Afghan endgame, the race for Afghanistan's natural resources has begun. China and India are scrambling for that country's untapped mineral resources, but these are early days.
The US's New Silk Road is a barely disguised attempt at establishing a lead role for Washington - in tandem with India - in integrating the resource-rich Central Asian region with the world market through the development of communication links via South Asia. New Delhi is shortly hosting an international conference of business groups involved or interested in Afghanistan, which is purportedly an Indian initiative, but the formal announcement on the event was first made in Washington. Raising heads above the parapet
How these undercurrents are going to play out is anybody's guess at the moment and China and Russia are probably doing the right thing by positioning the SCO as a coordinating body for the regional states in the sphere of economic and security cooperation. That is to say, China and Russia have found greater need and use of the grouping than at any time to counter the US's "containment" strategy toward them.
In turn, the unprecedented display of Sino-Russian partnership during Putin's state visit to China just before the SCO summit gave the regional grouping's proceedings event much verve. The summit was, under the circumstances, destined to "succeed" and the only point of debate could be about the tangible substance of the success story.
The United States forced the pace for the SCO by a series of provocative moves against Russia and China. The US extended an ambivalent welcome to the Putin presidency, driven by a nave belief - or wishful thinking, depending on one's point of view - that the Russian political system is facing a terminal illness; this notion has prompted Washington to cross the red lines in inter-state relations and interfere blatantly in Russia's domestic politics, often taking an animus against Putin's political personality.
It is hard to believe that the antics by the US ambassador in Moscow Michael McFaul ever since his arrival in Moscow on the assignment were solo acts by an innocent, well-meaning erstwhile academic who simply didn't know the ABC of the code of conduct in the regimented world of diplomacy. (After all, he held a senior position in the White House before being assigned to Moscow.)
These tantrums might not have dealt any body blow at the US-Russia reset, but they were compounded by the US administration's decision to go ahead with the deployment of the anti-ballistic missile defense system (BMD) in NATO countries, ignoring Russia's protests. Also, the old game of egging on Georgia against Russia has resumed. (US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's latest visit to Tbilisi coincided with Putin's arrival in Beijing last Wednesday.)
Most important, the US has done all it could to undercut Russian efforts to commence an intra-Syrian political dialogue by covertly encouraging Saudi Arabia and Qatar to incite violence and systematically debunking the mission by the joint UN envoy Kofi Annan.
On Afghanistan, Washington continues to selectively involve Moscow - primarily as regards the functioning of the Northern Distribution Network that facilitates supply routes for the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan - while spurning the Russian overtures for across-the-board political cooperation. Moscow's sense of indignation is evident from its rejection of the NATO appeal at the recent Chicago summit to contribute $10 million to the alliance's kitty for financing the build-up of Afghan armed forces.
Equally, friction has increased in the testy US-China relationship following Washington's decision to "rebalance" its forces in terms of the "pivot" to Asia-Pacific. With regard to China also, a more robust US policy of interfering in its internal affairs is visible.
Again, China is also getting concerned about the deployment of the US missile defense system in the Asia-Pacific. Russian commentators have pointed out that China's limited nuclear forces would be "neutralized" much earlier than Russia's vastly superior strategic capability, with the deployment of the US's ABM system.
Suffice to say, the SCO (read Russia and China) decided it was about time to step out of the domain of regional problems and raise its head above the Eurasian parapet. A Russian commentator noted, "Times have changed, and the SCO has changed along with them. The crisis in the Middle East, including those triggered by the Arab Spring, the role that Western countries played there, and the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and more importantly, from Afghanistan, called for a major revision to the SCO's approaches and prompted the organization to step up its foreign policy efforts."
But that is overstating the point. For the present, what is happening is that thanks to the SCO's consolidated stance on certain international issues of direct concern to Russia and China, the two countries have decided to mutually strengthen each other's hands in opposing the US machinations - be it on missile defense or Asia-Pacific security. Creating security space
What does it mean? Putin declared in an article in the People's Daily: "Without the participation of Russia and China, without considering Russia and China's interests, no international matter or issue can be discussed and implemented."
In fact, this is already happening over Syria where Russia and China have drawn the bottom line: no external intervention with the agenda of regime change in Damascus; continued support for Annan's mission; an end to violence by all sides leading to the "establishment of a comprehensive political dialogue"; and a "peaceful and fair settlement" without outside interference."
Quintessentially, what is happening is, to quote from an editorial in the Chinese Communist Party daily the Global Times,
The shift from adversary to comprehensive strategic partnership creates valuable security space for these two powers [China and Russia]. Given the uncertainty of the future international environment, this is a rare security guarantee, from which the two can play influential global roles.
Meanwhile, both are open to the West. Their economic engagement with the West is bigger than business exchanges between each other. The West also has a cultural influence on both and there are elites from both sides advocating prioritizing ties with the West.
The West is indeed important to Beijing and Moscow ... These are not contradictory policies. On the contrary, the closer China and Russia are, the more opportunities they can have for developing an equal relationship with the West.
Evidently, China prefers a visible embrace of Russia that pledges no commitment, leaving great flexibility to act elsewhere. What emerges is that the Chinese political expectations at the moment happen to be much lower than how Russia would like to see the SCO become. In the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, "The SCO is now a closely-knit group of like-minded people, firmly bent on developing actively a trustworthy political dialogue, equal and mutually advantageous economic and humanitarian cooperation as well as on expanding international relations."
Whereas, on key issues such as missile defense or Afghanistan, Russia and China will continue to act independently. There seems hardly any scope for Russia to coordinate with China on a practical plane while planning its "asymmetrical" response to NATO's deployment of the US's BMD system.
Conceivably, the last word hasn't been spoken yet on Russia's missile defense cooperation with the West. The truth is that time hasn't yet run out to settle the differences between Russia and NATO, because there is a gestation period of years before full deployment and improvement of the system will happen, during which the two sides will also be working on other areas of cooperation that help enhance mutual trust and confidence.
A leading German analyst on Russia, Alexander Rahr, said, "I think Russia will do everything to strengthen trustworthy relations with the West. Maybe, after this operation of NATO troops' withdrawal from Afghanistan through Russia is over, the election campaign in America is over, with [US president Barack] Obama staying in power, it will be possible to revisit cooperation matters."
Indeed, there are similar voices of cautious optimism on the Russian side, too. To quote an influential voice in the Russian strategic community, General Viktor Yesin, who used to be the chief of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces Staff, "The problem cannot be resolved straightforwardly. The "we-want-it-all-and-we-want-it-now" principle is fraught with a deadlock at the negotiations and consequent confrontation. That would not meet the interests of Russia, NATO and the world at large, because that would undermine strategic stability and international security.
"A way to a mutually acceptable solution based on a reasonable compromise goes through a Russia-NATO missile defense cooperation agreement. The agreement must include a roadmap, ie step-by-step progress toward a joint or at least inter-connected European missile defense infrastructure alongside building up mutual trust, predictability and transparency, and that is possible only if the sides shift from words to deeds."
Yesin suggested that it is possible for Russia and NATO to begin with the establishment of joint centers, which will exchange information and conduct joint planning, in the development of missile defense cooperation.
Tread softly in the Hindu Kush
Afghanistan is going to be the single crucial test case of the efficacy of the SCO in a changing world. If the single biggest statement is to be culled out from the Beijing summit, it undoubtedly has to be Chinese President Hu Jintao's profoundly meaningful reference to Afghanistan: "We will continue to follow the concept that regional affairs should be managed by countries in the region, that we should guard against shocks from turbulence outside the region, and that [the SCO] should play a bigger role in Afghanistan's peaceful reconstruction."
What attracted such huge attention to Hu's statement is that China has never before spoken of the idea of playing a political role in the settlement of the Afghan problem. Unfortunately, Hu didn't elaborate on what he meant and the impression that he leaves behind is that he probably strove to express a shared opinion of the SCO leaders voiced in their sequestered cogitations with China, giving vent to their deep disquiet about the shape of things to come in Afghanistan.
In the final analysis, it is unclear what role SCO can play as a regional grouping. Both Russia and China have ruled out direct intervention in Afghanistan. On the other hand, NATO hasn't shown any interest in working with the SCO in Afghanistan and, in fact, consistently viewed the latter as a pretender that was propped up on the regional landscape in the first instance to counterbalance the influence of the Western alliance - and of the US - in Central Asia. At any rate, the prospect of Afghanistan coming within the orbit of China or Russia will remain deeply distasteful for Washington and its NATO allies.
The entire New Silk Road strategy enunciated by Washington at regular intervals aims at bringing to the fore the two countries in the region that have been historically the major counterbalances - India and Pakistan. But the US project has run into headwinds. On the one hand, China has strong ties with Pakistan (and Russia is also building up its relationship with Pakistan), while the US' ties with Pakistan lie in tatters.
Besides, India will never act as the US's proxy, given its obsessive desire to retain its strategic autonomy on the core issues of foreign policy such as issues that impact its relations with Russia or China. During the visit of the US secretary of defense Leon Panetta to Delhi last week, the Indian side suggested a rethink on the US's strategy to "rebalance" its forces in the Asia-Pacific. The Indian defense ministry statement said:
"With regard to the security concerns the Asia-Pacific, [Indian Defense Minister] Mr [AK] Antony conveyed that India supports unhindered freedom of navigation in international waters for all. At the same time, with regard to bilateral issues between countries, he stressed that it is desirable that the parties concerned themselves should settle contentious matters in accordance with the international law. Mr Antony emphasized the need to strengthen the multilateral security architecture in the Asia-Pacific and to move at a pace comfortable to all countries concerned."
Again, NATO insists on directly negotiating with the Central Asian states its transit routes for the withdrawal of war materials and equipment from Afghanistan. It is also abundantly clear by now that the US (and NATO) will keep tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan even after 2014.
They aren't running away from the region. Unsurprisingly, Central Asian states are inclined to drive a hard bargain with the US and NATO, and the latter, in turn are also favorably disposed to accommodating the "wish list" as much as they could. The Central Asian countries are obviously expecting additional financial assistance from the NATO countries, but while erecting the bedrock of a mutually beneficial long-term partnership as well.
But over and above, they have also raised demands that NATO leaves behind some of their military equipment. Kyrgyzstan has specifically voiced interest in the drone aircraft. Russia has been left guessing what is going on and how far the US will accommodate these Central Asian requests.
In essence, an enduring relationship of military cooperation between the NATO and the Central Asian states could just about be commencing for the first time in the post-Soviet era. The NATO weapons being left behind will need to be repaired and serviced and the Central Asian forces will need to be trained to handle them. The sequential steps could well include the stationing of the NATO's Special Forces at some stage once the relationship consolidates.
As things stand, NATO countries have already begun encroaching into the SCO's preserve by setting up the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Centre for Combating Drugs (CARICC). It is obvious that there is only a thin line separating the fight against drugs and the counterinsurgency war or narco-terrorism as such.
Yet, CARICC keeps China at arm's length. While Russia has been included, Moscow feels uncomfortable and lonely inside the CARICC tent. Russia helplessly watches while the NATO countries - especially the countries funding the center, including USA, UK, Italy, France, Turkey, Czech Republic - which form part of the CARICC process merrily network with the security agencies of its partner countries in the region - Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - and are dipping into the resource base of sensitive intelligence, making a mockery of the matrix that the SCO built up painstakingly for its exclusive purpose.
Arguably, Russia has created much of these dilemma for itself. The point is, Russia cannot demand that the Central Asian states should keep off NATO as if the Western alliance is a pariah crowd, when it is creating a so-called Transit Alliance of its own in Ulyanovsk on the Volga for acting as a transportation hub to meet NATO's logistical needs.
Moscow justifies this act saying it is a mere commercial proposition with a lucrative business turnover of US$1 billion annually. But then, the Golden Rule in such situations is that what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander as well. That, at least, is how the Central Asian capitals are viewing Russia's dalliance with NATO in Afghanistan. They also feel tempted to create an Afghan template to enrich their overall strategic engagement with the US.
In sum, NATO is already drawing the SCO member countries - including Russia - into selective engagement over Afghanistan, but strictly on an individual basis and scrupulously ignoring the prerogative of Moscow or Beijing to represent the region's collective voice on security issues. Does Hu's statement at the Beijing summit suggest that the SCO is shifting gear and going to take on NATO and the US frontally?
The past pattern shows that China is particular about keeping its role in Afghanistan limited to advancing its economic interests and has fought shy of vetting its toes in the political arena, although Beijing never tires of underlining that it is a stakeholder in Afghanistan's stability and security. Is this going to change?
For argument's sake, even if China's Afghan policies are poised for a dramatic change, how far will Beijing push to ensure that the SCO secures a greater role in assembling the building blocks of peace in the Hindu Kush? Trust NATO to play rough. As a leading Afghan pundit Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, put it,
I believe that in the next two years, although there might be goodwill from the SCO member states to have a greater role in peace-building, the atmosphere of peace-building and reconciliation in Afghanistan and the NATO's overwhelming role will make it extremely difficult for the SCO to get engaged ... the reality on the ground is that I don't believe the NATO member countries would really have the goodwill for such big players [read Russia and China] to overshadow the situation and the NATO's rule [grip] in Afghanistan.
Put differently, the SCO would need to ponder carefully first what the Afghan people expect of the regional grouping. Quite obviously, the mainstream Afghan opinion desires reconciliation with the Taliban in political terms, while the majority opinion remains skeptical whether stability and security could be sustained without a long-term foreign military presence, especially US military presence. (Russia's top Afghan hand, ambassador Zamir Kabulov, by the way, is on record as having told the media that Moscow sees nothing objectionable in the US-Afghan security pact that provides for American military presence in the post-2014 period.)
In this situation, SCO will be hard-pressed to identify a common denominator for its member countries to get engaged in Afghanistan. (Obviously, Central Asian states or Russia do not have the surplus cash reserves to put on the table in Kabul, as China has.) Again, Russia may be inclined to work on the political element, but it is the economic advancement that China has so far regarded as important. Incidentally, China is also better placed than its SCO partners insofar as it has the added advantage of tapping into its "all-weather friendship" with Pakistan to safeguard its vital interests on the Afghan chessboard.
Besides, one has to be extraordinarily clairvoyant to know at this point what is going to happen in Afghanistan, leave alone how to handle the situation. The SCO will be called upon to react almost on a continuous basis if the push comes to shove in Afghanistan and it seems rather ill-equipped as of now to meet such an eventuality both in institutional terms and politically. To take the two key SCO players - Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - if a real crisis situation develops in Afghanistan, they are bogged down in a quagmire of their own.
The two countries' persistent feuding debilitates the SCO's capacity to play a role in Afghanistan. Of late, Uzbek-Tajik ties, which were always testy, have taken a nasty turn with Tashkent ordering an economic blockade of Tajikistan. There is even talk that Tashkent is pursuing a calculated strategy to bring about a "regime change" in Dushanbe. US commentator Stephen Blank couldn't have put it better than when he wrote recently: "The Tajik-Uzbek spat acts like sand in the Silk Road's engine ... Tajik-Uzbek feud is even more vexing for Russia, creating a major security gap that could be exploited by narcotics traffickers and Islamic militants."
As long as these two "frontline states" keep fighting with each other, how could there be a collective SCO effort to contain drug trafficking and Islamic militancy? Both Russia and China face the dilemma of not squandering away their political capital - more so in Tashkent - which is needed for safeguarding their national interests first and foremost. The two regional heavyweights would know that at the slightest inkling of any pressure tactic from their side, Tashkent would play the "American card".
The Uzbek-Tajik feud is in many ways a test case for the SCO. The regional grouping's capacity to act in Afghanistan is directly linked to the cohesion within the grouping and the political commitment of the member countries to actually line up behind a common Afghan strategy. It is much more than a matter of words. Thus, when the dust settles down on the summit in Beijing, the impression it leaves behind is that the SCO has taken the easy way out with yet another statement regarding the Afghan situation while the NATO-US caravan rolls on.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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