Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Entering the Big Game

Friday, June 15, 2012

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan Issues

The recent summit meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Beijing, China, drew attention from various quarters for different reasons. During the meeting, observer countries like Iran, posited their views on regional and international issues and Afghanistan was accepted as a new observer member. However, it seems that the importance of Beijing meeting goes far beyond such marginal issues. Two important things are apparently happening to Shanghai Cooperation Organization which will have lasting effects on this international entity:

1. Gradual transition of the SCO from an economic organization to a security – political one; and

2. Setting major areas and priorities for cooperation among member states.

As for the first issue, it is noteworthy that the new world order, which has replaced the former bipolar world order, is still widely vacillating and has not assumed its final shape. Therefore, heads of the SCO member states keep repeating that the organization is meant for promoting economic cooperation among members and is not willing to get engaged in political and military rivalries. However, it is an important reality that Shanghai Cooperation Organization has not remained a purely economic body and is overtly willing to expand cooperation in all political and, possibly, military fields in the future.
Some analysts are currently of the opinion that China and Russia, as two dominant countries and founding members of the organization, are more inclined than any time before to expand the organization’s capacities for military and political cooperation. Smaller members of the organization are most probably under the influence of Beijing’s and Moscow’s viewpoints and will tread the path determined by them. If this happens, before long, Shanghai Cooperation Organization can be expected to evolve into an organization with political and military functions in addition to its current economic capacities. This stands in stark contrast to frequent denials by Moscow and Beijing about future roles of the SCO. Of course, the main reason behind this development should be sought in increasing role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the NATO members’ willingness to further expand its areas of influence and scope of activities. China and Russia consider this a major threat to their national interests and security and believe that the NATO plans to spread toward the Central Asia as well as South and Southeast Asia in order to penetrate security domains of Beijing and Moscow.

Under these circumstances, the SCO will sooner or later find itself on a direct crash course with the NATO and this will make its members transform the SCO from a purely economic entity into one with dominantly political and military orientations. Of course, it is not clear how much time will be needed for that transformation to take place because neither China, nor Russia call for it as they both prefer cooperation with the West to rivalry. However, large-scale policies of the United States and the NATO are such that emergence of a new global power system of a basically political and military quality seems almost inevitable. Therefore, it is not because of the willingness or inclination of Russia and China that the SCO will be finally pitched against the NATO in the form of a new military – political organization. It is the very nature of power, which cannot be confined within any limits and tends to indefinitely expand and spread and sway monopoly on its areas of influence. It happens that the big political game in its traditional form is gradually taking shape in the Central and South Asia. Therefore, creeping advance of the NATO toward this sensitive part of the world, which is a true “heartland,” will force the SCO, sooner or later, to leave its traditional framework of economic cooperation and continue to confront the NATO as a military – security organization. No amount of denial by China and Russia can change this reality.

A glance at the main axes and priorities declared by the SCO member countries in Beijing meeting will prove that the organization is gradually making inroads into security and military domains. During the recent meeting, member states put emphasis on three major cooperation areas which are of a dominantly security nature:

1. Fighting extremism;

2. Fighting terrorism; and

3. Fighting separatism.

There is no doubt that all main members and even observer countries attending Beijing meeting are grappling with these problems. The important issue which will most probably goad the SCO in the direction of becoming a military organization is that these three phenomena are not purely indigenous, but are one way or another among strategic plans and plots of the United States and the NATO. Extremism has assumed a religious dimension because of the US plans which used it against the influence of the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Terrorism is also closely related to al-Qaeda and its subsidiary groups while separatism targets Russia and China alike with its roots being outside their borders. Extremism, terrorism and separatism are seen by both Beijing and Moscow to be results of policies adopted by the United States and the NATO rather than being indigenous phenomena.

It is exactly for this reason that participants in the SCO summit in Shanghai emphasized on a common struggle against all these phenomena. Perhaps the fact that extremism in the form of Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorism is currently fighting with the West has not convinced Beijing and Moscow that the West can take advantage of this phenomenon against its possible rivals. At least, this possibility cannot be totally ruled out that in the future, the United States and the NATO will try through their permanent military presence in Afghanistan to redirect the general war that Taliban and al-Qaeda are currently fighting under the title of holy Jihad toward China and Russia. Also, there is high possibility that Uighur separatists who are trying to take the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province away from China and establish their own country, East Turkestan, may gain enough potential to be supported by the West. The same may happen in the case of separatist and armed movement of the people of Chechnya against Russia. The radical faction of Tahrir (Freedom) Party which is active in Central Asian countries with links to Taliban and al-Qaeda is now in a position similar to East Turkestan in China as well as Chechen separatists in Russia whose main goal is to create Islamic states in the heart of the Central Asian countries.

The agreement among heads of the SCO member states for fighting extremism, terrorism and separatism was reached with an eye to these realities. Observer countries were also urged to pay more attention to these phenomena because they are also in more or less similar conditions as permanent members of that organization. This is especially true about Pakistan and India, two main observer members of the SCO, which have more powerful reasons to sympathize with China, Russia, and the Central Asian countries in this regard. Therefore, let’s just imagine that the United States and the NATO, which are now engaged in a full-scale war against religious extremism as well as al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorism in Afghanistan, will reach an agreement with Taliban. Since both Taliban and al-Qaeda believe that Jihad cannot be stopped, it is quite possible that they may change direction of their Jihad from the United States and the NATO toward Chechnya in Russia, Xinjiang in China, and the Central Asian countries. Moscow and Beijing are totally sure that in case of happening, such a state of affairs will be undoubtedly supported by the United States and the NATO. A purely economic SCO will not be able to deal with such a situation, but a SCO whose main orientation is a security – military one will be able to do it.

Therefore, it will not be unexpected for Shanghai Cooperation Organization to gradually change from an organization with purely economic functions to an organization with military and security functions. In that case, willingly or unwillingly, Russia and China would have created an organization which is the antithesis of the NATO both in nature and identity. As a result, the present and future observer states will have to either become full members of the changed Shanghai Cooperation Organization or leave it. The country which enjoys the highest degree of readiness to leave the SCO and proceed on its own is India. New Delhi has sufficient political experience to get directly engaged in political games with dominant powers. If the new world order could be imagined to be created around the NATO and the SCO, then remolding the Non-Aligned Movement with India and similar countries at its center will not be unimaginable. In case this happens even in far future, the Third World countries will continue to remain the main battleground for political conflicts among the big powers.

Key Words: Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Big Game, Economic Functions, Military and Security Functions, NATO, Extremism, Terrorism, Separatism, Mollazehi

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