Narrow interests limit SCO's influence

By Jagannath P. Panda
0 CommentsPrint E-mail Global Times, June 13, 2011
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The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has been constantly in the limelight since its formation in 2001. The first regional multilateral organization of the 21st century, the SCO has successfully addressed various security issues in the Central Asian region. Its relevance as a thriving regional multilateral grouping for the national interests of countries like China and Russia is not in doubt.

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But whether the SCO has the capability to inquire into the possibility of expanding its mandate and membership and venture out on that experiment will be the test of its strength and character in coming times.

The SCO's sustainability as a credible regional organization in a rapidly changing world political scenario becomes a matter of utmost importance, which necessitates that the Chinese and the Russians think about seriously with other members concerning the SCO's expansion.

The SCO can do this after following a "Central Asia plus South Asia" pan-regional approach to sustain its momentum. The SCO covers one of the largest geographic areas of any regional grouping, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok and from the White Sea to the South China Sea.

If observer members like India, Pakistan, Mongolia and Iran are included at some point of time as core members, SCO's geographic scope will extend to the Indian Ocean region and the Middle East. Besides, it will establish linkages among Asia's three most important regions: Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East.

In the current context, the execution of the SCO's non-security features has been delayed primarily because of the differing approaches of Russia and China.

Moscow perceives the SCO as a transnational and global organization, as a platform that could not only tackle transnational threats but also check the Western inroads both in Central Asia and Asia. China's approach has been economic-centric.

While Russia's proposition of combating the regional and transnational threats through the SCO will help China in improving its border security, it is cautious not to project the SCO as a credible anti-Western grouping. For China, the SCO stands as a viable mechanism at some level to oversee the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan.

So, while the Russians are generally interested in pushing the SCO in terms of security and focus on the networks for a common military infrastructure, the Chinese primarily focus on the SCO's economic dimension and as a window for promoting free trade zones in the region.

China obviously supports Russia's opposition to regional "hegemony." In the meanwhile, it maintains a tactically neutral position.

The most important issue currently on the SCO's agenda is Afghanistan, which could help in enhancing the SCO's credibility as a multilateral organization.

India could be inducted into the SCO as a member to help stabilize Afghanistan after the US troops withdraw from the region. Pursuing a constructive policy toward Afghanistan requires endeavor from both China and India.

Direct and forceful security measures on China's part would probably help curb the spillover of instability from Afghanistan into China, but an extended Chinese security presence in the region could strongly antagonize India and neighboring countries of the Central Asian region, upsetting interstate relations in the region.

The thrust could be on soft power networks, sticking mainly to a civilian, peaceful and passive approach, though the predicament remains whether a hardcore military network within the region is necessary to protect its interests and investments. Both China and India seek to wield greater influence in the region, particularly in the light of their quest for stability and energy. Afghanistan functions as a pivot in this quest.

If the SCO is going to expand at some point in the future, China and Russia must build a cooperative strategy to tackle various regional security issues through the SCO with the help of India. This would be concomitantly in the interests of all the countries of the region.

The author is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, India.

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