international analysis and commentary

The SCO’s potential enlargement and the Asian Great Game

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On September 1112, Tajikistan’s capital city, Dushanbe, hosted the 14th annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The top-priority issues that dominated the agenda drew significant attention from the international community and media which, only one week prior, were focused mainly on the NATO Summit in Wales. The most sensational result achieved in Dushanbe by the six member states (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) was the adoption of a resolution that would confer the status of full membership to India, Pakistan and Iran by the time the 2016 summit is held in the Russian city of Ufa. The next step of this process, if successfully completed, might produce a tentative “Group of Nine” – as opposed to the original “Group of Five” – with enormous political and strategic potential. The issue of the SCO’s enlargement intersects a number of geopolitical tensions that transcend the boundaries of the East and Central Asian region, and appears destined to assume global relevance.

The Sino-Russian entente within the SCO is a recent development, since the interests and expectations of the two major actors in this context have so far been basically different, if not at odds with each other. This has occurred mainly in relation to Central Asia and to the model of integration followed by the organization. Russia has long considered this area as its own zone of influence, exercised ostensibly through the two organizations that it leads; the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC). The SCO traditionally served as an additional tool to enhance its control over the area and preserve a political balance with Beijing; but in Moscow’s view it has not represented a significant platform for economic integration. China has seemed more actively engaged, being interested in establishing a fund to support various projects and allocate credit loans through the organization.

Despite these divergences, the two players’ expectations had already converged on the idea of establishing a multilateral order led by a “collective leadership” – albeit one that, in China’s intentions, would not compromise relations between Beijing and Washington. An additional common concern has certainly been the maintenance of stability and security in Central Asia, and the need to find a joint solution to the Afghanistan issue through a trilateral cooperation, also involving the United States. The goal is twofold: to fight terrorism, separatism and religious extremism, and to contain the American military presence and diplomatic influence in the region (since both Russia and China consider the US presence on their borders as a potential threat).

Against this strategic backdrop, the SCO is raising its profile. Initially considered by the Western world as a basically irrelevant organization, today the SCO is an international player with the potential to undermine the basis of the influence that NATO and Washington have obtained in Central Asia since the end of the bipolar era, particularly in view of the ongoing US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Among the most significant official results of the Dushanbe Summit, is the support that Russia has received from China on the Ukrainian crisis, for which Beijing has implicitly assured its own cooperation on a political level. The Dushanbe Declaration remains vague on this, as stated in point 12: “The heads of states support the speedy restoration of peace in Ukraine and continuation of the negotiating process for full resolve of crisis in that country. They welcome Protocol on the Consultations Results of Trilateral Contact Group regarding joint steps directed towards the implementation of Peaceful Plan of the President of Ukraine and initiatives of the President of Russia signed on 4 September 2014.”

It seems indeed that meeting with Vladimir Putin on the sidelines, Xi Jinping declared that the Ukrainian crisis should be addressed through “political means” and “inclusive dialogue”. The underlying reason can be easily deduced, since the splittism issue puts China on a very high level of alert because of the separatist movements within its own domestic sphere, as in Tibet and Xinjiang. However, even if pro-forma, Chinese support can partly offset the negative effects produced by US and EU trade sanctions on Russia’s economy. From Beijing’s perspective, such a partnership with Russia would allow China to potentially count on Moscow’s support in order to help solve the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial issue with Japan. Beijing continues indeed to experience a steady deterioration of diplomatic relations with Tokyo, and the sense of distrust between Xi and Abe Shinzo during the latest Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting on November 10 was palpable.

In a medium and long-term perspective, closer Moscow-Beijing cooperation would facilitate the SCO’s expansion, but much will depend on the level of mutual understanding and trust between the two actors. In principle, the Russian and Chinese strategic interests seem to largely overlap. They differ, however, in their preferred forms of cooperation within the SCO. China does not seem to aspire to become the key power in the region, although Beijing is strengthening a network of bilateral relations of “dependence” with the other Central Asian states through investments and loans, trade and military cooperation. For now, China’s presence is growing but it cannot supplant the influence enjoyed by Moscow, thanks to a dense network of organizations set up under its own initiative in the post-Soviet space. The level of integration that the SCO will achieve remains uncertain, but its evolution is beginning to affect the geopolitical “Great Game” in a significant portion of the Asian continent. The Western powers will have to take note.