Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the emerging multipolar international order

For weeks ahead of the fifth annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Beijing last Thursday, the rumours in the Western press were that Iran was about to have its status upgraded from observer to full member.

The SCO has its roots in an April 1996 meeting of the presidents from five neighbouring countries: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Their mutual interests included economic cooperation, the control of terrorism, separatism and extremism inside their borders and action against the flow of drugs and arms across their borders.

The presidents of these five countries continued to meet annually. In 1999, they signed an agreement in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, to set up a formal organization for the control of terrorism.

In June 2001, just months before the September 11 attacks, they met again in Shanghai and formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This time a sixth country--Uzbekistan--was also present. (Mackerras Apr 23 04).

The Shanghai Spirit as it was called back in 2001 was seen as a model of regional cooperation, "a partnership, but not an alliance." Economically the goal is to increase trade; geopolitically, to achieve regional stability without political preconditions.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had left a political vacuum in Central Asia. For the first time, the SCO addressed that vacuum without discounting Russia, as Turkey, Iran and the United States had previously tried to do. "Instead, [Sisci wrote] it includes and ultimately limits Moscow's influence in the region"(ATol Jun 23 01).

When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Russia in September 2004, he proposed building up Eurasia as a free-trade zone with Russia, but his Russian counterpart rejected this idea.

In those days, Russia was still reeling from the terrorist attack in Beslan that same month as well as the Rose revolution in Georgia the year before. Copycat revolutions in Ukraine, Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz Republic were yet to come. So Russia's focus for the SCO was on combatting terrorism, separatism and fundamentalism, while China hoped to see the organization primarily as a stimulus to economic cooperation. (See Wang Asia Times Online Long rope Oct 20 04).

In 2005, SCO members whose governments represent nearly 50 percent of the world's population, demonstrated what Adam Wolfe of the Power and Interest News Report calls a desire "to be a serious force in international affairs. [According to Wolfe,] This can be seen in the granting of observer status to India (at Russia's request), Pakistan (at China's insistence) and Iran (to the delight of all members)" (Wolfe Great game Aug 3 05).

In 2005, SCO members whose governments represent nearly 50 percent of the world's population, demonstrated what Adam Wolfe of the Power and Interest News Report calls a desire "to be a serious force in international affairs. This can be seen in the granting of observer status to India (at Russia's request), Pakistan (at China's insistence) and Iran (to the delight of all members)" (Great game Aug 3 05).

The joint declaration issued at the end of the summit rejected attempts at "monopolizing or dominating international affairs" and insisted on "non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states." The members further urged the US-led forces in Afghanistan to declare a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Uzbek and Kyrgyz bases in the region that were established to support the Afghan operations" (Wolfe Great game Aug 3 05).

Eurasia.Net recognized that Uzbekistan's decision around the same time to evict US military personnel from the Karshi-Khanabad airbase "effectively marks the start of the Russian-led counter-revolution in Central Asia" (Eviction notice Aug 1 05).

In April of this year, SCO Secretary General Zhang Deguang said, "Iran and three other observer nations -- Pakistan, India and Mongolia -- will soon be invited to join as full members" (Goodenough Apr 19 06).

The New Member Gambit: Just Think About It

The presence of Iran's Ahmadinejad and rumours that Iran might become a member of the organization have generated the most press in the West. But the invitation to full membership and indeed the granting of observer status, in case anyone had missed it, was a direct challenge to US and NATO dominance in the region.


Take Mongolia for instance. Back in November 2005, Bush became the first US president to visit Mongolia. "He met Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar and thanked him for supporting the US-led war in Iraq, and for sending more than 100 troops" (BBC Nov 21 06).

Pseudo NGOs from the US like the National Endowment for Democracy had "helped draft the country's constitution in 1992 and have since helped in voter education and other pro-democracy projects" (BBC Nov 21 05).


Pakistan is a traditional US ally and a crucial collaborator in the Global War on Terror. However, because of its central location, Pakistan hopes to play a key role in regional commerce by providing a trade corrridor and access to the sea for the SCO countries. (Chen Jun 14 06)

Pervez Musharraf and Hu Jintao met for the second time this year the day after last week's SCO summit. Liu Jiachao, a senior official of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said he hoped Pakistan's application for full membership in the SCO would be accepted soon. (Chen Jun 14 06)

The last time the two met, Pakistan expressed its interest in the construction of oil refineries, gas terminals and oil and gas storage and transit facilities.

The Chinese side welcomed the proposals and agreed to assist in the development of oil and gas sector in Pakistan. They also agreed to enhance cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy" (Chen Jun 14 06).


An editorial this May in the Times of India concluded that India's role in Central Asia has been "feeble" and that "India lacks a clear Central Asia policy with a strategic intent." For example, the India-Iran-Turkmenistan railway project was criticized because it has yet to bear fruit.

More to the point, India is counting on every vote in the US Congress to get its nuclear deal with Washington sanctioned. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh couldn't afford to be seen rubbing shoulders with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad at the SCO summit. So he stayed home and sent Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Murli Deora instead. (Ramachandran Jun 17 06)

India does have a military base in Tajikistan and is interested in the region's vast gas resources. (Ramachandran Jun 17 06)

Getting the nuclear deal through is a top priority for India. To this end it has made drastic shifts in its foreign policy, taking a pro-US line in the Iran nuclear controversy for instance. It voted in favor of an International Atomic Energy Agency resolution to report Iran's nuclear program to the UN Security Council, defying fierce opposition from the left parties in India.

India could have abstained if it did not want to be seen to be challenging the US position. However, in a bid to signal to the US that it was a reliable ally it went a step further and voted against Iran. (Ramachandran Jun 17 06)

Still India lobbied hard to get into the SCO and finally got observer status with Russian backing. India has now applied for full member status in the grouping, as has Iran" (Ramachandran Jun 17 06).


Both Russia and China have stated that they want the entire Iran nuclear issue to be handed back to the IAEA to handle through negotiation. The USA, however, has stated that after receiving the IAEA report, they will seek a Chapter 7 resolution, which authorises the use of force. Failing this, the USA has a fallback position, which calls for the UN Security Council to invoke economic sanctions against Iran. (Hunt May 2 06)

Gennady Yefstafiyev, a former general in Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, has written:
The US's long term goals in Iran are obvious: to engineer the downfall of the current regime; to establish control over Iran's oil and gas; and to use its territory as the shortest route for the transportation of hydrocarbons under US control from the regions of Central Asia and the Caspian Sea bypassing Russia and China. This is not to mention Iran's intrinsic military and strategic significance. (Qtd Bhadrakumar Apr 18 06)

Of Iran's nuclear "program" Yevgeniy Velikhov, president of Kurchatov Institute, Russia's nuclear research center, told Tier-TASS, "Launching experimental equipment of this type is something any university can do" (Qtd Bhadrakumar Apr 18 06)

Former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar sees SCO membership as "a lifeline for Iran in political and economic terms" and as an opportunity to "debunk the US propaganda about Iran being part of an 'axis of evil'".

The SCO added no new members to its list this year. But it has demonstrated through a kind of subtle and indirect diplomacy that we are unaccustomed to in the West just what could be standing in the wings.

The Current Membership is an Economic Powerhouse-in-Waiting

Trade is an important part of the SCO. Even without new members, the group does not lack for strong economies.

China's raging growth is well known, but one of the most surprising items during the last year was the statement by Bhadrakumar who writes regularly for the South Asia Analysis Group that the Russian economy is now in better shape than ever before. "Russia is not only holding vast reserves of energy but is also flush with oil-revenue cash to invest [Bhadrakumar wrote].... the investment climate is improving; it is keen to repay debts ahead of schedule; and, with high oil prices, things could get still better..." (Bhadrakumar Five days Mar 1 05).

Another surprise came at a time when US Senator McCain had introduced a bill to kick Russia out of the G8. Jim O'Neill, the head of global economic research at Goldman Sachs Group in London, said in an interview with the Moscow Times noted growing pressure to enlarge the G7. "If the G7 wants to be regarded as a credible entity, it's living on borrowed time," he said. "At the financial level, it is quite ridiculous not to include China at a minimum, and there is a very good case to consider having Russia, India and Brazil too.'"

Kazakhstan's real GDP grew 9.3 percent in 2003 and 94 percent in 2004 driven largely by the oil sector. Grain production has increased on average by 27 percent per year during the period from 1998 to 2003. (World Bank).

Tajikistan has achieved an average economic growth of 10 percent per year for the past four years and has reduced poverty from 83% of the population in 1999 to 64% in 2003.

Even without new members, the Shanghai Cooperation could be an economic powerhouse-in-waiting.Recommend this Post

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