The following article is based on a speech given by Sana Hashmi at the Young Scholars’ Forum on January 13, 2017.
Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi delivering his address at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on June 24, 2016
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The end of the Cold War brought about fundamental changes in the very nature of the Eurasian geopolitics. The disintegration of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) led to the emergence of the Central Asian Republics, which had to grapple with a range of challenges that they were not abreast with. Alongside traditional security concerns came the non-traditional security threats in the form of rising Islamic fundamentalism, threats of terrorism and several unforeseen challenges critical for the maintenance of the state apparatus. For almost a decade, this remained the case with most of the Central Asian Republics as well as Russia. The United States also perceived it as an opportune moment to establish its strong foothold in the region. However, the presence of the United States in a newly-established Central Asian region was not in the best interest of Russia and China.
Over the years, one of the most fundamental shifts in the regional strategic architecture came about with the rise of China, and more importantly its willingness to take the mantle of the regional leader. It was specifically with respect to the Central Asian region that China did not find it suitable to allow the United States as well as vulnerability to reach Central Asia as it has a long border with three of the five Central Asian Republics namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Therefore, for China, first step to making its presence felt in the region was through the resolution of the long-standing boundary dispute with post-Soviet states, which led to the establishment of the Shanghai Five in 1996 and it included China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Starting with the Shanghai Five, the grouping of the Eurasian countries, under the leadership of China, led to the formation of what is today known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). In 2001, with the inclusion of Uzbekistan, Shanghai Five was expanded to become SCO. China played a pivotal role in setting up the SCO. While the Shanghai Five mostly focused on the boundary dispute resolution, right from its inception, the SCO has been striving to provide the regional security architecture much needed stability and support. Apart from border disarmament and boundary dispute resolution, China had several other reasons to institutionalise its relationship with Central Asian countries further. First, China’s westernmost and the most restive region, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s (XUAR) geographical proximity with Central Asia compelled China to look towards Central Asian leadership to stop Uyghurs getting cross-border support. Second, with the support of its neighbours mainly Central Asian countries, China wants to counter what it describes as ‘three evils’, viz., terrorism, separatism and extremism. Third, amid rising apprehensions vis-à-vis China’s moves and intentions in its territorial disputes among its neighbouring/peripheral countries, Central Asia is the safest bet for China for propagating its image of a benign regional power and a responsible stakeholder. Fourth, as China’s domestic energy consumption is rising, it is looking towards diversifying its energy supplies. China’s interests lie in exploiting Central Asia’s untapped natural resources.
Since 2000, SCO has been at the core of China’s Central Asia policy. SCO has done it, both in the form of handling the trans-regional challenges and enabling the countries of the region with an opportunity to candidly share their notes on the issues of regional and trans-regional importance. With the probable expansion of the SCO by formally inducting India and Pakistan this year, the scope and functioning of the organisation will be further expanded. SCO will not just be limited to the Eurasian region but will now be expanded to the Indian subcontinent. The presence of Central Asia, Russia, China and India will make SCO more significant than ever before.
The SCO, especially after its expansion, will play a greater role in maintaining regional stability for several reasons:
- With the United States’ drawdown in Afghanistan and the threat of Islamic State looming large, SCO can play a pivotal role in ensuring security by reinforcing counter-terrorism measures in the region.
- SCO will provide an opportunity to the member states to manage their bilateral differences and cooperate on the issues of common concern.
- Diverse membership in the organisation will lead to further integration of the Eurasian region with the countries of the South Asian region. For India, it will provide a platform for further access to the Central Asian region, thereby giving a boost to India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy; whereas for China, it will provide with another opportunity to convince member states to be on board for its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.
To sum it up, the performance of the SCO is still much below its potential which is mainly due to the lack of political willingness. However, it seems that in the times to come, SCO is bound to play an active regional role. Through the SCO, China is in the process of building an Asian security architecture provided that the member states work towards further expanding the scope of the SCO with new geopolitical and economic realities.
Sana Hashmi works as a Consultant in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Government of India. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of Ministry of External Affairs and the Government of India.