What does China see in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?

Posted: June 30, 2021 in Straits Times
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I seem to be on a particular China over its western borders scribbling jag at the moment. Here is my latest, again circling around the twentieth birthday of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), this time for the Straits Times. Have another piece on a related topic which has just landed and will post later, but for the time being enjoy this. For those more interested in terrorism, there are a few bigger pieces on that topic lined up, just been focused quite a bit on China of late as the book goes through another wave of effort ahead of publication next year.

What does China see in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?

Nato soldiers conducting an inspection near the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, in March last year. PHOTO: REUTERS

While the world’s attention was on the G-7, Nato and Europe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) turned 20 last week. Bringing together China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan, and built around counter-terrorism cooperation, the SCO is sometimes described as Nato of the East.

But this misses the bigger impact it has had in terms of providing China a vehicle through which to shape the Eurasian heartland.

As it quietly breaches its second decade, the SCO has given China an ever-deepening foothold in the heart of the planet’s super continent.

We mostly think of Chinese connectivity through the lens of belts and roads. Since President Xi Jinping’s pair of speeches in 2013 that launched his foreign policy vision that has now been enshrined in Chinese Communist Party doctrine, we tend to see that as the starting point for China’s concepts of connectivity.

But contemporary Chinese thinking on these issues goes back further than this.

The roots can be found in the end of the Cold War as China suddenly found itself having to abruptly adjust to the reality of going from having a single neighbour (the Soviet Union), to four new countries with which it shared borders and communities.

Out at Xinjiang’s northern and western borders, the concept of nationhood is still developing.

Central Asian communities – from Uighurs, to Kyrgyzs, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Dungans and more – are all now bound in national borders, but have familial links back and forth across the region.

This reality made it important for China to establish strong connections there early to be able to manage its own communities and security concerns, as well as to try to help Xinjiang develop.

This is the starting point for China’s interest in fostering greater webs of connectivity around it.

THE LINKS WITH THE BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE

In 1994, then Premier Li Peng carved a path in trying to establish these links across China’s western border. On a visit to all of the Central Asian capitals except Tajikistan (which was in the midst of a grim civil war), he championed the idea of a new Silk Road across the region.

In 1996, then President Jiang Zemin created the Shanghai Five grouping, bringing together the leaders of China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to discuss border delineation and demilitarisation.

When in 2001 they welcomed Uzbekistan into this group and transformed it into the SCO, they married up these two strands on security and prosperity, describing it as the “Shanghai Spirit”. The idea was that they would all peacefully move forward and engage without treading on one another’s toes – an articulation which is an echo of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is about using connectivity with the world through economic engagement on the premise of joint prosperity.

The resonance is important as it helps us understand better China’s longer-term vision through the SCO, and more generally its aims for the Eurasian heartland.

For China, the SCO is a vehicle to strengthen bonds and normalise its position as the pre-eminent power. The SCO has developed from a high-level organisation into an institution that has annual meetings of ministers from the member states. It has created a post-graduate university exchange scheme which offers opportunities for students from member states to do a year at a school in another member state.

It has working groups that bring together officials, businessmen and institutions at every level.

It has a secretariat in Beijing, a counter-terrorism centre in Tashkent, an interior and border ministry training centre in Shanghai, and an economic development centre in Qingdao.

It has helped harmonise security approaches, legislation and standards across the region – mostly in a Chinese direction.

A recent report by the United States think-tank, the Rand Corporation, concluded that China’s international leadership would be focused on “exercising a partial global hegemony centred principally on Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa”. Such leadership would be characterised by “a reliance on finance, diplomatic engagement and security assistance to exercise influence while maintaining a modest overseas military presence”.

The SCO is the perfect vehicle to achieve this, offering a broad range of links which fit as a tidy parallel to the more specific projects offered under the BRI.

But at their core, both of these are interwoven into the broader goal of placing China as an ever more significant actor across the Eurasian landmass.

THE AFGHAN PROBLEM

China’s dilemma with this, however, is that with great influence comes great responsibility. And it is assuming leadership in an unstable neighbourhood.

As the SCO turned 20, Nato was discussing its plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan, a country sitting on China’s border where it increasingly looks likely that a government controlled or heavily influenced by the Taleban is going to take over.

While Beijing seems surprisingly comfortable with this outcome, some of Afghanistan’s other neighbours are less so.

Shi’ite Iran is worried about the prospect of a return of Sunni hardliners to Kabul. Under the previous Taleban administration, Iran saw its diplomats murdered and religious minorities targeted. The likely waves of poor migrants that are also likely to cross into Iran will put a strain on the already fragile Iranian economy.

Prior to the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan suffered a number of large-scale border incursions with links to Afghanistan, while Uzbekistan saw a series of massive car bomb attacks in its capital.

The Tajik civil war of the mid-1990s was fuelled by camps in Afghanistan. And even Pakistan with its strong connections to militant groups in Afghanistan is concerned about a too-powerful Taleban taking control of the country, worrying about the consequences for the violent Islamist groups within its borders (and the potential exodus of migrants).

The one thing that all of these border countries with Afghanistan share is a link (through membership or participation) to the SCO, suggesting that it might be a good vehicle to try to bring some resolution to the country’s longer-term problems. And yet, much like China, the SCO has done nothing to really advance peace and stability in Afghanistan.

This is not for want of trying. Chinese leaders repeatedly try to get the SCO to do something about Afghanistan. This was hammered home again recently at a summit meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his five Central Asian counterparts. A key takeaway from the summit (the first China has hosted since the pandemic) was that they would do something on Afghanistan.

Yet, few hold much hope for that happening, with the statements of intent joining a long list of such declarations over the past years.

But this is the central problem for the SCO which China is going to have to address at some point. Not only the realities of having a Taleban-dominated leadership in Kabul at the heart of the SCO’s territory, but also the fact that Beijing has been building all of this influence and connectivity with little evidence of wanting to step in to fill the security vacuums that are likely to emerge as the West withdraws from this region.

The famous British geographer Halford Mackinder once described Central Asia as the geographical pivot of what he termed the “world island”, comprising the Eurasian landmass. As he put it, “who rules the heartland commands the world-island; who rules the world-island commands the world”. Through the SCO, Beijing can make a compelling case of laying the foundations to trying to control the “world island”; the dilemma China has yet to come to grips with is to acknowledge the responsibilities that are likely to go alongside this influence.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

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