The respective leaders from member and observer states of the Russia and China led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will meet on June 15 to celebrate the alliance’s fifth anniversary. Among the distinguished visitors in attendance will be Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov. While the organization was formed and continues to evolve into a mechanism to counter United States’ interests, this years summit in Shanghai will likely be the most geopolitically charged event of the year.
While most would contend that the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear uranium enrichment program reign supreme in the scope of geopolitical calculations and significance, much of what transpires in that process will be determined by the next move of the SCO. The items that will top the agenda in Shanghai will be counterterrorism cooperation, information security, and the possible expansion of both observer and full member nations in the organization.
The counterterrorism cooperation is nothing new, and the only significant breakthrough here will most likely be a further codification of current policies. The information security agenda will reportedly focus on internet oversight; something some of the organization’s members are quit adept at implementing. However, it is the issue of membership expansion that will help illustrate the future strength and direction of the SCO.
Desire for expansion has come from many quarters, and as Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov recently revealed, the SCO has been in continued negotiations with Iran regarding the attainment of full member status for Tehran. Indeed, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not viewed by many of the SCO members as a state sponsor of terror. Rather, IRNA, the official state-run news agency of Iran, reported on June 7 that “China cannot come to terms with those who believe that Iran supports terrorism, given there is no proof based on which this can be proved.” While the Iranians are not known for accurate and objective reporting, SCO Secretary-General Zhang Deguang was quoted on June 6 as stating: “Iran does not support terrorism and as an SCO observer has declared its support for the organization’s principles and goals regarding promotion of regional stability and security.”
Early this month, Zhongguo Xinwen She, the People’s Republic of China’s official news service for overseas Chinese, expressed its perceptions of American concerns as it noted: “The United States is worried that the ‘sprit of Shanghai’ will …eventually evolve into a kind of model for state-to-state relations that will prevail around the world and challenge the ‘theory of outdated sovereignty’ and ‘theory of supremacy of democracy’ that are being initiated by the United States in its ‘changing diplomacy.” The ‘transitional diplomacy’ to which the Chinese news outlet is referring is the Bush administration’s policy of actively promoting democracy abroad as a means to advance American interests. This clearly defies the Chinese Communist Party’s vision of shaping a new international system.
Chinese President Hu Jintao expressed in late May that SCO members “have always adhered to the ‘Shanghai Spirit,” which he defines as “mutual trust and benefits, equality, consultation, respect to diversified civilizations and mutual development, and ensured that member states live in harmony and seek mutual development.” In other words, the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ is a bunch of fluff that stands for little else but indifference to human rights and democracy, while promoting a new international order based on miltipolarity.
In a May 30th speech in Moscow to parliament leaders of SCO countries, National People’s Congress Standing Committee Chairman Wu Bangguo noted that the purpose of the organization is to establish a “just and rational new international political and economic order.” This new order is based on the deterioration of America’s relative power. It is also centered on the supposition that democracy is just one of the many forms of legitimate government. Chairman Wu explained what he believes are the benefits of this new international order as he pointed out that China has “not gone in for a multiparty system and [the] separate establishment of three powers,” but this has allowed the leadership in Beijing “to continually eliminate systemic obstacles to the development of productive forces.”
While Beijing and Moscow are committed to constructing a new multipolar world order by spreading the Shanghai Spirit, both maintain concerns that an expansion could alter the balance of power within the organization. The issue of expansion has also become a difficult policy dilemma for the leadership in Central Asia. Supporting a potential member’s admittance into the SCO is a channel to improve bilateral relations with that country. As Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov attempts to strengthen ties with both India and Pakistan, he can be counted on to provide at least symbolic support for their entry into the organization – though New Delhi’s desire here is certainly in question. Additionally, as the organization’s influence increases on the world stage, so will that of its individual members.
However, the states of Central Asia have long been skilled at balancing the weight of the major powers in the region. Any single power establishing itself as the hegemon limits the options and leverage of these post-Soviet nations. Therefore, the Central Asian nations have sought to ensure that they do not become too dependent on any one dominant state. Consequently, the regional powers of Russia and China not only compete with each other for influence in Central Asia, but the United States has been successful in remaining a regional force since the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
These calculations of the Central Asian states predicated on the balancing of regional powers will help dictate – if the United States is successful – the future direction of the Shanghai alliance. At the meeting of SCO parliament leaders, Kazakh speaker Nurtai Abykaev notified his counterparts that his country would not support expansion at this time. Nicolay Kuzmin, an expert on Central Asia, summed up Kazakhstan’s position to the Russian publication Kommersant earlier this month: “The refusal to expand the SCO is an example of Asian pragmatism [and] everything has to be done gradually … It is always better to follow a course of regional security and fighting terrorism than to be called the anti-NATO.”
India, an observer nation to the SCO, has significantly decided that immersing itself too deeply in this anti-American alliance counters its own interests. While every member and observer nation is scheduled to be represented by their respective heads of state – this includes Hu Jintao, Vladimir Putin, and Pervez Musharraf – Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has decided that New Delhi will be represented by petroleum minister Murli Deora. This decision was likely largely based on the calculation that strong Indian involvement with Iran and the SCO could jeopardize the recent civil nuclear agreement with the United States.
So what will come out of this week’s meeting? The Heritage Foundation’s Yevgeny Volk believes that while Russia and China maintain a deep interest in SCO expansion, Iran’s admittance as a full member of the alliance “would clearly demonstrate that they side with Iran and its nuclear program and would embark on a collision course with the West.” This, Volk believes, is something Beijing and Moscow still seek to avoid.
Whether or not Tehran is welcomed into the fold as a full-member, the question of expansion will largely remain. The most likely outcome would be a move towards establishing a process to amending the SCO’s charter to facilitate expansion in the near future. This may be the compromise that all sides can agree on while ensuring that the organization does not receive the negative attention from the West that would inevitably accompany a welcoming of Iran during this elevated and uncertain stage of the nuclear standoff. Nevertheless, Tehran’s position as an observer nation – not to mention Ahmadinejad’s invitation to the meeting – and the mere fact that Iran is being considered as a full member in the organization speaks volumes about the character and intentions of this increasingly powerful alliance.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld expressed his concerns with the SCO at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore on June 3:
It strikes me as passing strange that one would want to bring into an organization that says it’s against terrorism, one of the nations that’s the leading terrorist nation in the world: Iran. On the other hand, there are other organizations that do that. The United Nations has committees … But I just can’t imagine -- here you have Iran that, by everyone’s testimony, is the leading terrorist nation in the world; it’s supporting Hamas, it’s supporting Hezbollah, it has a long record of being engaged in terrorist activities. And to think that they should be brought into an organization with the hope that it would contribute to an anti-terrorist activity strikes me as unusual.
Unfortunately, there is nothing unusual about these contradictory and unhelpful measures stemming from the Beijing and Moscow driven Shanghai Cooperation Organization. As the world deals with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the SCO is in a unique position to be able to influence Tehran’s behavior. Let’s see what they do with it.
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