By Raffaello Pantucci
First published at Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel blog November 16, 2011.
VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia was unsurprisingly uneventful. While not a “head of state” summit — where traditionally big announcements like the decision to allow new members in would be made — in the lead-up to the meeting there was a flurry of press about a possible enlargement of the group. But aspirant members and current observers India and Pakistan were not made into full members, and Afghanistan was once again not brought any closer into the club. Generally seen by Western observers as a less threatening entity than before, the organization’s inability to move forward on expansion highlights its immaturity and should show outsiders the likely limited role that it will be able to play in post-American Afghanistan.
Initially born as a vehicle through which to resolve long-standing border disputes in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the “Shanghai Five” as it was known (made up of China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) formally changed its name in 2001 when it opened up to Uzbekistan and turned into the SCO. Over time, it developed into a forum in which regional players could forge closer links on a variety of issues, including economics, development, infrastructure projects and most recently education.
At the core of its identity, however, remained security concerns, focused on countering what the SCO members describe — in a clear emulation of the Chinese definition of a threat — as “terrorism, separatism and extremism.” Its biannual “Peace Mission” joint counter-terrorism exercises have been the most visible expressions of this focus, offering opportunities for nations to get together and practice operations usually focused on countering an assault by a small force of well-armed terrorists. In January 2004 it established the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and the next year opened its doors to the leaders of India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan, who all attended the annual summit as “observers.” Also present was Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the group agreed to establish the SCO-Afghanistan contact group, “with the purpose of elaborating proposals and recommendations on realization of cooperation between the SCO and Afghanistan on issues of mutual interest.” However, since then the Contact Group has done very little, and while further countries have joined the constellation of nations interested in becoming involved in the organization (Belarus and Sri Lanka are now “Dialogue Partners” and Turkey has applied to join this club) no further tangible movement has been made.
Yet it seemed as though this might be changing. Earlier this year, the organization celebrated its ten-year anniversary, and at a high-level conference in Shanghai the question of expansion was brought up repeatedly. However, while Russian participants seemed eager for the organization to allow new members in, the Chinese side seemed hesitant, pushing to deepen the organization’s economic focus and develop its international profile through official connections with other international bodies before expanding it further. This was reflected in the public discourse ahead of the St. Petersburg Summit where Russian officials backed the Afghan bid for upgrading the nation to “observer” status and openly supported Pakistan’s bid for full-membership. Yet nothing happened, and in his official read-out to journalists on his way back from the Summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made absolutely no mention of the possibilities of expansion.
This inaction is somewhat perplexing to outside observers. The organization was fundamentally founded to clarify borders so as to counter a transnational terrorist threat that most would agree has had a regional home in Afghanistan, and yet the SCO has done surprisingly little in direct terms to help the nation. Individual members have given support and money, but the organization itself has not. The idea of membership, or at least “observer” status, would theoretically tie Afghanistan more closely to regional players and bolster the current administration in Kabul. Yet by this same token, admitting Afghanistan to the group would mean taking sides in a conflict whose outcome remains uncertain. No one yet quite understands what the American withdrawal in 2014 will actually look like, and SCO members are unsure whether they want to become too entangled in a nation that has already subdued at least one SCO member in the past (Russia). And atop all of this there is the capacity question: the SCO has no standing forces and controls few direct funds. Consequently, as a diplomat at the Secretariat in Beijing put it to me last year, “what would you have us do?”
Other potential members face different problems: unwilling to take sides, the organization would most likely have to open its doors to both India and Pakistan at the same time — something that would also have the effect of bringing into the organization all the disagreements they share. The question of upgrading Iran is one that has taken something of a back seat of late following President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s failed attempt to be admitted last year. The reason for this blockage seems to be a general desire amongst SCO members to not overtly antagonize the United States. Mongolia would seem to be a relatively natural member, but given the precedent that letting a nation in would set, it continues to be obliged to sit on the sidelines.
And so the question remains: Why, in the run-up to the St. Petersburg Summit, was there such a flurry of interest in possible expansion? One explanation is that Islamabad has for some time been trying to bolster its regional partnerships in an attempt to counter-balance American anger and perceived fickleness. Russia also appears to be behind a lot of talk of expansion. Concerned about the in-roads China is making in its Central Asian periphery, Moscow perhaps hopes that expanding the SCO, something seen as primarily a Chinese vehicle, might stretch it beyond its ability to function. While the SCO may not have done much yet, it has laid the foundations for a more weighty future — a long-term vision that accords with China’s approach to foreign policymaking.
Whatever the case, the end result is that another high-level SCO Summit passed with little tangible forward movement. Seemingly obvious achievements like upgrading Afghanistan or Turkey continue to be avoided, while outside China there is little evidence that the regional powers are willing to invest too much into the SCO. All of which is welcome news to those who worry about the organization becoming a “NATO of the East,” but less positive to those who hope it might be willing to take on a greater role in Afghanistan when the United States makes its move in 2014.
Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation. His writing can be found at http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.