By Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci
First published in the South China Morning Post June 6, 2012
On the surface, this week’s Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) summit will be another marker in the organisation’s steady development as a serious player in regional and, increasingly, international affairs. Below, however, a growing tension between China and Russia is starting to show.
The two powers increasingly see their interests diverging in Central Asia. They are close allies in the UN Security Council, but on the ground China and Russia are steadily moving in different directions.
And it would seem that the SCO is not the only reason for his visit. In initial discussions, the summit was to be held in Shanghai. But, primarily at Moscow’s instigation, the decision was made to hold the conference in Beijing. Given that this was Putin’s first visit to China in his new role, he was eager to ensure that it was held in the capital so he could combine the summit with a state visit to Beijing, highlighting the importance of the bilateral over the multilateral in Russian minds.Russia’s hesitation with the SCO is observable in several ways, not least in President Vladimir Putin’s travel schedule. His first foreign visit since regaining the reins of power took him to Belarus, Germany and France, before coming to China this week.
In addition, in a pre-election article laying out his vision for foreign policy, Putin highlighted his nation’s potential for co-operation with China in “the UN Security Council, BRICS, the SCO, the G20 and other multilateral forums”. This is the only mention of the SCO in the article – while the other blocs get repeated mentions, with elaboration on what Russia might do with them.
Most significantly, Putin speaks repeatedly of a proposed Eurasian Union that aims to bring the former Soviet republics together in an economic union and semi-free trade zone. As Putin has put it, the bloc will co-ordinate economic and currency policy, bringing direct economic benefits. Besides, it will help its members “integrate into Europe faster and from a much stronger position”.
However, such a bloc will also erect higher tariff barriers between the SCO states, specifically along the Chinese border alongside Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This will not only have a direct impact on Chinese trade with these countries, but also render somewhat complicated further SCO economic development.
And while China may lose some trade as a result, the greater loss will be felt on the ground in poorer countries like Kyrgyzstan that will lose significant proportions of their gross domestic product.
Much is made of the vaunted Sino-Russian co-operation in the UN Security Council. And while the two clearly have coinciding visions of a global order, on the ground, tensions are far more obvious. China and Russia’s inability to negotiate gas pricing and direct energy links is in stark contrast to China’s rapid development of energy connections with other Central Asian states.
Of course, the Russia-China connection is not the only factor on the table at this week’s summit. The expected decision to admit Turkey as a dialogue partner is important, but even more significant is the agreement to let Afghanistan in as an observer member.
Member states are also set to approve a strategic plan for the medium-term development of the SCO, the first time they will agree on orienting the development of the SCO over the next 10 years.
Terrorism continues to be a priority, as members are expected to approve a co-operation programme for the next three years to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism.
Discussions will also continue about a proposed SCO university – a programme that will allow students from member states to undertake joint degrees in a selection of universities across the organisation – and the potential for an SCO development bank.
But all of these ambitious plans will be for naught if Russia and China fail to agree on the fundamental issue of the importance of the SCO. Russia is increasingly a questioning partner. At the same time, while China has continued to try to focus on the SCO as a key vehicle for development in Central Asia, it has not hesitated to guarantee its bilateral relations with nations in the region.
While Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in town for the summit, he will sign a strategic agreement with Chinese leaders clarifying Beijing’s role in Afghanistan for the near future. Furthermore, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan will also use this opportunity to sign a declaration of strategic partnership.
And in the run-up to the SCO summit, General Chen Bingde , chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, visited Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The SCO remains a relatively young organisation, but it is currently stymied by tension at its core between its two largest members. Always sceptical of China’s role in Central Asia, Russia is increasingly showing its hand, and the development of a Eurasian Union will directly clash with the future strengthening of the SCO as an economic body.
Sometime allies, Russia and China’s clashing interests in their border regions will increasingly express themselves, and this will slow the development of the SCO. Greater concord must be found; otherwise, little tangible progress will be made.
Li Lifan is secretary general of the Centre for SCO Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the academy