Sunday, July 5, 2009

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit was held recently in Yektarinburg (Russia). The summit coincided with Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s participation in the Brazil-Russia-India-China (BRIC) meeting as also the SCO meeting. Six countries are included in the SCO, i.e. Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Terrorism and defense are the main focus of their attention. India, Pakistan, Iran, and Mongolia have been invited to the meeting as mere observers. Apart from Russia and China, the other four countries are in Central Asia. A large part of Russia is confronting terrorism. So is Sinkiang in China, which is adjacent to the troubled region in Russia. Therefore, these countries bear special relevance in the matter. India had already received the status of an observer in 2005. It is, however, participating for the first time so actively and strongly. At their annual summit in Dushanbe in August 2008 the SCO leaders accepted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal to invite the heads of state and government of the observer nations to SCO close-door meetings in order “to allow their views to weigh in.”

It is for the first time that the Indian Prime Minister participated in the SCO meeting where India enjoys only an observer status. In the past, India sent only ministers to attend SCO meetings.

The SCO summit provided an opportunity to Dr. Singh not only to interact with the SCO members, but also with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and other leaders. This is suggestive of two things. First, it is a reflection of importance that India attaches to Russia, the host country. Second, it also signifies India’s priority to Central Asia.

Powerful Regional Organisation
The SCO essentially remains a grouping of Russia, most of the former Muslim republics of the ersrwhile Soviet Union, and China. These are countries that are contiguous or in very close proximity with one another — in terms of history, politics, and current threat perceptions. The formation of SCO possibly helps the former Soviet republics to maintain a positive neutrality between Russia and China, and help each other as well as these two giants in the context of fighting Islamist terrorism in SCO’s home terrain, the Central Asia theatre. The SCO countries are also hydrocarbon-rich as producers, and some of them — notably India and China — are massive consumers of energy. On paper, at least, the SCO can make it possible for energy to be available to member-states on favourable terms.

Over the years the SCO has evolved as one of the most potentially powerful regional organisations to appear in post-cold war Asia. The regional grouping came into being in April 1996, when Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgizstan and Tajikistan met in Shanghai. In June 2004, Mongolia was granted observer status. A year later, India, Iran and Pakistan were granted the rank of observers.

The inclusion of observer members resulted from the confidence that the SCO would expand its strategic and economic interest beyond Central Asia. Choosing which states to admit was the result of delicate political maneuvering and compromise between Beijing and Moscow, with former pushing for admission of India and Pakistan as observers and the latter refusing to consider the question of observers unless Iran was included.

The SCO ever since its inception has emerged as an important forum for strategic cooperation between the former Soviet Central Asian states as well as essential conduit between East and Central Asia. The SCO’s members have repeatedly insisted that it would be considered as a community based on mutual cooperation rather than alliance against any specific adversary.

Security Problems
The SCO security agenda has recently shifted from counter-balancing the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Central Asia towards dealing with growing security threats from Afghanistan. India took part in the SCO conference on Afghanistan held in Moscow in March and welcomed its plan for the SCO to increase its role in international efforts to combat terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime in the region in close collaboration with Kabul through the SCO-Afghanistan contact group.

The Central Asian region currently faces a host of traditional and non- traditional security problems including terrorism and political extremism, weak and sometimes porous states in the region. There is also the concern over the role of West in Eurasia, especially following the events of 9/11 and development of American and other international forces in Afghanistan.

The Organisation’s official Charter was unveiled at its second conference in St. Pettersburg in June 2002, which confirmed the SCO’s mandate to build mutual trust, friendship and good neighborliness.

The other key elements of the document included the confirmation that a Regional Anti-terrorism Structure (RTS) would be created as an information nexus for the regional security and that decision would be based on consensus. As an acknowledgement of the growing influence of Uzbekistan within Central Asian regional dynamics as well as the need to keep Tashkent engaged in SCO’s affairs, the Tashkent based Centre on Anti-terrorism, which was originally planned to open in Bishkek, was instead opened in Tashkent in June 2004.

On security side, India favours exchanging information with the SCO member countries. Besides, issues like the menace of terrorism and energy requirement are important consideration for India’s engagement with the SCO.

India has avoided high profile engagement with the SCO and has calibrated its relationship with the organisation on trade and economic issues. India is not inclined to align with the six-nation grouping in military, strategic and political terms. As an observer, India wants to be a hands-on participant, especially in improving trade and development related forum set up by SCO.

Other Initiatives
India also offers to share its experiences as well as learn from the SCO about opening up of the banking sector and deepening capital market. It is only after recent developments in the region and particularly after the US President Barak Obama, initiated his proactive policy of engagement in Afghanistan in which India has a great stake, that New Delhi has evinced greater interest in the regional grouping.

Although India has a low key engagement with the SCO, the Afghanistan issue has, however, added a further impetus to India’s engagement with the SCO. It is against this backdrop that India’s Special Envoy Satinder Lamba directly appealed for granting SCO membership to Afghanistan at the last meeting of the SCO on Afghanistan in March 2009.

Afghanistan joined SAARC in 2007 but it is neither a member nor observer in the SCO, though it is part of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group established in November 2005 to provide a mechanism for SCO member-states to jointly contribute to re-construction and stability in Afghanistan.

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