BACKGROUND: Despite repeated earlier and current statements, mainly by Russians, about the SCO’s potential, even many of those writing about the future acknowledge that the past has been less than they hoped for. Russia and China have systematically blocked virtually all of each other’s previous initiatives, whether they be Chinese ones to convert the SCO into a trade bloc or Russian ones regarding its military capabilities or energy trade. Similarly, Beijing has refused to accept the idea of an alliance as proposed by Russian Defense Minister Shoigu in 2014 to block “color revolutions” and terrorism in Asia. The fact that Shoigu made such public proposals indicates not just the Russian military’s desire for an anti-American alliance and help in dealing with terrorism, it also signifies Moscow’s growing dependence on Chinese economic and financial support. Moscow has had to accept that its own plans for a “silk road” now must be coordinated with China’s much more ambitious and resourced “Silk Road Economic Belt” program and although China will not challenge Russia militarily in Central Asia, Russia is unlikely to welcome further Chinese ascendancy in the region.
China has not used the SCO for achieving its economic-political goals in Central Asia. Rather, China has for the most part negotiated bilateral deals with all of the Central Asian states under the fig leaf of the SCO, which will now include Pakistan, another recipient of enormous Chinese investment and largesse. Nor has China formally supported Moscow’s territorial revisions of Ukraine and Georgia and neither will Central Asian states, let alone the idea of Russia’s right to send troops into their countries to defend Russians. Third, the Eurasian Economic Union, which includes Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, is not only to some degree an attempt to throw up a roadblock to Chinese expansion, it is also becoming seriously affected by Russia’s economic crisis, itself a reaction to falling energy prices and Western sanctions. Cooperation with Russia is in many cases becoming problematic, even if everyone shares a common anxiety about Islamic terrorism.
By granting India and Pakistan membership, the SCO now risks importing their long-standing rivalry into its organizational structure. Can Pakistan really cooperate with India regarding Afghanistan and against Islamic terrorism when it is directly responsible for inflaming the situation in Afghanistan and supporting Islamic terrorism against India? Moreover, Russia sells Pakistan arms and has recently refused to blame Pakistan for financing terrorism. Thus Russia joined China to thwart India’s bid to seek Financial Action Task Force (FATF) actions against Pakistan for its failure to freeze the assets of Dawood Ibrahim and Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders, who are designated by the UN as Al Qaeda affiliates and put under global sanctions. Moscow is also increasingly unhappy with Delhi’s visible inclination to common security and defense postures in Asia against China in the South China Sea and the fact that Washington is eclipsing Moscow as the main provider of weapons and defense technology to India. Indeed, Indo-Russian trade fell to US$10 billion in 2014. And the visible cooling of Indo-Russian relations as Moscow gravitates towards Beijing and Islamabad and India towards Washington does not begin to compare with the inherent tensions between India and China that may grow if China continues to increase its visibility in trying to foster a settlement in Afghanistan.
IMPLICATIONS: Moscow’s relative decline vis-a-vis Beijing might lead it to become more accommodating to China but the partnership has been based largely on global issues, not regional security ones. While China does not challenge Russia on hard security in Central Asia, it has blocked past initiatives regarding the SCO and Moscow’s thoughts about intervening in Kyrgyzstan after the anti-Uzbek riots there in 2010. Since neither of these two governments are sentimental players, they are unlikely to resolve the many tensions that lie just beneath the surface of their partnership, despite their great desire for one. Central Asian governments are also unlikely to dispense with their long-standing wariness towards both these players especially as Chinese power rises and as Russian threats remain out in the open. Neither is the SCO likely to become an arena for the mediation of Indo-Pakistani and Indo-Chinese tensions.
The SCO is also unlikely to undertake any dramatic collective initiative to counter the rise of IS and other forms of terrorism. While all members support anti-terrorism rhetorically; Pakistan can hardly be described as an opponent of terrorism, and The Economist has just hinted that Russia may be allowing IS terrorists leave Russia for the Middle East where they at least do not harm Russia’s immediate interests. India or Uzbekistan will also not accept any substantial anti-American posture no matter what Russia and China call for. Thus, inasmuch as Central Asian security rivalries among both smaller and larger states are inherent in their clashing geopolitical orientations and interests, it is entirely possible that behind the sonorous rhetoric of the upcoming summit, the SCO will again fail to actually provide true regional security or actually becoming a viable alliance comparable to NATO.
Whereas this assessment may prove too pessimistic, a realistic assessment of the SCO’s potential for becoming a truly effective security provider must come to grips with the obstacles that have dogged it since it came into being. For the SCO to realize the potential that optimistic analysts are now investing it with, major changes will have to occur in the foreign and defense policies, if not the economies, of the main actors, including the putative new members. Otherwise, rhetoric will once again prevail over substance.
Unless the SCO undergoes a meaningful transformation, assistance to Afghanistan will remain uncoordinated and marked by the rivalry of major actors, possibly involving factions within Afghanistan to advance both those factions and their own aims. Second, in the absence of a genuine security provider, rivalry rather than cooperation will continue to be the watchword in the larger Central Asian arena. Although Washington has (arguably mistakenly) welcomed China’s commercial presence there, Central Asia increasingly risks becoming a theater of Sino-American rivalry if not worse. This is the strongest basis on which Moscow and Beijing can cooperate and will continue to prevail as long as the current Russian and Chinese governments remain in office. This means continuing great power rivalry over Central Asia. It also means that the divisions that have roiled Central Asia since these states gained independence and their linkages to great power considerations will likely continue even if they evolve dynamically. But they will also contain a sizable admixture of covert or concealed Sino-Russian rivalry as China will steadily encroach on Russia and it is by no means certain that Moscow will stand for such treatment.
CONCLUSIONS: Neither is it likely that Indo-Chinese relations in Central Asia will be detached from the larger picture of growing rivalry between India and China and the habitual tensions of the Indo-Pakistani relationship, especially as India has good reason to believe that China stands behind Pakistan in its consistent efforts to thwart the growth and spread of Indian influence, not least in Afghanistan and Central Asia. In other words, unless the SCO becomes more that it has been, Central Asia will likely remain an area of constant jockeying among both the local governments and the larger powers for influence and leverage and the continuing “stability of instability.” While things could get worse than this; this is hardly an optimal prescription for Central Asian or Asian security.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons