Kirill Barsky, Russia’s national coordinator at the SCO, ambassador at large
Is it possible to create a universal list of criteria to judge the success of an international regional organization? Hardly so. The explanation is obvious: regional alliances are set up for different reasons, with different purposes and in different circumstances. They envisage a different degree of political coordination or economic integration and are at different stages of development. Regional political projects are assessed by history itself. This is what has happened to the SCO.
The emergence of the SCO was a natural response of the organization’s founders to the dangerously growing threats of terrorism, separatism and extremism at a time when the general system of international relations developed after the end of the Cold war got out of balance. In order to reverse the negative trends and ensure their national and regional security, the countries decided to resort to tools of multilateral cooperation,
Has it worked? The answer can be seen in developments within the SCO in the last ten years. The terrorist threat directed at Russia, China and Central Asia has been firmly rebuffed. Law enforcement structures of the SCO member states have together prevented several hundreds of terrorist attacks. All large-scale international events held in the six countries over these years went smoothly, without any incidents. Separatist attacks have stopped. Extremists have been forced to retreat.
The SCO has survived several difficult episodes: the events in Andijan in 2005, the turmoil on the global financial market in 2009 and disorders in the south of Kyrgyzstan in 2010. It would be an exaggeration to say that the SCO played a leading part in the region’s ability to overcome the difficulties, but measures taken by SCO member states, coordination of their efforts, the very presence of the organization definitely had a stabilizing effect on the situation.
The setup of the SCO has had a favorable impact on the Eurasian context, marred by conflicts, problems and sources of instability. Afghanistan with its terrorist and drug threats, the situation around the Iranian nuclear program, the Middle Eastern tangle, protests in Syria and Yemen, the conflict between India and Pakistan… Central Asia definitely seems an island of stability against this background. Even though there are still more than enough reasons for concern in terms of domestic political security, one thing is obvious: the SCO has become an important guarantor of stability in this part of the world, an anchor, if you want, that keeps its zone of responsibility stable despite the stormy winds of global and regional politics and economics.
Setting up the SCO, the six states hoped that it would be something more than a functional structure. Their goal (which is spelled out in the SCO Charter as the organization’s main purpose) was to improve mutual trust, friendship and good neighborly relations between its member states. Today, ten years later, we can say that the majority of SCO member states have become strategic partners. Interaction between Russia and China has reached an unprecedented scale as the two countries have just celebrated the tenth anniversary of their historical Treaty on Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation. Russia’s relations with Central Asian republics are on the rise; the amount of trade and economic cooperation between Central Asia and China has grown manifold. It doesn’t mean that the six countries do not have any problems, they do, and they need to settle them. But the political umbrella of the SCO definitely helps to develop friendship and cooperation on the bilateral level. Which is worth its weight in gold.
It should be noted that in the 1990s and at the beginning of the 21st century, there were attempts to carry out various multilateral projects in the former Soviet Union. Some of them were successful, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Eurasec and the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. Some – such as GUUAM (the regional alliance of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova) – never came to be. The SCO, on the contrary, did not just come to be. In the past years, it has proved that it was needed. The uniqueness of the organization is that it matches the potentials of former Soviet republics and China, for which Russia and Central Asian states hold a very important place on a scale of foreign political and economic interests. In this respect, the SCO has no alternative. Mind you, cooperation within the SCO remains a definite foreign policy priority for all of its member states.
In compliance with Article 1 of the SCO Charter, one of the organization’s goals is “promotion of a new democratic, fair and rational political and economic international order.” Looking back to the way it has come over ten years, it is easy to say that the organization has brought a lot of new and positive things to global politics.
First of all, the SCO has become an example of a qualitatively new model of inter-state partnership, which is characterized by true equality of bigger and smaller countries, mutual trust, respect to the variety of civilizations, cultures, religions, forms of government and development concepts and by pursuit of joint prosperity. The “Shanghai spirit” as the philosophy of this model embodies the major principles of international relations in the multi-polar world, and in this aspect, its importance goes beyond the SCO borders.
This model did not appear overnight, but grew out of many years of talks on border issues that were conducted first between the Soviet Union and China and then between Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Symbolically, the SCO’s tenth anniversary coincides with the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Agreement on strengthening of trust in the military sphere near borders between the above named countries: this document laid the foundation for further cooperation and gave an impulse for the setup of the so-called “Shanghai Five.” Today, when development of security cooperation is becoming one of the most relevant tasks for the huge region of Asia and Pacific, as well as for other regions of the world, the experience of implementing measures of building trust between SCO member states may prove very useful.
The setup of the SCO became a convincing proof that it is at the regional level that elements of multi-polar global management are shaped today. The emergence of centripetal tendencies in the region that embraces Russia, Central Asia and China was to a large extent encouraged by consistent development of Russian-Chinese interaction, which in 1996 reached the level of a strategic partnership. Importantly, the six countries united into the SCO are connected not only through common geography and history, but also through common views and values, the desire to jointly develop their region and to cooperate in the interests of ensuring their own stability and prosperity. All states outside the region should respect the choice of SCO members, which have taken the fate of the region in their hands.
We still remember the events of the late 1990s and the early 2000s, when the threat of international terrorism became a priority on the global agenda. The “Shanghai Five” and Uzbekistan were among the first countries to urge the global community to join efforts in fighting this evil, even before the 9/11 tragedy.
Remarkably, the SCO is not a military and political alliance, and it has no intention to become such; its defense ministries interact only for purposes of anti-terrorist cooperation. The SCO activities are not aimed against third countries; it doesn’t approve of ideology-driven and confrontational approaches to resolving pressing problems of international and regional development. This is a new work in global politics. The SCO is an example of how non-bloc alliances may ensure international security.
This paradigm is of huge conceptual importance. We are living in an era when processes of globalization objectively predetermine the reduction of the role of military force in global politics, bringing to the fore such factors as international cooperation, economic viability and “soft power”. Consequently, the new security architecture that is becoming increasingly well defined in the European and Atlantic region, in Asia Pacific and in other areas of the world should be equal, transparent, based on legal non-bloc principles and respecting legitimate interests of all countries. The lesson of the SCO is simple: you should move with the spirit of the time instead of swimming against the current.
SCO and changing world
Today, the world is changing at a fleeting pace. Globalization is accompanied by growing interdependence, dynamic integration, deep intertwinement of interests of different states and non-state players of international relations. Current international relations are being overhauled, the main vector being the shaping of a multi-polar world.
As the humankind’s opportunities are becoming globalized, so are its problems. Non-traditional threats and challenges are growing more serious, creating an extremely negative background for old territorial disputes and inter-state conflicts. We are also affected by degradation of the environment, the climate change and more frequent natural calamities and industrial accidents. In these circumstances, priority on both global and regional agendas is given to search for collective resolutions of pressing problems. Naturally, persistent attempts to strengthen military alliances, relapses of confrontational thinking, reluctance to give up methods of force and the dangerous habit of acting outside the legal environment are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
As time passes, it becomes more and more obvious that bloc politics do not have a future. Narrow non-transparent military structures will have to be replaced with multilateral network diplomacy with qualitatively new forms of interaction between states.
A typical example in this respect may be the Asia Pacific region, where we are witnessing shaping of a new, network-oriented regional architecture at a growing pace. This trend was shrewdly noticed by SCO member states, when in 2004 they came up with the initiative to set up a far-reaching partnership network of multilateral unions in the region. Life has confirmed that the issue was raised correctly, especially with regard to Asia, where, due to historical and geopolitical reasons, it is hardly possible for a rigidly structured regional organization to emerge; at least, none has done so far.
Multilateral interaction in Asia is now developing under this network scenario. One of its important elements is the SCO’s energetic efforts to establish cooperation with the United Nations, UN ESCAP, the CIS, the CSTO, Eurasec, ASEAN, the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), the UN Drugs and Crime Office, the International Narcotics Control Board, the Central Asian regional information and coordination center for fighting illegal trafficking in narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances and their precursors and other international structures.
What lies ahead of the SCO is establishing of relations with new partners. Why not consider contacts between the SCO and BRICS, the SCO and the East Asia Summit, the SCO and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)? Why not announce the SCO’s willingness to join the Bali Treaty – the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia dated 1976, which is crucial for the region’s security? These steps would be in the interests of multilateral cooperation.
Over the past decade, the SCO has gained broad international recognition as a convenient – if not optimal – platform for cooperation between states on issues of regional peace and stability. It was no coincidence that the resolution “Cooperation between the United Nations and the SCO”, which was adopted at the 65th session of the UN General Assembly in December 2010, describes it as “an essential regional organization for addressing security in the region in all its dimensions.
This is not an empty statement. In March 2009, Moscow hosted a special conference on Afghanistan under the auspices of the SCO, which was attended by 36 delegations. Since January 2010, deputy foreign ministers of the organization’s members, observers and Afghanistan have been meeting regularly to discuss regional security. These consultations could be broadened.
Yet another example is the SCO’s pioneering role in working on issues of international security. A group of SCO experts chaired by Russia has drafted an innovative document, the Rules for states’ behavior in ensuring international information security. This is the organization’s specific contribution to strengthening the security of the global information space.
Experts forecast that the role of the SCO in regional politics and global affairs will keep growing. In this respect, one of the relevant tasks faced by the organization is strengthening and diversifying of the mechanism of foreign political consultations, intensifying contacts between member states’ foreign ministries, and improving coordination between the six countries’ delegations to the United Nations, the UN Human Rights Council, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building in Asia (CICMA), the Asia Cooperation Dialog, etc. The SCO should try to speak in a single voice on the international stage, where it is possible, of course. This will make it stronger, allowing it to better protect its interests and to promote international cooperation and democratization of international relations at the same time.
Anniversary summit in Astana
The anniversary meeting of the Council of SCO Heads of State in Astana gathered together the leaders of Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, who were joined by their counterparts from observer states – India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan – and by the president of Afghanistan as the presiding country’s guest. Other invitees included top executives of international organizations with which the SCO has official relations: the United Nations, the CIS, the CSTO, Eurasec and ASEAN. Also present were the SCO Secretary General and the Executive Director of the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure.
The summit was special, having turned into a big international event. It was a truly big day, which allowed SCO member states and their partners to celebrate the organization’s anniversary and its achievements. In their speeches, the summit’s participants emphasized that the decision to set up the SCO was a wise, timely and forward-looking step, which became an adequate response to the challenge of terrorism and changes in the geopolitical balance of forces and allowed ensuring security interests of the new alliance’s members. In the past ten years, the SCO has established itself as an important factor of the shaping global and regional architecture. Its role has been especially evident in the ongoing transformation of the international system, with the scale of present threats growing and their nature becoming more complicated.
At the same time, the SCO leaders were far from getting lost in praise. Their exchange of opinions, especially during their traditional meeting in the narrow format, represented an in-depth analysis of the organization’s progress and the large-scale tasks it was facing.
The fact that the summit was substantial and informative is proved by the final documents adopted by the leaders. There were two of them, the Declaration of the 10th anniversary of the SCO and the Information Statement. What in these documents deserves special attention? First of all, it is a clear definition of the SCO's main achievements and of its current situation. In the course of ten years, the declaration says, the SCO has established and institutionalized effective mechanisms of interaction in various spheres. It has laid a solid foundation for uninterrupted functioning of the organization for the purpose of ensuring peace, security and stability, and also of developing multilateral cooperation within the SCO in the political, economic, humanitarian and other fields.
Secondly, the declaration reflects SCO member states’ common vision of the present world order, which is based on similarity of their approaches to global and regional problems. Separate sections are devoted to interaction between the UN and the SCO, disarmament and non-proliferation, new threats and challenges, the developments in North Africa and in the Middle East, the situation in Afghanistan, the SCO’s participation in the shaping of the new architecture of security and cooperation in Asia Pacific. The six countries confirmed their willingness to continue close cooperation on the international stage.
Finally, SCO member states outlined their intentions for the future of the organization. They unanimously stated that the course towards development of cooperation in fighting terrorism and other new threats and challenges, expansion of economic interaction and strengthening of the SCO’s cultural and humanitarian component will remain unchanged.
A number of other documents were adopted at the summit. Notably, the SCO Anti-drug Strategy for 2011-2016 and the Plan of Action for its implementation, which were endorsed by SCO leaders, are meant to fuel joint efforts against illegal drug trafficking. Additional possibilities for counteracting the drug threat can be found in development of cooperation between the SCO Secretariat and the UN Office for Drugs and Crime. For this purpose, SCO Secretary General Muratbek Imanaliyev and UN Deputy Secretary General, Director of the UN ODC Yuri Fedotov signed a memorandum of understanding in Astana. The standard Memorandum of Obligations of a Candidate Country Applying for SCO Membership Status was endorsed. This document has become an important step towards developing the legal framework for the organization’s future expansion. It has sent countries willing to join the SCO a clear signal that its members are committed to the principle of its openness.
The Agreement between governments on cooperation in healthcare was signed in the presence of the leaders. This area cooperation has recently been attracting increased attention. The parties have already started practical cooperation, and the signing of the agreement has provided it with the necessary legal framework.
At the meeting of the Council of SCO Heads of State in Astana, China took over as the organization’s president. In this connection, the leaders supported the proposal made by the Chinese leader to declare the year of China’s presidency in the SCO the Year of Good Neighborliness and Friendship
Plans for the future
The SCO’s achievements are obvious. Does it mean that its development is not marred by difficulties and problems? Of course, not. The SCO region is not one of the most trouble-free. It has elements of internal political instability, it feels consequences of the global financial crisis, there are economic and social problems, and somewhere inter-ethnic contradictions are still alive. Terrorist organizations, extremist forces, drug dealers and criminal structures are using these factors to their advantage.
The SCO itself needs improving, as it should continue developing as a full-fledged regional organization, responsible for the state of affairs on its territory. The SCO is a growing organism, and the majority of issues it faces in its everyday life are the teething problems, so to say.
In the course of ten years, the organization has built a consistent system of regular meetings at different levels on different spheres of its activities; it has established its permanent bodies that are functioning successfully. In Russia alone, cooperation with the SCO involves over 30 ministries and agencies and several tens of research centers and public organizations. The situation in other SCO countries is similar. However, the new stage requires a significant increase of the SCO’s budget and mechanisms, improving the efficiency of their functioning, a better orientation towards practical results.
In Astana, SCO leaders came up with a number of ideas and initiatives seeking to achieve this major goal. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev suggested setting up a SCO cyber police to counteract aggressions against the organization’s members on the Internet; to set up a meeting for settling territorial and regional conflicts that would work out preventive measures in the potential hot spots within the SCO’s area of responsibility; to set up a committee for integrating SCO members’ infrastructure for the purpose of shaping a common energy transportation space and an integral Eurasian system of pipelines and power grids; to set up an SCO water and food committee; to set up an emergency council; to consider introducing a “healthy supranational currency” backed by gold; to found a supranational institution of forecast to work out a single view of the SCO’s development.
Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva spoke in favor of setting up an SCO council for border security, supported the initiative to set up a structure to coordinate anti-drug cooperation and said Kyrgyzstan was ready to host the SCO Youth Forum on the shore of Lake Issyk-Kul.
Chinese president Hu Jintao proposed creating an improved system of cooperation in regional security by strengthening the SCO’s potential for fast response; promoting regional economic integration; ensuring favorable conditions for trade and investment; creating mechanisms for cooperation in ensuring energy, financial and food security.
President of Tajikistan Emomali Rakhmon called for streamlining SCO member states’ investment legislation, developing conceptual approaches to a common Eurasia development strategy for the next ten years and optimizing the SCO’s efforts in Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov spoke in favor of carrying out investment programs in the SCO to build and modernize car roads, railways and air traffic, to set up modern logistics centers, to participate in creating a new international transport corridor between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. Of course, it cannot be expected that all these initiatives will be implemented as proposed, but member states will definitely study and discuss them, since they have a lot of potential.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also shared his view of the ways to improve the efficiency of the SCO’s activities. His speech at the broad meeting focused on the need to develop the SCO’s potential in ensuring regional security, strengthening the financial base and personnel of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure and mounting efforts to counteract drug trafficking and cyber threats. Speaking of the economic component of the SCO’s activities, Medvedev described it as “the second most important goal” of the organization’s work. He called for his partners to adopt the Road Map for implementing the Program for multilateral trade and economic cooperation, which was drafted by the Russian party, at the forthcoming meeting of the Council of SCO Heads of Government in the autumn. He also called for completing work on setting up the SCO’s special account as a mechanism for financing project activities. Medvedev described the proposals to set up a venture fund and a united center for business cooperation as promising. Yet another important area of SCO cooperation, he emphasized, is expansion of humanitarian contacts, since the social base of any regional organization was cemented in this field.
So what will the SCO become as it enters another decade? What needs to be done to ensure that it remains relevant in the 2010s?
Importantly, at the Astana summit, all heads of state emphasized the priority of the SCO’s further efforts to ensure security, fight against terrorism, separatism, extremism, drug trafficking and other kinds of trans-border organized crime. However, the level of these threats will require an adequate response from the SCO. For example, Russia, as well as many other countries, has no doubt about the fact that the scale of drug trafficking within the SCO has reached a point where it threatens international peace and stability. This means that the parameters of cooperation between SCO anti-drug agencies should be increased accordingly.
It is impossible to cope with the terrorist and drug threats alone. In counteracting them, the SCO should expand its interaction with its observers and also with its partners among international structures and other interested players. There is a huge potential in cooperation between the SCO and the CSTO, and it should be used to its fullest.
Close attention should be paid to Afghanistan, as the foreign troops of the International Security Assistance Force intend to withdraw from the country before the end of 2014. The SCO has already done a lot to resolve the problems of this long-suffering country, and it is willing to mount its efforts. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai is a regular guest at the SCO summits; the organization’s member states have long established close cooperation with the Afghan government, providing various kinds of assistance to Kabul.
Some time ago, Afghanistan officially applied to the Council of SCO Heads of State for the status of an observer. It seems that its entry to the SCO would help to resolve its problems, establishing it as a truly independent, peaceful, neutral and prosperous state, free from foreign military presence on its territory.
The SCO has a number of obvious advantages that allows its member states to significantly boost economic cooperation. These are the financial and investment opportunities of China’s dynamically developing economy, the technological potential of the modernizing Russia and Central Asia’s huge natural wealth. At the same time, given the differences in the level of development and structure of their economies, practical cooperation within the SCO at the current stage should be focused on implementing big projects that are in the interests of a majority of the member states. These include first of all transportation, power generation, infrastructure construction, telecommunications and food security. There is room for observers and dialog partners here. An established mechanism of monitoring the dynamics of the regional economy and early crisis warning could help SCO member states to grow confidently.
At the same time, it should be remembered that there are other multilateral alliances in the former Soviet Union, apart from the SCO, which are successfully engaged in economic cooperation, first of all, Eurasec and the CIS. The situation with regional economic integration has changed drastically after the setup of the Customs Union. In these circumstances, it would be best to determine how these structures can interact with each other harmoniously, without unnecessary competition and overlapping, in order to ensure social and economic development of all the countries in the region. The SCO, Eurasec and the CIS have the necessary legal frameworks to do so – memorandums of understanding between their Secretariats.
Cooperation within the SCO is made even closer by joint efforts on early response, fight against corruption, financial control, immigration, environment protection, customs regulations, standardization and traditional medicine. The work is already under way and is fairly active, fuelled by mutual interests in resolving common problems.
The SCO cannot do without broad contacts between people, cultural exchanges and shaping of a common educational space – the things that encourage mutual enrichment and interpenetration of cultures and help nations to better understand each other. In this respect, our countries can be proud of themselves. Building on projects that have already been launched, such as the Youth Council and the SCO Network University, the organization should actively develop new areas and forms of interaction: in tourism and sports and as a dialog between civilizations.
The SCO is an open organization. This principle is laid down in its Charter and has been consistently adhered to in the course of ten years. Over this period, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan became observers at the organization. The status of a dialog partner, established in 2008, has been given to Belarus and Sri Lanka.
As friendly states tend to be increasingly interested in closer interaction with the SCO, the task of creating conditions for the organization’s expansion has become quite practical. A lot has already been done in this respect, but there are still some legal, organizational and financial details to be dealt with. The process may take a while, but the targets of our work should remain absolutely clear and transparent.
It is necessary to admit that the SCO is still little known, not only in the world, but even within the SCO countries. As to Western countries, reports about the SCO are often biased. So it is important for the organization to work out and abide by its own information policy aimed at popularizing information about the SCO both on the international and national levels.
As the Chinese president said in Astana, the next decade will be crucial for the SCO’s development. It is necessary to ensure that it celebrates its next anniversary as a strong, consolidated, expanded and efficient multi-purpose organization that fully controls the situation with regional security, promotes economic cooperation and increase of people’s prosperity, provides a platform for friendly communication, is open for interaction and plays an important part in the world.
Ten years is not much on a historical scale. Nevertheless, the SCO has managed to become an inalienable part of Asia Pacific’s geopolitical landscape over this period. The world listens to its opinion, key governments and influential international and regional organizations are showing interest in establishing contacts.
Still, a lot is to be done. Having entered its second decade, the SCO continues developing and improving. Its future configuration will be determined by unchanged basic principles and continuity of major areas of activities with consideration to the quickly changing dynamics of the international situation.
The SCO has put in a word in the global politics. This is a new and solid word. But a word should always be accompanied by a worthy deed. A specific deed.