Thursday, 7 June 2012

SCO Summit Promises Much, Delivers Little

The latest summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has finished in Beijing, with Afghanistan and regional security the main topics under discussion. But as always with the SCO, watching the power relationships within the Eurasian security bloc is as interesting as the summit itself.

The location of the summit rotates each year but holding it in Beijing did give the Chinese an opportunity to shape the agenda and show off a bit. President Hu Jintao hwas pretty active, stressing that the SCO supported a “a new security concept that allows its member states to firmly maintain their interests, explore development paths that are suited to their individual conditions and fight against ‘interventionism.’”

The mention of interventionism is a bit of red meat for the bloc’s authoritarian leaders, who are all increasingly concerned (for their own reasons) about the growing clamour for international action in Syria.

But the other aspects of Hu’s security concept may also be rhetorical support for Central Asian states, which often feel pressured by Russia on the political and economic fronts. This may be reading too much into it but it would tie into the narrative that China and Russia are increasingly competing in Central Asia, with Russia providing cash and weaponry but also demanding political influence, whilst China simply pours money into natural resources, agriculture and commerce.

Afghanistan is the other main area of focus. With NATO set to pull out most combat troops in 2014, Eurasian states are frantically trying to map a future for Afghanistan which will reduce the risk of civil war, prevent spillover of the conflict into Central Asia, and secure their own interests with whoever ends up in power in Kabul. Although the summit participants underlined the role which the SCO can play in securing Afghanistan’s future, the bloc’s lack of cohesion and mutual suspicions mean that in reality these efforts will be bilateral.

China, in particular, is looking to ink a preliminary agreement for a ‘strategic partnership’ with Afghanistan, which would ensure Beijing’s commercial interests there. It is unlikely to go much beyond this: the Chinese have shown precious little appetite or ability to get involved in Afghanistan’s tangled political processes (let alone take a bigger role in ensuring security).

The scramble for post-NATO Afghanistan means that President Hamid Karzai is much in demand. Afghanistan was granted formal observer status within the SCO – previously Karzai has attended only as a guest. This puts it on the same footing as Iran, India, Mongolia and Pakistan. But don’t expect Afghanistan to be invited into the tent anytime soon. Expanding the bloc’s membership has been a contentious issue over the past few years.

Iran has been clamouring for an invite for some time, but was blocked since this would violate an SCO Charter rule that members must not be subject to UN sanctions or engaged in an armed conflict. Formally, the SCO members have politely prevaricated, blaming procedural problems for the lack of new members. Pakistan is ruled out both for its ongoing internal conflicts and because membership would inevitably create complications with India.

In a sign of Turkey’s renewed interest in its Eurasian neighbours, the Turks were given “dialogue partner” status in the SCO. This is a step between being a ‘guest’ and an ‘observer’ and means very little, but it represents an acknowledgment that Turkey has a role to play east of the Caspian.

On the sidelines of the summit, energy was the hot topic, with a new agreement to boost gas exports signed between Turkmengaz and China’s CNPC, talk of Iranian gas and electricity sales to Pakistan in exchange for goods; and the conspicuous absence of a long-awaited deal on gas sales from Russia to China.

One interesting note was a discussion between Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and President Hu, at which the former solicited Chinese support for “creating under the aegis of the United Nations a special international group for preparing an international convention dedicated to ensuring the security of energy-resource movement” (news via Interfax, subscription only).

This sounds like one of the vague, multilateral, UN-mandated initiatives that Turkmenistan loves. But the wording of the proposal, and the request for support from China rather than from Russia or from the SCO as a bloc, makes it seem like a plan to counter Russian pressure against Turkmenistan’s choice of gas export routes.

For all the talk of SCO cooperation on energy issues, the bloc seems more and more like a talking shop for members to pursue their own bilateral deals. And with the cast of members, observers, dialogue partners, and guests expanding almost every year, don’t expect any cohesion on energy issues – or anything else, including Afghanistan – going forward.

Instead expect the core members, chiefly China but Russia as well, to increasingly see the SCO as a forum to meet and greet a broad constellation of neighbours – and make a few lucrative deals at the same time.


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