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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[04.06.23] The Moscow Summit: Tempered Hope for the SCO

On May 28 and 29, the Heads of State of the Member Nations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) met in Moscow to transform the SCO from a mere talk shop to a "full-fledged" international organization. While it remains to be seen how long these new commitments will last, the SCO has received a new infusion of life that should allow it to develop rapidly in the short-term. Still many questions remain about the true intentions of the individual SCO members and what role the organization will play in the rapidly changing strategic environment of Central Asia and the balance-of-power diplomacy of China, Russia, and the United States.
BACKGROUND: The Shanghai Forum (as it was originally known before the addition of Uzbekistan in 2001) was founded in 1996 by China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan to simultaneously demarcate and demilitarize the new border between China and the new post-Soviet republics, as well as to introduce confidence-building measures. Since then, the organization has attempted to move beyond its ad hoc talk shop status to address new and pressing issues, particularly the continuing terrorist threat in the region and the need for economic integration. These plans have continuously faltered, especially the creation of an SCO counterterrorism center in Bishkek in 1999. The post-September 11 deployment of U.S. troops to the region derailed the organization even more, but China and, to some degree, Russia, serving as the inspiration for this group, could not be deterred. Now, in recent days, the world is finally seeing real resources being brought to bear for the SCO, including political capital meant to ensure the longevity of the organization: the organization's charter has been finalized; a secretariat in Beijing has been established with Zhang Deguang, the current Chinese ambassador to Moscow, serving as its first Secretary General for a three year term; the Bishkek counterterrorism center has been given an executive board and a mandate to initiate database construction and information sharing - all of which is to be tested during an SCO-wide command post exercise in August 2003; agreements on law enforcement, counter-narcotics, highway construction, emergency disaster response, and border guard cooperation have all been worked on; and a new flag and logo have even been introduced.
IMPLICATIONS: This Moscow summit can be judged a major success, particularly for China, the organization's main sponsor. In the wake of September 11, the SCO has had to continuously justify its existence given the fact that the United States achieved more of the member states' security needs in five months than the SCO had in five years. However, many of the regional issues, ranging from terrorism to unfair trade policies, still endure and this summit has committed China, Russia, and the Central Asian states to address them together in a practical format. It remains to be seen, though, how long this new pledge will last, something that can be judged in the early stages by how much of the $4 million budget is actually raised, how it is spent, and how much responsibility and authority is given to the Secretary General, his staff, and the Bishkek center.
Moreover, great power rivalry remains a salient factor in Central Asia. Considering the SCO's position supporting a multipolar world order (at the behest of China and Russia), the group can been seen as an attempt by Russia and, in particular, China to maintain their influence in Central Asia in the face of a growing U.S. role and as strategic lever in dealing with the United States on other issues of global import. Additionally, Russia has recently reinvigorated the Collective Security Treaty Organization (formerly the CST) and deployed forces to Kant Airbase outside Bishkek, just across town from the allied forces at Manas, a move more political than practical in nature. In Central Asia, though, there is a convergence of vital interest for China, Russia, and the United States as each nation seeks to eliminate the continuing threat of terrorism. There is plenty of room for cooperation. Competition does not have to be the norm, though the United Stated needs to keep a wary eye on China and Russia while they prove they have learned this lesson.
CONCLUSION: A new flag and logo do not an international organization make. The members of the SCO will have to commit even more resources, energy, and political capital to make this organization survive, a nearly unheard of feat in the short history of Central Asian multilateral endeavors. Still, the steps taken this last week show strong promise. There are three early tests that will help determine the long-term viability of the SCO. First is the formation of the Bishkek counterterrorism center and the August command staff exercise. To be at all useful, this center will have to effectively coordinate a response to a new terrorist insurgency, with special attention being paid to de-conflicting the role of China, Russia, and the United States. This task becomes even more difficult if Uzbekistan opts out of the exercise, since the Ferghana Valley is the most likely location of the next flare up. This center should not be expected to house a new rapid reaction force, but it has to be more than an information clearinghouse if the SCO expects to be respected a player on regional security issues. Secondly, the establishment of a permanent secretariat and budget mechanism by January 2004 will demonstrate the political and material commitment that member nations are willing to provide. A functioning budget and empowered international bureaucracy are central to the success of any international organization; particularly one bringing together states with inherent nationalist tendencies. Lastly, the SCO needs to prove that it can accomplish initial limited economic cooperation, a point stressed with unusual frequency and detail at this last summit. If the SCO can commit to a transportation pact by next year's summit, it will have proved that it is more than a talk shop and can actually achieve practical integration in a troubled region.
It is clear that the problems of Central Asia are region wide and cannot be solved by any state alone, but for one reason or another, the Central Asian regimes have continuously failed to accept this and continue to undermine their own best interests. This most recent SCO summit offers a new hope to the region and the rest of the world, unless interstate conflict, great power balancing, or the misguided agenda of any one member derail the SCO's potential.
By Matthew Oresman, a researcher with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, June 04, 2003

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