The common opinion of many experts at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is that the past decade has witnessed a more or less established balance of approaches within the organization concerning its future development. This balance entailed China promoting the idea of closer economic cooperation with SCO members, while Russia stressed political and security aspects of multilateral collaboration.
The common opinion of many experts at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is that the past decade has witnessed a more or less established balance of approaches within the organization concerning its future development. This balance entailed China promoting the idea of closer economic cooperation with SCO members, while Russia stressed political and security aspects of multilateral collaboration. Other SCO member states, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, supported both forms of cooperation, while expressing cautious concern about any prospect of them having subordinate positions within the organization.
This situation was a logical result of the previous development of the SCO. The organization had its roots in the negotiations between Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan about the demarcation of borders in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the late 1990s, in addition to the border settlement the countries concerned started to discuss confidence-building measures in the region, thereby launching the so-called “Shanghai process.” The involvement in this process of Uzbekistan, which did not share a joint border with China, resulted in the establishment of the SCO in 2001. Since that time the organization has created a mechanism for regional security and humanitarian cooperation, making the battle against terrorism and extremism its priority. The current situation in neighboring Afghanistan demonstrates that security threats and challenges the SCO member states are facing in the region and beyond are still numerous and are not easily tackled.
However there are a number of reasons why Russia should consider not only security but also a broader economic agenda for its cooperation within the SCO. These reasons derive both from Russia’s national development goals and transformations taking place in Central Asia and more broadly – in the economically dynamic East Asia and the Asia Pacific.
The years preceding Russia’s APEC Chairmanship in 2012 indicated that the Russian government had set the development of Siberia and Russia’s Far East as a strategic national priority, important for keeping the European and Asian parts of the country interconnected. In preparing for its APEC chairmanship in 2012, Russia launched and completed several projects, including the construction of the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline and the modernization of Vladivostok’s infrastructure. Some other high-tech projects, like the Vostochny spaceport in the Amur Region, are underway. While the task of developing Siberia and the Far East is pushing Russia’s foreign policy efforts toward closer relations with its Asia-Pacific partners, Russia should not overlook Central Asia as a region important to Russia, both from the point of view of security as well as economically.
In 2012, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus became members of the Common Economic Space. Kyrgyzstan is considering the opportunities to join the customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2013. These developments could be considered as bringing a divide to Russia’s economic partnership within the SCO. Indeed, on the one hand, these changes clearly distinguish those SCO Central Asian member states willing to be involved in Eurasian integration from those less interested or less ready for such an endeavor. On the other hand, this situation could also present an opportunity to diversify cooperation projects in Central Asia with Russian participation. Some of these projects, especially in the fields of transport, telecommunications and energy, can be undertaken within the SCO and involve all its Central Asian members as well as China. Moreover, the idea of a common SCO transport and energy space was already proposed by the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev during the SCO anniversary summit in 2011 and met with a favorable response in the region. At the SCO summit in 2012 China advanced another infrastructure proposal aimed at developing the network of roads in the region and creating favorable conditions for international road transportation. If successful, this network would make seamless transit from Lianyungang on the Chinese Pacific coast to St. Petersburg in Russia possible.
Russia should also not ignore the fact that China and some Central Asian countries already have plenty of infrastructure and energy projects implemented bilaterally or multilaterally outside the SCO framework. Some of them (for example, the projected China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad) are directly competing with Russian plans to improve the capacity of trans-Eurasian infrastructure routes that go through the territory of Russia. It is in Russia’s own interest to think about making Central Asian logistic projects compatible with the aims of developing Siberia and the Far East and, more importantly, with future multilateral infrastructure projects within the SCO.
The SCO has enough mechanisms not only to sustain but also to enhance economic cooperation. Among these mechanisms are the SCO Business Council, the Interbank Consortium and Energy Club (a Russian initiative, which started to take shape in 2012). The SCO Business Council was launched in 2006 with the primary objective being to extend the SCO economic agenda. Since that time, the council has embarked on a variety of projects in transport and logistics, telecommunications, agriculture, healthcare and education. Nowadays the council involves all SCO member states and observers (India, Pakistan, Iran, Mongolia) in its activities. A recent meeting of the Business Council Board, which took place in Beijing in January this year, discussed an action plan for 2013-2014 and business proposals for the SCO 2013 summit in Bishkek. Business communities of the SCO members support the emphasis on the project work within the organization proposed by the meeting of SCO prime ministers in Bishkek last year. To finance such projects SCO members agreed to create a special account and the SCO development bank.
SCO’s growing economic agenda is a timely reminder that sustainable economic partnership is an essential condition for security in the region and Russia should not miss the chance to push such a partnership forward.
Ekaterina Koldunova is Associate Professor, Department of Asian and African Studies, Deputy Dean, School of Political Affairs, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (University), the MFA of Russia.
The author is a laureate of the Valdai Club Foundation Grant Program.