Russia has a realistic view of the situation and understands that some Central Asian states have a cautious attitude to the special military operation in Ukraine and do not support all actions by Moscow. Under the circumstances, Russia will not speed up the SCO’s transformation into a military-political coalition, writes Alexander Vorontsov, Head of the Korea and Mongolia Department, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.
The approaching summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is attracting heightened attention this year for obvious reasons, two of which arguably matter more than the rest.
First, the SCO’s authority and importance in world affairs are growing so steadily that more and more states are interested in acquiring some kind of status in the SCO, with the latest round of expansion expected at the forthcoming summit. Second, the global situation has substantially deteriorated this year. There have appeared completely new global challenges that cannot go unanswered by the SCO leaders.
Many politicians and political scientists in different parts of the world are eager to know what the response will be and how it will impact the prospects of the SCO’s evolution. In many countries experts are offering their opinions as the summit approaches, speculating on the decisions likely to be adopted and the areas where major change at the SCO itself is possible.
The agenda of the future summit is clear enough.
The participants in the Heads of State Council meeting in Samarkand on September 15-16, 2022, will discuss and adopt a final document, the Samarkand Declaration, a comprehensive agreement covering all SCO activities.
The participants in the summit plan to review the status of multilateral cooperation and its prospects for the near future, and determine the priorities and practical measures on intensifying the SCO activities at the current stage. They will focus on enhancing the SCO’s role in world affairs in the light of the current geopolitical realities.
Considerable attention will be devoted to the SCO’s continued expansion. They plan to accept Iran, which will sign memorandums on its commitments related to receiving the member status. They will also review applications for dialogue partnership from Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, formally begin the accession process for Belarus, and consider dialogue partnership applications from Bahrain (and the Maldives).
In addition, the participants plan to adopt a large package of documents on the SCO’s current and future development. The most important of them concern the further promotion of integration processes.
There are two priority documents:
A concept for cooperation in developing mutual connectivity and creating efficient transport corridors, which is of practical importance.
A roadmap for gradually increasing the share of national currencies in mutual settlements and cutting down on the use of the US dollar.
In addition, the participants will discuss and adopt economic agreements in energy, digitalization, transport, communications, innovations, cutting-edge technologies, and healthcare, as well as a big package of humanitarian initiatives on culture and sports. It is planned to organize SCO athletic games. It has been decided to establish in 2022 a new institution of the SCO Goodwill Ambassadors to promote the SCO in different countries. The participants will also formally select an Indian city as the SCO’s cultural and tourist capital in 2023.
The participants will focus on enhancing the coordination of efforts by SCO countries at international organizations.
They will also concentrate on further advancing the SCO’s cooperation with the CSTO and CIS. Their secretariats have signed cooperation memorandums. At present, it is essential for the SCO, CIS, and the CSTO to harmonize their efforts in the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime. Another important piece of business will be considering additional opportunities for expanding the SCO’s cooperation with ASEAN with the ultimate goal of creating a Eurasian Partnership.
At the same time, the international situation has seriously deteriorated across the board. Ukraine and the Taiwan Strait have become hotbeds of conflict, and relations between Washington and Moscow and Washington and Beijing are worsening. The expert community is busily debating current developments and speculating about major changes that could be forthcoming at the summit, changes that will transform the SCO, though opinions vary widely.
A number of observers noted emerging discrepancies in the results of the meeting of the SCO security council secretaries held in Tashkent on August 19, 2022, where the September summit was naturally discussed. Some Central Asian experts saw in a speech by Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev Russia’s aspiration to make the SCO the center of resistance to the US and its allies and turn it into a union of its soul-mates. They emphasize the part of his speech, where he “repeatedly mentioned the global confrontation, in which, in his opinion, Moscow and its SCO partners (at present, these are China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) are on the same side.”
In response, some Central Asian countries opted to show restraint, avoid sharply-worded statements, and discuss issues that caused minimal disagreement, for instance, the situation in Afghanistan. A case in point is the proposal by Security Council Secretary of Kazakhstan Gizata Nurdauletova to concentrate on helping that country develop as an independent, united, democratic and peaceful state free of terrorism, war and drugs. Some Central Asian experts summed up this discussion with a stronger statement: “The intention to turn the SCO into an anti-American platform, as Moscow wants it, is not going to work out.”
Returning to the Russian expert community, it would be appropriate to note, for the sake of fairness, that some prominent Russian political scientists express opinions that are close to the views ascribed to Mr Patrushev in this speech.
This applies, among others, to Director of the MGIMO University Center for Military-Political Studies Alexei Podberyozkin. He said the SCO was increasingly turning into a global organization. It is already emerging as an alternative to the UN in terms of the number of participants. “I believe, in September the SCO will be registered as an international union that will be able to become a kind of an alternative to the European Union and NATO because these blocs – NATO+ and SCO+ – have taken shape as broad coalitions. Five more countries are likely to join SCO+. If they do, it will turn into a more important military-political force than the EU and NATO or the Western military-political coalition, to be precise.” The MGIMO Professor specified that the anti-Western coalition that might emerge in September would be defensive in character.
We must say from the very start that, to the extent that we know the position of the Russian authorities, neither the Foreign Ministry, nor official Moscow as a whole share such radical ideas.
Indicatively, these fantasies about the SCO’s potential transformation into a military bloc have become so appealing that assumptions are made about various countries.
For example, the Western media and experts are ascribing similar intentions to China. The Western press, including The Wall Street Journal, notes that the visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan was the reason for changes in Xi Jinping’s schedule and for his decision to go to Samarkand, where he is likely to meet with Putin on the SCO summit’s sidelines. Therefore, the US media are concerned that Xi Jinping’s main goal at the summit in Samarkand and during meetings with leaders of SCO countries on its sidelines would be to establish closer security cooperation with nations that are not US allies to create a bulwark against the Western efforts to deter China. This applies not only to the leaders of the SCO countries but also those of other states, who will come to Samarkand under the guise of different statuses, including Turkey.
We believe that Russia has a realistic view of the situation and understands that some Central Asian states have a cautious attitude to the special military operation in Ukraine and do not support all actions by Moscow. Under the circumstances, Russia will not speed up the SCO’s transformation into a military-political coalition.
But Russia cannot but react to the West’s active military involvement in the conflict in Ukraine and to the US efforts to establish new military alliances in Eastern Asia. Thus, we think Russia could be expected to take the following realistic steps.
The SCO has two permanent bodies – the Secretariat in Beijing (PRC) and the Executive Committee of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
It is a well-known fact that since its creation in 2002, RATS justified its formation and made a tangible contribution to the SCO’s development. RATS has become its buttress and coordinating center in the struggle against terrorism, separatism and extremism at the regional and global levels.
Therefore, there are reasons to expect at the Samarkand summit the initiative on expanding the functions of RATS and on turning it into a full-fledged security center with broader powers and scope of activities.
Close cooperation between Moscow and Beijing as the SCO leaders is quite predictable in this respect.
There is an obvious area where the summit participants will focus and where there is obviously mutual understanding between Russia and China – searching for effective ways for the SCO countries to work together to neutralize unfriendly actions by extra-regional forces in the SCO’s geographical area and restrict the activities of external players and opponents in the region.
Look no farther than the explicit warnings made by Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in his speech at the afore-mentioned meeting of the Security Council secretaries of the SCO countries.
Speaking about Regional Cooperation 2022 drills under US command that started in Tajikistan on August 10, 2022, with the participation of military personnel from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and Pakistan, Nikolai Patrushev emphasized: “I would like to reiterate to our partners that, above all, the Americans need such events in order to study the potential theater of military operations, specify the positions of potential targets and adjust digital maps for high-precision weapons. I really hope that all the SCO member states by now realize the extremely high risks that these American initiatives present for our security.”