The most notable event of this political summer of 2015 will certainly be the joint Summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in Ufa, Russia. On 8-10 July, the capital of Bashkortostan will be a main stage where the new act of a premier play that can rightfully be dubbed the ‘Creation of the Core of the Earth’ is showcased.
The significance of the meetings and the talks within the SCO and BRICS, dedicated to addressing the pressing regional and global problems, introduces a new character to the international politics. This is the ‘One Belt and One Road’ yet to be defined by the international law – two interconnected Chinese concepts – ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and ’21st Century Maritime Silk Road’.
China’s colossal economic and financial potential transforms ‘One Belt and One Road’ into a loadbearing structure of its geo-economic strategy that is increasingly influencing the world economy. For now, the forms of convergence between the SCO and BRICS, as well as the newly established Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) are vague. Yet it is already clear that China’s integration initiative will add new dimension to SCO and BRICS. This linkage will be the most important matter at the Ufa meeting, relegating to the background the official agenda items drafted by the experts.
Although, in terms of expectations from the July Summit of SCO and BRICS, politicians, experts and journalists can traditionally be divided into optimists and pessimists, this season, voices of optimism sound distinctively louder. Formally, the main theme of Ufa’s agenda is the expected approval of the ‘Strategy – 2025’ as a ‘future model’, designed to attest to the evolvement of the organization from the day of its inception. In reality, however, there are two key questions, among others, demonstrating that SCO is yet to take on several complex issues defining its future.
The first one is the decision on the establishment of the Development Bank and Development Fund of the SCO. Discussions on this issue have been ongoing for several years, primarily owing to the negative attitude of the Russian side to this project. It stemmed from the reluctance to institutionalize China’s financial-economic dominance in the post-Soviet countries – members of the organization. The crisis of relations with the Western world, however, compelled Russia to reconsider both the global priorities of its foreign policy, identifying ‘pivot to Asia’ and the tactics with regard to particular institutions and entities.
In the meantime, China started to develop a new international financial institution – Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, separating some of the envisaged functions and capabilities of the SCO. The Chinese side has lost certain interest to the Bank of the SCO. Presumably, the new element of Moscow’s strategy would be the effort to counterbalance the Chinese component in the performance of financial institutions of the SCO, largely thanks to supplementing the organization with new member states.
Already at the Dushanbe Summit of the SCO, last September, the documents governing the accession of the new member states were renewed, ‘The Procedure for Granting the Status of a SCO Member State’ and new edition of ‘The Model Memorandum of Commitments to Obtain the Status of a SCO Member State’ were adopted. A thesis on India and China’s prospective membership in the capacity of the observer – nation was also announced. These documents only affirmed the organization’s initial position, with a reference to the sanctions by the UN SC, on the most promising candidate – Iran. This position apparently remains unchanged; the SCO countries cannot overcome the barrier – piety before the Cold War-era international institutions – the UN and its subordinate the IAEA.
Such a curtsy increasingly appears odd against the background of optimistic declarations regarding the relevance of the SCO, implying an alternative to the inefficiency of the international institutions. Speaking at the Saint-Petersburg Economic Forum, the SCO Secretary General Dmitriy Mezentsev stated that the SCO Development Strategy until 2025 (due to be adopted in Ufa) would be a philosophy of large-scale interaction for the next decade. The statement of ambition of the SCO for a higher regional positioning and more comprehensive involvement in addressing the issue of the international agenda.
Therefore, the norms of the SCO Charter that prevent the nations subjected to the UN SC sanctions to be granted a membership appear as an anachronism against such a background and in the context of new international realities. It is sufficed to recall that the very norm, incorporated into the SCO Charter in 2009, was specifically ‘tailored’ for Iran and was nothing but a concession in the face of the U.S., just as redundant as the recently-lifted restriction on the delivery of the S-300 missile systems to the Islamic Republic of Iran, adopted during the Presidency of Dmitriy Medvedev.
Iran is in solidarity with the key players within the SCO – China and Russia – that region should be self-sustainable in terms of ensuring own stability and security without outside interference. The convergence of interests creates favorable ground for interaction with this strategic domain. The full-fledged SCO membership would allow Iran to utilize fully the membership, in order to identify its principal approaches towards forming a regional security system in the Central Asia. The accession of Iran, however, in light of the impasse in Lausanne, could position the SCO as a block alliance and provoke deterioration of relations with Europe and the U.S. – cooperation valued individually by each member of the organization. In the meantime, SCO needs Iran as a key regional player without which many economic, energy and especially security projects in the region could remain declaratory.
It is only natural that documents readied for signing by the leaders – members of the SCO in Ufa cause obvious frustration in Tehran. The issue of Iran’s representation level remains open and it is not unlikely that only the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif would visit Ufa. This frustration is further aggravated by almost a stalemate in the talks between Iran and the Sextet in Lausanne. By the way, almost informal status of the Sextet can logically be questioned from the standpoint of impeccability of its legitimacy. Proclaiming itself as a relevant international subject, the SCO could actually devise its own instrument of control over the nuclear programs of the member-states, transforming it into alternative of the IAEA whose engagement with specific interests has long been evident. Yet, the SCO is apparently immature enough for that.
Geographical configuration under which present SCO exists happens to be incomplete; fragmentation within the geopolitical space precludes the organization in its present format to assume responsibility over the combination of the territories of the member-states, let alone taking on the global challenges. Geopolitical hiatuses of some sort have emerged. The geopolitics tolerate no vacuum; the space of ‘Heartland’ must be subjected to common international-legal obligations and norms. Impotence of the UN and the OSCE obliges the regional nations to fill the vacuum and seize control over own institutions. This would be the most appropriate option from the standpoint of regional security and stability.
When it comes to the top leadership of India, it has already made it clear that the accession to the SCO is ‘yesterday’ of its foreign policy course and has already lost relevance. All of this impels a perplex configuration within the SCO, given India’s indifferent attitude to the participation in the SCO for many years now and its complex relations with China, and Pakistan in particular. New Delhi is not very active with respect to the SCO and remains a jealous spectator of China’s advancement of the Pakistani initiative. New Delhi’s pro-U.S. orientation and presence of differences in relations with China and Pakistan could be a ‘Trojan Horse’, sabotaging the SCO’s performance.
At best, for the New Delhi, the SCO would be an additional platform for deliberations on regional issues. At worst, in the format of adoption of decisions based on consensus, one could always expect the unexpected, in the form of blocking of certain issues by the ‘Against’ vote coming from the Indian delegates.
The intrigue is fomented by the issue of expansion of the SCO and the statement by the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Salahuddin Rabbani made at the conference called ‘Security and Stability in the SCO region’ in Moscow, where he said that in Ufa, Afghanistan intended to submit its request for SCO membership. Two clearly identifiable interests are behind this initiative – the ones of China. Having boosted the implementation of its economic projects in Afghanistan, China has encountered the need to ensure at least a nominal level of security in the country.
There has been an actively ongoing shuttle diplomacy between Beijing, Kabul, Riyadh and Islamabad since the last fall, with the capstone being interim negotiations between the government in Kabul and Taliban representatives from Pakistan’s Quetta. Beijing’s lobbying for Afghanistan’s participation in the SCO implies a desire to involve Russia and the Central Asian nations in the Afghanistan process – something that requires particular consideration and assessment.
First, the fact of the participation of a country in a permanent state of a civil war that hosts significant military contingent of foreign countries on its soil provokes many questions. The leaders of the SCO member states adopted a respective declaration in Astana, in 2005, rejecting precisely such an involvement. At the time, the presence of the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan was the issue of relevance. Today, the issue of complete withdrawal of the Western forces from Afghanistan must logically be among the top question that leaders of the SCO countries ask the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Along with India, Afghanistan may well be another ‘Trojan Horse’ for the SCO, under the current administration strategically reporting to Washington.
Other SCO member states – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – are compelled to seek limited interests under such circumstances, maneuvering between Russia and China. This means that SCO remains a product of block creation of an instrumental nature, aimed at ensuring not to so much the real needs of the participating nations, but the resolution of geopolitical objectives of hierarchically most prominent founding block subjects – Russia and China.