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Are Central Asians The Losers In SCO Expansion?

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin (not pictured) at the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) summit in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan republic, Russia, 10 July 2015.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin (not pictured) at the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) summit in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan republic, Russia, 10 July 2015.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) added its first two new members at a summit on July 10 -- India and Pakistan. Some of the leaders at the summit were pleased to point out that the member states of their organization now accounted for nearly half the world's population.

Since 2001, the SCO's members have been China, Russia, and Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In theory, the six states were all equal within the framework of the SCO.

The inclusion of India and Pakistan into the SCO does boost the group's international profile, but it could come at the expense of the Central Asian members.

To discuss this possibility, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, organized a panel discussion.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion. Participating were noted Central Asian authorities Alex Cooley, author of several books, including Base Politics -- Democratic Change And The U.S. Military Overseas and Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest For Central Asia. (I'll mention here that Dr. Cooley was recently appointed director of Columbia University's Harriman Institute -- Hooray! I remember the place well.) Also participating was Joshua Kucera, who has written about the security situation in Central Asia, and other areas, for EurasiaNet for many years now. I was happy to join those two peers in the discussion.

When he arrived in Ufa, Russia, for the SCO summit, Uzbek President Islam Karimov immediately met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Karimov told the press he wanted to know more about why India and Pakistan were being admitted to the SCO. The other Central Asian presidents avoided making such comments, but that must have been on their minds also.

Cooley started by saying Central Asian members of the SCO have "had a great say" in the affairs of the organization but "now with the addition of India and Pakistan I think there's a fear among some of the Central Asian countries that some of their voice and some of their decision-making will also be lost."
Kucera agreed, pointing out: "With India and Pakistan, now there's four huge countries, nuclear powers, and four relatively poor and small and not-so-powerful Central Asian countries, so I think that there's legitimate concern that [Central Asian members] would be outweighed in SCO decision-making."

The combined population of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan is approximately 62 million. China and India, of course, have more than 1 billion people each; Pakistan almost 200 million; and Russia some 140 million. It is easy to see why the Central Asians could be worried about their role in the SCO.

Part of the problem for the Central Asians is that the two first-among-equals in the organization are often acting in their own interests inside the SCO.

It was noted that China used the SCO as a vehicle to gain economic influence in Central Asia. China was practically nonexistent as a trade partner for the Central Asian states prior to 2001, but now it is a leading -- if not the leading -- trade partner for all the Central Asian states, in large part due to SCO agreements.

"For Russia, this [SCO] has been a vehicle to try and push back against Western influence," Cooley said, arguing that it suits the Kremlin to have India and Pakistan as fellow members in the SCO.

Kucera noted that the timing was good for Russia.

"Russia really has been talking up the SCO a lot since the crisis with Ukraine and the fallout with the West, and it was interesting that in the last Peace Mission exercises last year the Russian contingent was much larger than it had been."

The SCO held five Peace Mission joint military exercises in the first 10 years of the organization's existence, but Russia sensed the SCO with China was taking on a greater security role in Central Asia, a role that the Kremlin preferred to reserve for itself via the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And although there was a Peace Mission exercise last year, Russia has been showing less enthusiasm for these drills since 2010.

The panelists discussed the divergence of interests between Russia and China within the SCO, saying that had worked against genuine unity in the organization and noting the differences in opinion between Russia and China often ignored the interests of the Central Asian members.

Cooley said that even the addition of the new members, who won't officially be admitted until 2016, demonstrated Russia and China were working together with different goals in mind.

"The Russians have wanted India in for a while as a kind of internal balancer to China, to sort of try and dilute Chinese influence. So they get that. Of course, they come in with Pakistan. That's a package deal and Pakistan is more and more an economic client of China's, as well as a security partner."

Kucera suggested that while the Kremlin often used the SCO as a way of showing the West that Russia cannot be isolated, "China is much less interested in that kind of showy gesture and is actually trying to accomplish things in Central Asia." But many of China's ideas of deeper regional cooperation, particularly economic cooperation, had been blocked by Russia, Kucera noted.

The panel discussed China's moves outside the SCO, for example Beijing's recent One Belt, One Road strategy that would connect Eurasian countries through land and sea trade routes. The idea came after Russia had rejected China's attempts to use the SCO as a basis for opening up trade routes between Europe and Asia.

And there was also the matter of the SCO's incredibly vague agenda. The organization was founded as the Shanghai Five in 1996 (Uzbekistan was not a member) as a way to build confidence along the Sino-CIS border by withdrawing assets away from the border area.

Even then, China was working with an ulterior motive since Beijing was anxious to reposition its military in the east, opposite Japan, South Korea, and their ally the United States, and especially with an eye toward Taiwan. The Shanghai Five freed up forces previously kept along what had been the Sino-Soviet border.

But the Shanghai Five moved from being about confidence-building to being about economic cooperation and by 2000 had already refocused on security as the primary binding force of the group. That changed, and currently the SCO's agenda is not entirely clear.

As the SCO moves forward, there is even less chance the now eight members will be able to agree on a common direction or purpose and the Central Asians are likely just going along for the ride.

The discussion covered many other aspects of the recent SCO expansion and the SCO's role both regionally and internationally. Listen here to an audio recording of the roundtable:

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.