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3 November 2015

An epitaph for the SCO

How the BRICS are keeping the Shanghai Cooperation Organization afloat

Events under the presidency of Russia in the BRICS(Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) have come to an end. One of the most recent and most important events was the First Small Business Forum of the SCO and BRICS Regions held on October 22-23, 2015 in Ufa. It was attended by more than 1,400 participants from 22 countries including Ukraine, Canada, the UK, Italy, Austria and Malta. According to organizers, twice the expected number of participants arrived to network and become acquainted with investment projects. This attention is due, above all, to the presence of entrepreneurs from business-critical BRICS states and not those from Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. Let us recall that the SCO Business Forum in Moscow last year was attended, only, by representatives of member states of the organization, observers and dialogue partners.

And how did it all start? Russia and China, having settled their territorial disputes, created a partnership alliance in opposition to the US-centered world. The SCO was supposed to undertake joint efforts to counter threats to regional security and promote economic, social and cultural development. However, optimism gave way to reality. Just a few years later, the SCO became an awkward addition whose summit and other events were combined with the BRICS forum in order to avoid wasting additional time on them. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization which started as a promising alliance between two regional powers turned into a club whose members do little, declare a lot, but even in terms of declarations, the voice of the BRICS is better heard. And even the celebrated accession of India and Pakistan to the SCO will barely change anything.

India and Pakistan became SCO observers in 2005 when the SCO had just emerged and seemed a very attractive alliance. SCO members were gaining access to the markets of Russia and China, the resources of Central Asia and joining the fight against terrorism and extremism. A growing partnership between Russia and China could not go unnoticed in New Delhi and Islamabad.

However, gradually, along with the fomenting of anti-American rhetoric and insufficient development of the organization itself, India’s enthusiasm diminished. SCO summits were increasingly attended by second- and third-echelon officials who rarely brought up the issue of membership. As stated by Hindu experts, India was far more interested in the development of broad cooperation with Russia directly rather than joining blocs with objectives that it saw as unclear.

The accession of India and Pakistan is blessed due to the fact that the SCO may facilitate their reconciliation and cooperation. However, the co-existence of all Central Asian countries within the SCO has not led them to suddenly become friends. Just as the existence of the NATO-Russia Council has not led Russia and NATO to become friends. Indeed, China and Russia resolved their territorial disputes but this was the basis for cooperation. The parties were ready and willing to solve the problem. India and Pakistan have joined the SCO not to befriend each other but rather to resolve their own domestic issues.

But this will be difficult, too. India, Russia’s strategic partner in the Asian region, has been counting on becoming a link in the formation of a single Eurasian energy market and to steal the competitive advantage from China in partnership with Russia. However, the idea of creating the SCO Energy Club has not been implemented. Instead, Russia and China have signed a multibillion-dollar bilateral agreement in the field of energy. India will need to offer something if it is to solve its energy problems, and it is unlikely that China will be interested in any such proposals.

Pakistan also hopes to strengthen trade and economic partnerships with the states of Central Asia and intensify trans-Eurasian ties – and this will not occur without competition from China. Moreover, the implementation of joint economic projects of the SCO under the conditions of competition for resources seems even more implausible than prior to the Ufa summit. China and Russia have failed to implement a single joint project for 14 years. Can one seriously expect that the enlargement of the SCO will lead it to be more prolific? I doubt it. In the best case scenario, there will be a split into pairs: Russia-India, Pakistan-China. And each will try to continue its cooperation whilst simultaneously competing with another pair.

As regards the fact that the accession of two countries to the SCO will help enhance the role of the organization in addressing the issue of Afghanistan – there are more words than deeds here, too. Let me remind you that during the SCO summit in Yekaterinburg in 2009 a trilateral meeting was held between the presidents of Russia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. And, then, too, many saw this as strengthening of the role of the SCO in the resolution of the Afghan conflict. However, steps were taken during the summit, the summit ended and there was no more SCO in Afghanistan. And not to mention the fact that there once was a SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group – in no way different. Only the exchange of information within the framework of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) is possible in the SCO and not a joint fight. And the situation will not change following the change in the statuses of India and Pakistan.

Such an ineffective organization has lost its appeal for Russia itself, too. The SCO has been losing its economic importance since around 2010 when the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) was announced. The development of Eurasian integration on the territory of the former Soviet Union with the formation of the EEU has always been a priority for Russia. The subsequent institutional success in the form of the establishment of the Customs Union and the Single Economic Space only strengthened the superiority of the Eurasian Union over the SCO. In order to foster trade-and-economic relations with Central Asia, the SCO has become not only ineffective but also obsolete.

Hopes that cooperation with China in the area of security within the SCO will be able to reach a higher level have been in vain, too. There was nothing beyond the resolution of territorial disputes, exchange of information and military exercises. From 2007-2009, Vladimir Putin, complaining about the ineffectiveness of the SCO, suggested increasing the impact of RATS and the involvement in counter-terrorism financing activities. But his suggestion has never come close to actual deeds. The SCO has shown no results as regards anti-drug activities, either. The agreement on cooperation in the fight against the illicit trafficking of drugs signed in 2004 within the SCO has never been put into practice. Anti-drug cooperation is so devoid of any action that, according to the Ufa declaration, the parties only decided to deliver a joint statement during the Special Session of the UN General Assembly.

The CSTO remains the key security organization for Russia. Although the CSTO has not made substantial progress in terms of its activity, it has already attracted Serbia and Afghanistan as observers. Negotiations about cooperation with Iran and Egypt are under way. The CSTO is more comprehensible and more important to Russia. Russia can develop necessary military cooperation with post-Soviet states within the CSTO and with China – outside the SCO.

The ‘non-military SCO’ has turned out to be rather unattractive to Russia but extremely important for China. Attempts to establish cooperation between the non-military SCO and the military CSTO have prompted an allergic reaction in Beijing. At first, the parties were negotiating the memorandum of cooperation signed in 2007 before it proved impossible to implement. In addition, Russia has tried in vain to turn SCO RATS into a universal center for combatting threats to regional security.

For a long time, Russia and other member states considered the organization’s impact potential the main asset of the SCO. However, with the formation and development of the BRICS forum the SCO has lost this role, too. The BRICS forum has reached a higher status and has allowed Moscow to criticize Western policy in a more high-profile milieu. With the expansion of the SCO, three out of five member states are already members of the BRICS. India’s accession has not strengthened the SCO. Quite to the contrary, the BRICS summits with the participation of a larger number of SCO members have become even more appealing to Russia.

The SCO has lost its importance for Russia – but not for other member states. The SCO has retained its role as a mechanism for the development of bilateral relations with China. Central Asian states use the SCO to involve China in the resolution of their problems. China’s activity in such a sensitive region for Russia does not trigger a negative reaction since they are all members of the same organization. With the expansion of the SCO, the states are going to use new members, too, to pursue their own domestic interests. As an organization, the SCO does not develop and remains a forum for meetings and discussions. Was it really worth creating a secretariat in order to talk?

By and large, the SCO as an organization has failed to implement anything. It has been left behind by other Eurasian projects and BRICS. As regards its form, it has long since turned into a discussion forum: member states go on proliferating declarations and the SCO Secretariat still lacks the authority to act independently. The Secretariat has to coordinate all of its steps with the SCO Council of National Coordinators, which means that it is not an organization which is larger than the BRICS forum where decisions also go through national coordinators (Sherpa and sous-Sherpa) from ministries of foreign affairs.

There are more states and issues for declarations but the organization is unlikely to emerge from the shadow of the BRICS. While member countries were creating the BRICS Development Bank, the SCO was arguing about the location of the headquarters of the proposed bank. The number of debaters has grown by two in the SCO… And - in order to avoid boosting the SCO’s myth regarding its importance - Iran should be knocking on the door of the BRICS – sanctions are not an obstacle there and there are more activities going on. 

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