Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. (photo: Kremlin)
The presidents of Russia and Uzbekistan met in Moscow with security high on the agenda. And while the two agreed on the need to cooperate to deal with the deteriorating situation Afghanistan, they publicly disagreed on how to do it.
President Islam Karimov's visit to Moscow was closely watched, given that he rarelyleaves the country and that his increasingly isolationist foreign policy has long been a thorn in Russia's side.
But in Karimov's meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, both sides agreed that they needed to work together in Afghanistan. "In our discussion we were primarily concerned about priority aspects of our bilateral relations, and first of all the situation taking shape in Central Asia," Karimov said in a joint appearance after the meeting. "Above all, this concerns, of course, the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan, [which] could create a serious threat of the instability spilling over to neighbouring countries and regions."
And Karimov argued that Russia needed to be part of the solution in Afghanistan. "Everyone knows geography, and knows that Central Asia’s ties with Russia go back centuries, if not millennia. We clearly feel Russia’s interest in Central Asia, and we agree with this," he said.
But the two differed on strategy. In particular, while Putin praised the importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (and has repeatedly called for it to play a bigger role in Afghanistan), Karimov, speaking after him, pointedly argued that the SCO should not be involved in Afghanistan:
In an apparent attempt to assuage Russian concerns, Chinese defense officials have clarified their intentions to create a military bloc along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. They emphasize that it is not to be a "Central Asian NATO" and would "complement" the efforts of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Russia is a member, rather than exclude Moscow.
The initiative in question was announced during a visit by General Fang Fenghui, the chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, during a visit to Kabul last month. Details have been scant, but the initiative was a surprising one given China's traditional deference to Russia in Central Asia security affairs. And Russian media have accused their Western counterparts of deliberately misconstruing the initiative in an effort to sow discord between the two giant neighbors.
"Western media outlets branded the suggestion as a 'Central Asian NATO' claiming to threaten Russia’s influence in the region," wrote the Russian state news agency Sputnik wrote.
With international sanctions lifted, Iran is ready to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, senior Iranian officials said Monday.
Iran applied for full membership in the SCO in 2008, but has been blocked by rules in the organization's charter that forbid membership for any country under United Nations sanctions. Those sanctions were lifted on Saturday as a result of Tehran's compliance with its nuclear deal with world powers including the United States, China, and Russia.
The organization has been eager to get Iran on board. "The organization wishes success to Iran in the finalization of efforts related to the nuclear program so that the essential legal procedures leading up to the lifting of sanctions were implemented as soon as possible," said SCO Secretary General Dmitry Mezentsev last month. "I'd like to believe the SCO will take up Iran's request for the status of a full member immediately after that."
And with the sanctions lifted, Iranian officials said that among their priorities would be gaining full SCO membership.
"The lifting of sanctions opens for Iran the opportunity to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and eliminates other limitations, which the Islamic Republic has been facing in the regional foreign policy," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari told a press conference on Monday.
"For several years Iran has been an observer state in the SCO and is interested in strengthening that organization. The removal of sanctions creates new possibilities for acquiring full membership for Iran in the SCO," wrote Iran's ambassador to Moscow, Mehdi Sanai, on his blog.
Chinese soldiers at the opening ceremony of the SCO Peace Mission 2012 military exercises in Tajikistan. (photo: MoD, Russia)
China places a priority on Central Asia as a site for training its military to operate abroad, with nearly half of its military exercises abroad involving Central Asian and Russian militaries, a new U.S. government report has argued.
The analysis of China-Central Asia relations in the report, by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, won't surprise too many close watchers of the region. It argues that Chinese activity in Central Asia is largely economic, that Chinese military activity there is relatively limited but growing, and that China's economic and security policy is oriented towards maintaining stability in the ethnically Uyghur and frequently restive province of Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia.
But there are a number of interesting observations in the report, which was based on interviews with experts and government officials from the U.S., China, Central Asian countries, and elsewhere.
For example, the priority that the Chinese military apparently places on Central Asia as a training ground. It notes that most of Beijing's security cooperation with Central Asia is conducted under the auspices of the Shaghai Cooperation Organization, which is dominated by China but also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
While the SCO military exercises had over the years seemed to be declining in importance, as the organization took on more of an economic role, the last major exercise, in 2014, was the organization's biggest in ten years. And SCO exercises play an outsized role in preparing the Chinese military to operate outside its borders, the report argues:
As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization wraps up anti-terror exercises in Kyrgyzstan, a senior Russian official has said the group should play a role in fighting ISIS.
The SCO held command-staff exercises in Kyrgyzstan from September 15-17, attended by officials from the anti-terror organizations of member states China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. (In most cases that meant the post-KGB structures like Russia's Federal Security Service and Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security.) "The purpose of these exercises is organizing and carrying out search operations to avoid terrorist attacks in SCO territory,” Kyrgyzstan's SCNS reported.
On Friday, senior SCO officials reviewed the results of the exercise in Tashkent (home to the SCO's Regional Anti-Terror Structure headquarters), and Sergei Smirnov, the deputy head of Russia's Federal Security Service, highlighted the role the organization could play in fighting ISIS.
"Representatives of all the relevant organs of the SCO member states understand the danger to the international community represented by the activities of this state and the damage which it could cause to us," Smirnov said.
One of the more interesting story lines from the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Russia was the addition of new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal.
The role of a dialogue partner is not clear, and seems to vary: Belarus had been a dialogue partner, and played an active role in the organization. President Alexander Lukashenko went to the summit earlier this month and Belarus was upgraded to an SCO observer. Turkey, meanwhile, became a dialogue partner in 2013 and since then both the SCO and Ankara, by all public appearances, seem to have completely ignored one another.
But that caveat aside, becoming part of the SCO is nevertheless a statement of some sort of geopolitical intention. Armenia's accession is not too surprising: it is Russia which is clearly interested in pushing SCO expansion in order to boost its own international status, and Yerevan is highly susceptible to Moscow's wishes.
Azerbaijan's entrance, however, is more interesting. What does Azerbaijan have to gain from being part of the SCO?
For one, the SCO's focus on weakening Western norms of human rights is clearly attractive given its accelerating feud with the United States and European countries over what Baku says is unfair criticism of its political and human rights practices.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the SCO summit in Ufa. Behind the smiles, there were disagreements over the planned accession of India and Pakistan to the group. (photo: president.uz)
Central Asian states are eyeing with concern the planned expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to include India and Pakistan, regional analysts say.
With the addition of the two South Asian countries, the membership of the organization -- now China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- would increase from six to eight. Four of those are outside Central Asia, and all four of those are nuclear powers with populations and economies that far surpass those of the SCO's four Central Asian members.
While there is little room in the SCO for public dissent, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov issued probably the most surprising statement of the summit, saying that the addition of India and Pakistan "would not only change the political map, but would change the balance of power. This is not a simple issue, and it needs to be discussed."
That went against the conventional wisdom in Ufa, which was that the addition of India and Pakistan would make the SCO stronger and was to be welcomed.
On India and Pakistan, Karimov "said what everyone was thinking, but wouldn't say," said Galiya Ibragimova, a consultant on Central Asia at the Moscow PIR Center on Political Research, in an interview with The Bug Pit.
The concerns about the addition of India and Pakistan are various. In Karimov's case, he is worried that it would shift the group's attention away from Central Asia to South Asia.
Ibragimova pointed out that Karimov has traditionally not wanted to participate in groups where the focus was outside of Central Asia, noting that its decision to pull out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012 was justified by the fact that the CSTO was also getting involved in conflicts outside the region, for example Nagorno Karabakh.
Heads of state of SCO member countries (in the front row) and heads of partner states and organizations (behind) at the SCO summit in Ufa, Russia, July 9-10. (photo: SCO)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has wrapped up its annual summit, and while the member states seemed to have failed to advance the concrete items they had on their agenda, they nevertheless adopted an ambitious strategy aimed at deconstructing the Western-dominated world order.
The summit was held in Ufa, Russia, on July 9-10, and as expected the big news was that India and Pakistan began the accession process. Somewhat more unexpected was the announcement there will be four new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal. And Belarus, which had been a dialogue partner, is now a formal observer, along with Iran, Mongolia, Afghanistan.
However, the accession of India and Pakistan may not be without its bumps: Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov said that adding them to the SCO will "change the balance of power" and should be discussed further. Karimov was speaking at a joint appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who tried to brush the comment off with a sort of joke, Tass reported: "Islam Abduganievich, but how will it look: President Karimov of Uzbekistan brought India and Pakistan into the SCO and created a new political world reality,' Putin answered with a smile. 'Let's talk about it.'" Uzbekistan is now the chairman of the organization and next year's summit will take place in Tashkent.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is planning to visit all five Central Asian republics next week; the visit is expected to focus on energy cooperation but will also seek to boost India's growing military ties in the region and will include a visit to the newly built Indian military hospital in Tajikistan.
The tour will take place July 6-13, and will also include a stop in Ufa, Russia, for the summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS -- India is a current member of the latter and is expected to join the former as a full member (along with Pakistan) at this summit.
"Countering the spread of Islamic State (IS) terror will be a key part" of the visit," The Hindu newspaper reported, citing "sources."
"The Prime Minister will discuss counter-terror technology, training forces and also countering radicalism. Significantly, the government had also appointed former [Intelligence Bureau] chief Asif Ibrahim as a special envoy recently, with a mandate to discuss the spread of IS and terrorism, and liaise with governments abroad on the issue," the newspaper reported. “'Given India’s efforts to counter Islamic radicalism, these Central Asian states, are natural allies,' an Indian official said."
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states in Moscow on June 3. (photo: Kremlin)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization will "upgrade" Iran's status in the group if Tehran reaches an agreement with international powers on its nuclear program, Russia's foreign minister has said. Meanwhile, China is pushing for the organization to take a greater role in regional security.
The SCO foreign ministers met in Moscow this week in preparation for the July 9-10 summit in Ufa. It has been clear for some time that this would be an expansion summit, at least for India and Pakistan. Those countries are now observers, but have sought full membership for years. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that: "If relevant decisions are made in Ufa, they will pave the way for the SCO’s extension, and India and Pakistan will have an opportunity to launch the initial procedures for joining the SCO."
The SCO now includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. China has been the main driver of the organization, and in recent years it had taken on more of an economic role than the military or security role it seemed to aspire to when it formed in 1996. But the crisis in Ukraine has reenergized Russia's attempts to find non-Western allies, and since then Moscow given the SCO much more of its attention.