Azerbaijan and Armenia are both seeking to strengthen their ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, applying to be formal observers of the organization, the SCO's chief has said.
The China-led economic and security bloc is in expansion mode: in the upcoming summit in Ufa this summer India and Pakistan are expected to become full members. And according to SCO Secretary General Dimitriy Mezentsev, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Syria are applying to become observers.
Mezentsev, speaking at a press conference February 10, also put Iran in the same category of applicants as India and Pakistan, and said that there are "no legal obstacles" to them becoming members. So might Iran, too, be slated to join this summer?
Currently the SCO has six members: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. India, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan are observers, while Belarus, Sri Lanka, and Turkey are "dialog partners."
Neither Baku nor Yerevan has confirmed Mezentsev's statement. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan mooted the idea of becoming an SCO observer in 2013, but nothing came of it then.
It does seem like there is some real interest in Azerbaijan in becoming an observer. Independent member of parliament Rasim Musabekov said in an interview that "the SCO is a quite authoritative international forum, located not too far from Azerbaijan. Countries close to Azerbaijan like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyyrgyzstan are in it. So we're interested in being part of this forum." He added, though, that "this will in no way affect the resolution of the Karabakh problem."
Kazakhstani soldiers take part in exercises against "extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations." (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan's armed forces are carrying out exercises against "separatists," citing "geopolitical shifts" as the justification. But while the reference to separatists may make the Kremlin a bit uneasy, the scenario seems to be oriented toward Chinese separatists, rather than Ukrainian.
The exercise is being conducted from January 15-17 by land forces command staff. "According to the scenario of the joint staff training, groups from extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations, disguised as refugees, infiltrate the territory of a hypothetical government," according to a release from the Ministry of Defense. "During the course of the training the soldiers blocked and destroyed illegal armed formations and repelled the invasion."
The "relevance of the training" was the result of "contemporary geopolitical shifts," the MoD added. So what geopolitical shifts is Astana worried about?
The last line seems to point to a Ukraine scenario; as Ukrainian website depo.ua suggests, "ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan complain about 'oppression' and eagerly await the arrival of 'little green men' from Russia." While Kazakhstan has clearly been rattled by the events in Ukraine, and has undertaken serious efforts to shore up its statehood as a result, ethnic Russians are hardly begging for Moscow's intervention.
The web page for Russia's joint SCO/BRICS summits next year in Ufa..
Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, gave a tour d'horizon of his country's rapidly evolving foreign policy, including some of the most explicit hints to date that the country is reorienting away from Europe and toward Asia -- especially China.
In an October 20 speech to members of the country's ruling party, United Russia, Lavrov addressed familiar topics like the need for a multipolar world and perfidy of the West. But in the past Russian officials tend to elide the details of what an alternative to the Western-led world would look like.
Particularly striking in Lavrov's speech was the attention given to China. This was in his introduction:
The realignment, or, I would even say, the deconcentration of the global balance of forces, is a hallmark of our time. Most clearly, this can be seen in the greater economic power and increasing political clout of the Asia-Pacific Region. These countries have largely assumed the role of a driver of global economic growth, a role which was traditionally performed by the United States,Western Europe and Japan. As we can see, China achieved the greatest success on this path and, according to the latest report issued by the International Monetary Fund, has for the first time become the world’s largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity Based on the findings of the IMF experts, the seven largest so-called “emerging economies,” including our country, outdid the seven industrialized Western countries in terms of combined GDP. That’s a totally new picture of the world that does not fit into the centuries-old notion of Western dominance in the global economy, finance and politics.
Turkey's ties to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are complementary to its ties with the West, not a replacement for them, the country's minister in charge of European Union integration has said. This appears to be a step back from previous statements of then-prime minister, now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he has repeatedly identified the China-led SCO as an "alternative" to the EU.
Any cooperation between Turkey and the Shanghai Five is “complementary rather than alternative” and Turkey’s strengthened ties with the group of countries -- which is also known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- might add more to European Union, EU Minister Volkan Bozkır said in an exclusive interview with Deutsche Welle in Berlin.
“EU membership is Turkey’s primary strategic target since we have been struggling with it for 50 years already. However, the perception is that if Turkey forges a relationship with the SCO it would bring about the end of its EU bid. The world has already become globalized. Turkey has and will have ties with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation [OIC], the G20 and African and Latin American organizations. All these ties are complementary rather than alternative. Thus, Turkey having this kind of relationship might contribute more power to the EU,” Bozkır said in an interview on Wednesday, dismissing the fact that any close ties with the SCO might damage Turkey’s years-long EU efforts.
A group photo of the presidents of the six SCO member states, at the 2014 summit in Dushanbe. Will the 2015 photo have two more presidents? (photo: SCO)
After last month's summit in Dushanbe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization appears poised to finally expand its membership after years of discussion and speculation. SCO members signed protocols for admitting new members, and various officials from member countries have signaled that India and Pakistan will be invited to join at next year's summit in Ufa, Russia.
This would be a watershed move for the organization, which has captured the geopolitical imagination of many around the world who see it as a growing counterweight to Western dominance. That mystique has grown in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that the group has thus far been more about talk than action.
The SCO is now dominated by two powers, Russia and China, and also includes the Central Asian republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Those were the original six members when the group was founded in 2001, and despite many entreaties to join -- in particular by India, Pakistan, and Iran -- the group has never expanded. So why is it doing so now? And will expansion add to the group's clout, or dilute its ability to act?
Russia's interest in SCO expansion is relatively obvious: in the wake of the collapse of its relations with the West, the Kremlin is eager to make it appear as if it has plenty of friends around the world and so doesn't need Europe or the U.S. That's resulted in a renewed enthusiasm in Moscow for the SCO; Russia had previously mistrusted the group as being a possible stalking horse for Chinese expansion into what it considers its own strategic backyard, Central Asia.
When outsiders look at the various new post-Soviet integration projects they often see an attempt by Russia to impose its will on its neighbors; in Hillary Clinton's formulation, a move to "re-Sovietize" the region. The U.S., by contrast, likes to say that its policy in the former Soviet space are directed at allowing those states to maintain their "sovereignty and independence."
But that has it backwards, Russia is increasingly arguing. In a piece published Wednesday in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argues that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other post-Soviet security blocs allow members "a choice of their own pattern of development" while NATO demands strict "bloc discipline" of its members.
That Lavrov wrote an op-ed praising the SCO is already interesting enough: Russia has not always been so enthusiastic about the organization, which tends to carry more of a Chinese influence (the other members are the smaller Central Asian states in between the two powers: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). But since the crisis in Ukraine resulted in a huge rupture between Russia and the West, Moscow has sought to revive its ties to China and as a result has become noticeably more enthusiastic about the SCO.
When the Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises kick off August 24, the organization that is often promoted as an "alternative to the West" will be benefitting from American and European contributions.
Kazakhstan will be transporting its troops on the C-295 it bought from Airbus. And Kyrgyzstan's contribution will be made up largely of soldiers from the 'Scorpions' and 'Ilbirs' special forces units that the U.S. has spent a lot of money and time training.
In 2009, for example, the U.S. ambassador to Bishkek opened a brand-new base for the Scorpions, built with $9 million of U.S. Central Command's money. "The compound, which consists of 12 buildings, landscaping and accompanying infrastructure, is truly the gold standard in Central Asian construction and far exceeds any other facility the Kyrgyz currently have," according to a U.S. diplomatic cable describing the event. The U.S. also has spent millions to both train and equip the Scorpions and Ilbirs.
This isn't exactly news: The Scorpions and Ilbirs units have participated in several SCO exercises in the past, including drills in 2007, 2010, and 2012.
The joint military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will involve about 7,000 troops, the largest number in an SCO exercise in many years, as the organization seems to be taking on a new prominence in the wake of collapsing Russia-West relations.
The bulk of the troops exercising, as in past years, appear to be from China. Russia announced that it is sending about 900 troops, as well as hardware including four Su-25 jets and eight Mi-8MT helicopters. Kazakhstan said it is participating with about 300 troops from an air-mobile unit. From Tajikistan, more than 200 soldiers are participating, including members of an unnamed "rapid reaction unit." (An aside: one wonders if it is one of the special forces units that the U.S. has trained.) Uzbekistan, as usual, does not seem to be participating at all. Kyrgyzstan is sending about 500 soldiers. So if it's 7,000 total, that's about 5,000 from China.
The exercises, Peace Mission 2014, will be held August 24 to 29 in China's Inner Mongolia region. But participating countries have already started moving their troops toward China. "Loading up -- that's already a stage of the exercise. We're trying to improve, getting used to loading up our equipment," said Ruslan Muzdybayev, the deputy commander of Kazakhstan's air mobile forces for military readiness.
China's foreign minister has suggested that Mongolia could become the next full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, even though Mongolia has appeared far less eager to join the organization than other aspirants like India, Iran, and Pakistan.
At an event marking the 13th anniversary of the organization, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said: “We have received a message from the Mongolian prime minister on the occasion. Although we have not scrutinized the contents of this message yet, we regard it as a good signal,” he added. “Ten years have passed, and it is time to consider preparations for granting Mongolia a status of a full-fledged member of the SCO.”
That's an odd statement, particularly regarding the Mongolian prime minister's message. And in the past, Mongolia hasn't shown too much interest in becoming a full member, although it's been an observer since 2004. There are a number of reasons for that, wrote local analyst Mendee Jargalsaikhan in a 2012 paper (pdf). For one, Mongolia's ties to Central Asia are not particularly strong. In addition, Mongolia is a relatively successful democracy, and "the SCO is perceived in Ulaanbaatar as an 'authoritarian club' whose members main concern is their own regime security," Mendee writes. And SCO membership also could diminish Mongolia's foreign policy independence, exemplified by its "third neighbor" strategy of courting allies other than its two massive geographic neighbors, China and Russia. "Joining the SCO could ... weaken both Mongolia's domestic democratization efforts, and its international image with the European Union or the United States," Mendee writes.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has set up a new "anti-terror unit" in an apparent effort by China to deepen cooperation with Russia and Central Asia in its fight against Uyghur nationalist groups.
The director of the SCO's anti-terror section, based in Tashkent, gave a series of interviews to Chinese media last week and gave a handful of new details about the organization's security efforts in Central Asia. From China Daily:
"Many terrorists who carried out deadly attacks in China watched or listened to video or audio files online with extremist ideological content, but such materials are produced or uploaded outside China," Zhang Xinfeng, director of the Eurasian grouping's regional anti-terrorist structure executive committee, said at its headquarters in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan.
"The regional anti-terrorist structure decided to set up a special unit at the end of 2013 to deal with the new situation."
Xhang doesn't elaborate in that interview on what the new unit is, but in another interview, with the Global Times he reports that "our anti-terrorist structure established a joint expert team from all SCO members later last year to deal with the threat from the Internet." (Members of the SCO are China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.)