As Russia, China and Central Asian countries plan for post-2014 Afghanistan, they are floating plans to create "mini buffer states" in northern Afghanistan in order to stanch the potential flow of Islamism and violence into the post-Soviet space.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the China-led security organization that also includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, held a meeting of member state defense ministers this week in Khujand, Tajikistan. The participants made the usual vague public statements about how the SCO was playing a key role in regional stability. “We do not share the West’s optimism about the chances of stabilising the situation in Afghanistan following continued actions by international terrorist and Islamic extremist organisations,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. “The SCO is turning into one of most important structures, to our mind, not only in Central Asia, but also in the East,” he added. The defense ministers also discussed the upcoming iteration of the annual Peace Mission joint military exercises, to be held this year in August in China's Inner Mongolia.
China's defense minister, on a visit to Tajikistan, has promised the Central Asian country "hundreds of millions of dollars" in military aid which -- if true -- would be a dramatic policy change for Beijing, which has focused more on economic ties in Central Asia.
The defense minister made the comments at a joint appearance with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe, reported ITAR-TASS:
“China is satisfied with the level of bilateral cooperation in all spheres, including military and military-technical and guarantees assistance to Tajikistan in the strengthening of its defense capacity,” Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said. He said China would supply military uniforms and help in the training of military personnel, adding that this would involve “hundreds of millions of dollars”.
No details were given, but in the days before Wang's visit it also emerged that China had financed a $12 million "Officer's House" for the Tajikistan armed forces. (Wang, incidentally, is in Tajikistan for a defense ministerial meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.)
According to a 2013 report by the International Crisis Group, between 1993 and 2008 China gave Tajikistan a total of $15 million in military aid. In his recent report on external security assistance to Central Asia, military analyst Dmitry Gorenburg said that China generally deferred to Russia in the security sphere in Central Asia:
Erodgan and Putin in St. Petersburg. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visiting St. Petersburg, repeated his request for Turkey to be allowed in to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to "save us from the trouble" of trying to get into the European Union. And at the same time, he seemed to endorse Turkey's entrance into the Russian-led Eurasian Union.
Turkey became a "dialogue partner" of the SCO earlier this year, but that distinction apparently doesn't mean much: Turkey wasn't even invited to the September summit in Bishkek. In spite of that shabby treatment, Erdogan still holds hope for the SCO, it seems.
In St. Petersburg, at a joint press conference with Putin, a reporter asked a double-barreled question: to Putin about Ukraine's move to halt its EU accession, and to Erdogan about Turkey's interest in the Eurasian Union. Putin ended his comments on Ukraine by noting that "Turkey has a lot of experience of negotiating with the European Union. We will ask the Prime Minister’s advice on what line to take in this situation." And then Erdogan brought up the SCO. From the Kremlin's official transcript:
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: Yes indeed, we have 50 years’ experience. That counts for something (laughter).
In response to Mr Putin’s statements, let me make another proposal: accept Turkey into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: I think or rather I know for a fact that Turkey’s international influence and the independent and sovereign policy that Turkey follows under your leadership give every reason to have Turkey play a more active part in regional international organisations. Russia welcomes this.
Pakistan's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani meets Kazakhstan's minister of defense, Adilbek Dzhaksybekov, in Astana last month (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
With a handful of recent visits by senior Pakistani officials to Central Asia, is Islamabad looking to step up its security cooperation in the region?
Pakistani's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited Tajikistan in August and Kazakhstan in September. The topics of discussion in Tajikistan included "development of military and technical cooperation, preparation of staff, and economic components" while in Kazakhstan they were "issues of regional security and the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops of NATO and USA in 2014." And an adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Sartaj Aziz, visited Bishkek in September for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.
The limited Pakistani engagement with Central Asia has for the most part been associated with economic issues: the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, the CASA-1000 energy project, the development of the Gwadar port.
So does all this recent political-military activity add up to anything? A commentary in the Pakistani newspaper The Frontier Post says, yes:
Why this renewed focus on defence leadership’s exchanges with [the Central Asian republics], where Pakistan’s main interest, exhibited so far, remains economic and energy-oriented? The visits have a clear message: Islamabad values the role of CARs in post-withdrawal stability of Afghanistan, and resultantly the region as a whole....
When Turkey became a "dialogue partner" of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization last year, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the SCO was a viable alternative to the European Union, it made a lot of waves and renewed speculation about what this meant with respect to Turkey's geopolitical drift to the East. As a result of last week's SCO summit in Bishkek, it looks like the answer to that last question is: not much.
It turns out that Turkey wasn't even invited to participate in the summit, according to a report in Today's Zaman. The report talks to a number of Turkish foreign policy analysts who point out that Turkey's foreign policies conflict in some pretty substantial ways with those of the SCO.
To take China, the SCO's dominant member, there is the question of Xinjiang, home of the restive minority Uyghur population, with which Turkey shares many language and cultural ties. While China has made it quite clear that among the top security goals of the SCO is to clamp down on Uyghur political activities in Central Asia, Erdogan has at times sharply criticized Beijing for its treatment of the Uyghurs.
Presidents of SCO member states meet in Bishkek. (photo: Kremlin)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization held its annual summit in Bishkek on Friday, and even by the standards of this opaque organization, the results are unclear. Heads of state of the six SCO members – Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan – attended, as did those of observer states Afghanistan, Iran, and Mongolia, and delegations from India and Pakistan. (It's not clear who Turkey -- which formally became a "dialogue partner" with some fanfare earlier at last year's summit -- sent to Bishkek, suggesting it was a low-level official and that the organization is not a big priority for Ankara.) Much of the discussion seemed to be about issues outside of the SCO's mandate (as far as that has been defined so far) -- obviously Syria was a large topic, as was Iran's nuclear program. RFE/RL did the thankless job of liveblogging the event, recommended for those wanting to catch up on the small bits of news that the summit offered up.
The SCO, being ostensibly a security organization, and one whose members are all pretty close to Afghanistan, would seem to have a lot of work to do as next year's U.S./NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan looms. And while the issue was of course discussed, it remains entirely unclear what the SCO could actually do in Afghanistan. Inaction has been a flaw of the organization since its inception, wrote Alexey Malashenko in a piece for the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Armenia is seeking to become an observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as Yerevan seems to be establishing its own unique brand of multivector diplomacy.
Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan made the announcement on a visit to China, and Chinese PM Li Keqiang said he would bring the issue up with other SCO members.
The SCO is a China-dominated political-military bloc that also includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The SCO has been expanding west, though, recently: Turkey became a "dialogue partner" earlier this year, a status Belarus also holds.
Sargsyan offered no explanation of what Armenia might be looking for with the SCO, so it's up to us to speculate. Armenia, of course, raised eyebrows when it came out that it had gotten multiple-launch rocket systems from China, and Armenia could be casting around for new partners, Emil Sanamyan, editor of the newspaper Armenian Reporter, told The Bug Pit. "My sense of this is an extension of the outreach to China that is made relevant by the recent diplomatic setbacks with both Europe and Russia. The recent leak re fresh weapons purchase from China seems to also be part of that," Sanamyan said. "With the EU association document killed by Russian pressure, there will be some new entity to fill the airwaves with." (Sanamyan also noted that Armenia is an observer in the Arab League, another organization whose connection to Armenia looks somewhat tenuous.)
Rouhani and his Kazakhstan counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev meet in Tehran for Rouhani's inauguration (photo: president.ir)
Iran's newly elected president Hassan Rouhani may or may not take his first trip abroad as president to Kyrgyzstan and the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Regardless, most analysts seem to believe that as compared to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Rouhani is less likely to seriously pursue ties with the SCO and its member states more generally.
A number of news media, including Iranian state media, reported last week that Rouhani would travel to Bishkek for the SCO summit on September 13. But then Iran's foreign ministry clarified that no such decision has been made:
"The SCO summit is of high importance in Eurasian region and Iran, as an observer, has actively participated in its meetings," [Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas] Araqchi said at his weekly press briefing, adding that "For this (year's) summit, Iran has also been invited, but no final decision for participation in the summit has been made yet."
"The final decision in this regard will be made by the president (Rouhani)," said the spokesman.
Iran isn't a member of the SCO, but an observer. (Full members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.) Under Ahmadinejad, Iran applied for full membership to the organization and he frequently praised the organization, for example calling it the foundation of a "new world order." But Rouhani is likely to step back from that emphasis, said Iranian expert Mehdi Mahdavi Azad in an interview with Radio Ozodi:
Chinese and Russian soldiers participate in Peace Mission 2013 exercises. (photo: mil.ru)
Chinese troops are currently in the Ural Mountains, carrying out joint military exercises with their Russian counterparts. The exercises include 600 Chinese troops and 900 Russians, practicing the usual "anti-terror" scenario, and are following joint naval exercises by the two countries earlier this summer. What is intriguing about these exercises is that they're called Peace Mission 2013, which is the name of the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises over the past several years. And those exercises usually included most of the other SCO members -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. And as RT says, "All Russian-Chinese war games are organized within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization." Meanwhile, SCO members not including Russia and China have already held exercises this year in Kazakhstan.
So is there any significance to these dual exercises? Why are Russia and China doing their own Peace Mission this year? I asked some veteran SCO followers, and to paraphrase, the collective response was: "Who knows?" The SCO operates in mysterious ways. But Peace Mission 2014 is already scheduled to take place in China, and at least Kazakhstan seems to suggest that it will be participating.
Being summer, it is the season for military exercises. Some of the others that have been going on around the region:
Turkey is "strongly leaning" toward buying a Chinese air defense system, which would damage its air defense cooperation with NATO but serve Ankara's goal of increasing the amount of locally produced military equipment it buys. A report from American defense newspaper Defense News reports that:
One senior procurement official familiar with the program said the Turkish government has concluded that the Chinese proposal was technologically satisfactory, allowed technology transfer and was much cheaper than rival proposals.
The decision to select the Chinese contender awaits final approval from Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
This deal has been the subject of speculation for many years, as the competition between American, European, Chinese, and Russian systems seemed to be a sort of geopolitical bellwether. And coming on the heels of Turkey's formally becoming a "dialogue partner" of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a big Chinese deal like this would raise a lot of questions about Turkey's geopolitical trajectory. But it appears that Turkey is focusing less on geopolitics and more on its own defense industry in leaning toward the Chinese system, as the Western companies are less likely to share their technology with Turkey and allow co-production in Turkey, a condition that appears to be non-negotiable to Ankara. Nevertheless, choosing the Chinese HQ-9 would mean more difficulty in integrating with the NATO air defense equipment Turkey already hosts: