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.
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon at a meeting with senior security officials April 22. (photo: president.tj)
While heavy fighting has broken out in northern Afghanistan, near the border of Tajikistan, officials in Dushanbe say they have the situation under control.
Last week, the Taliban formally announced the beginning of their spring offensive. While attacks have spiked across the country, northeastern Afghanistan has seen unusual amounts of violence. Earlier this month fighting broke out in Afghan Badakhshan, the narrow panhandle bordering the Tajikistan region of the same name. Dozens of fighters on both sides were reportedly killed in those clashes.
Now, heavy fighting has erupted in Kunduz, about 60 kilometers from the border of southern Tajikistan. That fighting has killed at least 30 people and forced President Ashraf Ghani to delay his planned trip to India on Monday. (It's also reportedly come close to the Tajikistan consulate in the city.)
The violence has of course not gone unnoticed in Dushanbe. Last week President Emomali Rahmon convened senior security officials to discuss Afghanistan and ordered "increasing military readiness for the protection of state borders, and the fight against terrorism, extremism and illegal drug trafficking."
Special operations troops from SCO member state militaries at the opening ceremony of joint exercises in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
The China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization is holding joint exercises with special operations forces from Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan -- and they're doing it at a military base in Kyrgyzstan that the United States spent $9 million to build.
The SCO exercises taking place this week involve 20-25 special operations troops from each participating country (all the member states except Uzbekistan, which typically sits out SCO military exercises). During the five-day exercise the troops will practice deploying to mountain areas, deploying from helicopters, seeking and destroying terrorist groups, rescuing hostages, and treating and evacuating wounded troops. Pretty standard stuff for a joint special operations exercise.
What makes this drill stand out is the site: the base of the Scorpions special operations unit in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. Readers may recall that this is the base that U.S. Central Command and the U.S. embassy in Bishkek spent $9 million to build. It's no wonder it was attractive to the SCO, given that a Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable from the opening ceremony of the base in 2009 described it as "the gold standard in Central Asian construction ... far exceeds any other facility the Kyrgyz currently have." The facility includes
"officer and enlisted housing, classroom training facilities, a multipurpose facility, a dining facility and shower/sauna complex."
Reports that Russia is uncomfortable with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) stepping into banking are nothing new. In particular, Moscow’s quiet efforts to block the creation of an SCO development bank that would funnel largely Chinese credit into Russia’s backyard have featured at the organization’s meetings in recent years.
But a thought-provoking analysis by Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, published last week by Russia in Global Affairs, suggests the Kremlin is mistaken, placing fears about appearing to be a junior partner over a sound geopolitical strategy that could give it a measure of control over China’s Central Asia policy.
The SCO – which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – has tried hard to convince the world it is more than just a club for dictators. China’s push to include economic initiatives on the SCO agenda was a part of this process, Gabuev notes, and a development bank has been on the table at SCO powwows since 2009.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iranian envoy Ali Akbar Velayati in January. (photo: Kremlin)
Iran may be admitted into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this summer if it makes progress in resolving disputes over its nuclear program, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has said.
It already seems clear that India and Pakistan, who have both long sought SCO membership, will be admitted at the organization's summit this July in Ufa, Russia. Iran -- which also has been trying for years to enter the SCO -- has been hampered by the fact that it is under international sanctions related to its nuclear program.
But when a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, visited Moscow in late January, he reportedly gained the Kremlin's approval for SCO membership.
"Velayati’s Moscow trip might signal that some kind of a significant change in relations is about to take place. Iran’s Mehr News reported that in Moscow, Velayati was able to secure Putin’s approval for Iran to 'upgrade its status' in the SCO," noted regional analyst Alex Vatanka. "As an observer state in SCO, Iran has since 2005 unsuccessfully sought to obtain full membership in the organization, but perhaps the Russians are about to entertain the idea of Tehran joining the alliance. Along these lines, the state-run Iranian media have been busy hyping the prospects of an SCO membership for Iran."
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."