By Jagannath P. Panda
The 12th Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) leadership summit is scheduled to be held in Beijing on 6-7 June 2012. This annual summit brings together the Council of Heads of States of the SCO members to discuss various issues of mutual strategic interest. The summit is being held in Beijing, where the SCO Secretariat is headquartered. President Hu Jintao has stated that “the Beijing summit…is an important meeting in terms of inheriting past traditions and breaking new ground”. While China would like to ensure that the summit is a success, to what extent it will endorse those “past traditions” and welcome “new ground” needs to be seen. As it is, the SCO is entering the second decade of its existence after its formation on 15 June 2001 and a leadership change will take place in Beijing in 2012-13.
The Beijing summit not only provides a fresh occasion for the Chinese leadership to review their country’s prominence within the SCO after one decade of its existence, but also to analyse as to what extent Beijing can keep its leadership position intact in future within a body that is in the middle of a transition in terms of both its membership and mandate. The Chinese Foreign Minister recently said that the “SCO remains a priority in Chinese foreign policy”. Though both China and Russia are leading figures of the SCO, it is the Chinese supremacy that has been the SCO’s main highlight. The SCO’s growth as a regional body is a success statement not only in the post-cold war Chinese foreign policy stratagem, but also in Beijing’s multilateral practice and regional design in reaching out to neighbours. The SCO is one of those first multilateral, regional initiatives of Chinese foreign policy in the current century that has been a key in facilitating Beijing’s political, economic and security interests in both the Central Asian and adjacent regions. The SCO has not only facilitated China’s security interests in checking the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism in Xinjiang and the adjacent Central Asian region through various military “joint exercises” and “counterterrorism” drills and actions, but has also pushed the Chinese economy ahead through strong trade and economic measures between China and the four Central Asian countries along with Russia. The SCO has also been beneficial for China’s broader energy diplomacy in the Central Asian and Eurasian regions.
The SCO started off as the Shanghai Five in 1996 and its growth trajectory has been shaped by the post-cold war Chinese foreign policy dynamism. China’s dominance in the SCO has been in evidence since its inception. The body was not only named after one of the major Chinese cities, Shanghai, but the SCO secretariat was also established in Beijing. Also, the first Secretary-General of the SCO was a Chinese diplomat. The growth of the SCO has also coincided with the “rise of China” as a regional and global power in the last one decade. Today, China is not only the second-largest economy of the world, but also the most dominant power in Asian politics. Further, a large part of the first decade of the SCO’s growth has coincided with Hu Jintao’s ascendancy from 2003-04 onwards. During his tenure, China successfully crafted the SCO in its foreign policy, and invested a lot of attention in Central Asian politics. Probably, the Beijing summit will be Hu Jintao’s last SCO summit as China’s head of state.
The Chinese Foreign Minister recently unveiled a new building in Beijing as the new SCO Secretariat. It has been stated that the SCO is preparing the ground for establishing a “special account” and “development bank” to protect the security, political and economic interests of the SCO member countries. The Beijing summit is expected to outline a “mid-term development strategy” for the organisation, details of which will be closely watched. According to the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping, the main objective of this plan is to “build the SCO as a practical and highly effective platform for cooperation”. Hitherto, what seems to have been the core of this developmental strategy was expanding the mandate of the SCO and its membership. Both issues are important not only for the SCO’s progress but also for China’s future prominence both within and outside the SCO.
The Chinese are currently more serious about expanding the SCO’s mandate rather than its membership. Chinese officials have previously said that membership expansion will be done on a “consensual” basis and after the organisation’s mission goal is clarified and made operational. They see the membership expansion process as a “time-consuming” and “long-haul” affair. Hence, in the immediate future membership expansion may be limited to bringing in a few observers and dialogue partners. Cheng Guoping has said that the upcoming summit will review the requests of Afghanistan for observer status and Turkey’s prospect as a dialogue partner.
In the Chinese strategic circles, Afghanistan and Turkey are often seen as countries that have close interactions with the West, particularly with the United States. Beijing is keen to have these countries associated with the SCO, as it will provide China an opportunity to reach out to both these countries at the bilateral and multilateral levels. Turkey is in NATO, but has not been successful in joining the European Union. Though Afghanistan is still politically close to the United States, China does not want to lose out the opportunity of building strong relations with that country, particularly in the post-US troops withdrawal phase. The SCO is an appropriate medium to facilitate broader Chinese interests in Afghanistan multilaterally.
The year 2011 was a stepping-stone for the SCO’s role in Afghanistan, as a five-year counter-narcotics plan was implemented. Expanding the SCO’s mandate has been a matter of discussion in SCO summits, with an ambitious action plan for the Afghanistan region; China has been keen on pushing the SCO’s action plan beyond the Central Asian region. Acknowledging that domestic issues within Afghanistan have disturbed the broader regional security and stability, Cheng Guoping recently said that the “SCO has been cooperating closely with the Afghan side to address the issues”. Both the SCO and China have shown a keen interest in Afghanistan, both in terms of reconstructing that country and bringing stability to the region. The Beijing summit is likely to prepare a more detailed action plan for Afghanistan.
While expanding the SCO mandate and reviewing the membership criteria are some of the issues that make the Beijing summit a vital one, contentious global issues like Iran and the Iranian President’s attendance at the summit also lend the summit greater importance. Ahmadenejad’s attendance at the summit is in itself an indicator of the weight that China holds in the SCO. China has strongly resisted US sanctions against Iran. Iran still exports most of its oil to China in Asia. Defying the US sanctions over Iran, the Chinese leadership has constantly asked for a “negotiated solution” on Iran’s nuclear activities and has strongly opposed “unilateral moves” made by the US.
The SCO and issues related to it are undoubtedly useful instruments in Chinese foreign policy. The Beijing summit is another occasion to review, assess and gauge once again the importance of the SCO in Chinese foreign policy. But no matter how much success Beijing achieves at the summit, it needs to be noted that China is seriously reviewing the current and future prospects of the SCO in its foreign policy stratagem. Xi Jinping’s tenure as the supreme leader of China is almost certain, and his ascendancy to power will coincide with the early years of the second decade of SCO’s growth as an institution.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/TheBeijingSCOSummit_jppanda_290512