The SCO and Middle East: Expanding stakes and new approaches

Talmiz Ahmad
Talmiz Ahmad
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The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) began life in 1996 when China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan set up the “Shanghai Five” as a regional confidence-building forum. It was re-christened as the SCO with the membership of Uzbekistan in 2001.

The accession of India and Pakistan to full membership at the Astana Summit on June 8-9 is the first expansion of the SCO in 16 years. SCO observers are: Afghanistan, Iran, Mongolia and Belarus, while Turkey, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia and Nepal are dialogue partners.

The SCO has a total population of 3.5 billion, nearly 50 percent of the world population, and the combined GDP in absolute figures that is over 25 percent of global GDP. It has considerable geopolitical significance in that it links the Asia-Pacific and the Atlantic with South Asia and West Asia, as its secretary general, Rashid Alimov, has recently noted.

West Asian issues have been discussed at the SCO for the last several years. All the members are concerned about the three evils of “terrorism, extremism and separatism” since transnational extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, anchored in West Asia, get several recruits from SCO members and in turn threaten them with radicalisation and violence.

The conflict in Afghanistan and the associated radicalism has affected SCO members over the last 35 years and remains an important area of concern today. Now, the Syrian conflict has captured SCO attention as well. At a recent meeting of SCO defence ministers, the threat from ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat Nusra was highlighted.

Russia, with two SCO observers, Iran and Turkey, is spearheading the ceasefire and the peace process, with meetings of government and opposition groups taking place in Astana to complement the UN-sponsored Geneva conferences. The interest of both Iran and Turkey in obtaining full membership of SCO is being strongly backed by Russia and China.

To play a more credible role in regional security affairs, the SCO needs to put into effect some much-needed changes in its organization and functioning and the range of its engagements

Talmiz Ahmad

Connectivity projects

West Asia is also important to the SCO as the pathway for transnational connectivity projects. Thus, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), promoted by Russia, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) sponsored by China, which envisage linkages across the Eurasian continent and the Indian Ocean, and India’s projects from Iranian ports to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia, give central importance to West Asia.

Addressing the sixth China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in 2014, President Xi Jinping saw the West Asian states as “natural partners” in building the BRI projects, and suggested that the two sides should “build a community of common interest and common destiny”.

Besides logistical links, the president also saw wider links between China and the Arab world, including energy, trade and investment, and the new frontier areas of space technology, and nuclear and renewable energy. These perceptions are shared by India, whose prime minister, after very robust engagements with regional nations, has shaped solid strategic and economic partnerships with West Asia.

The biggest concern that the SCO states have regarding West Asia relates to the security situation that is marked by: the regional confrontation, the wars in Syria and Yemen, the rising tide of sectarianism in defining regional differences, and, above all, trans-national militant groups with their lethal assaults and the attacks of their “lone-wolf” adherents which target the region and beyond.

The successful implementation of the BRI land and sea projects requires that the pathways of the routes be secure. However, so far SCO has displayed neither the capacity nor the interest in pursuing this onerous but important responsibility.

New approach

To play a more credible role in regional security affairs, the SCO needs to put into effect some much-needed changes in its organization and functioning and the range of its engagements.

First, following its recent expansion, it must promote greater internal cohesion and cooperation. For instance, the various BRI and other regional connectivity projects should not be projected as sponsored by specific countries but promoted as cooperative ventures of the grouping as a whole. And, linked with this, the projects themselves should be the product of region-wide consultations and take on board the core interests and sensitivities of partner countries.

Thus, India has found it difficult to associate itself with the BRI initiative since a major project involved, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), takes no account of the disputed character of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK). It is a welcome development that the Indian and Chinese leaders spoke frankly to each other on this subject at the Astana summit.

Regional forum

Secondly, the SCO should approve an “SCO Regional Forum” on the lines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), where members, observers and dialogue partners could engage in a free and frank discussion of security issues with a wide range of interlocutors.

This forum could be supported by a Track-II platform on the lines of the Council for Security and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) that supports the ARF.

Finally, given the importance of the connectivity projects that envisage a central place to West Asian and the significance of ties with the West Asian nations for all SCO members, some major Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE and should be invited to be dialogue partners of the SCO as an institution. Only then will it be possible for the SCO members to shape an effective approach to regional security issues.
The author, a former Indian diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies at Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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