BACKGROUND: The SCO, which emerged on the world geopolitical arena under the name “Shanghai Five” (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) in 1996 has evolved in several important stages: from confidence measures along common borders to a regional economic cooperation agent to a regional security provider. When Uzbekistan joined the SCO in 2001, it was an exclusively Central Asia-focused organization, which Uzbekistan as a key state of the region could not ignore. Since then, the SCO has remained a body of six members. Yet over time, it has embarked on a new structural experiment by adopting so called observer states (Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan) and dialogue partners (Belarus, Turkey and Sri Lanka), thereby slightly replicating the NATO model.
At the same time, however, the SCO has also performed an implicit geopolitical agenda. Every Declaration adopted in SCO summits has contained various critical messages against the unipolar world order, the hegemony of one superpower, or the deployment of anti-missile defense systems – all obviously addressed to the United States. In the 2005 Declaration, the SCO even went as far as demanding from the U.S. to set a timetable for withdrawing American military contingents deployed to military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to serve the operation in Afghanistan.
Due to its specific, asymmetric composition, the SCO has been drifting towards facilitating Chinese-Russian cooperation in Central Asia. This would perhaps have been a fait accompli in a short- or mid-term perspective, had the region’s geopolitical environment remained calm and sustainable. But the geopolitical status-quo in Central Asia could not remain unchallenged for an unlimited period of time, given the sharp increase of threats posed by international terrorism and religious extremism and the sudden outbreak of a global “cold war” syndrome due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent war in Ukraine.
The SCO summit in Ufa even further indicated the geopolitical sophistication of Russia’s great power ambitions. For the second time after 2009 SCO summit in Yekaterinburg, Moscow used its chairmanship to combine the summits of two organizations–the SCO and BRICS – likely sending an ambiguous message to the West that Russia, albeit under sanctions, continues to play a great power role in world politics.
Meanwhile, two observer states – India and Pakistan – obtained full SCO membership in Ufa, whereas one dialogue partner – Belarus – became an observer state, and four new states– Azerbaijan, Armenia, Nepal and Cambodia – were given the status of dialogue partner.
IMPLICATIONS: The SCO’s agenda, hitherto primarily focused on Central Asia, will obviously become broader with the inclusion of South Asian countries. This complicates the situation of the SCO’s existing Central Asian members and could become an excessive burden both for these states and the organization itself.
Uzbekistan’s president pointed to the new circumstance that the SCO is joined by two nuclear powers which, in addition, are in permanent conflict. Central Asian countries, whose region is recognized as a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, suddenly find themselves in the same club as four nuclear powers. Karimov also observed that the countries of Central Asia do not exert visible influence on the SCO’s decision making process. This circumstance again illustrates the fact that the organization’s primary function is to facilitate Russian-Chinese cooperation in Central Asia. While the question of India’s and Pakistan’s SCO membership was already discussed during the previous summit, it is evident that this process was accelerated without scrupulous discussion of all pros and cons.
For Uzbekistan, the SCO enlargement is a foreign policy challenge because it contradicts one of the principles of the Conception of Foreign Policy, which determines the priority given to different bilateral relationships in its international activity. Although the SCO has always been a multilateral platform, for Tashkent it has nonetheless served as another form of bilateral relations with China. From now on, Uzbekistan will be in the midst of multilateral and eclectic policy in the frameworks of the SCO – a situation that Tashkent has hitherto sought to avoid.
The factor of Afghanistan will also be a “litmus test” for the efficiency of the new SCO, especially in the context of a reduced U.S. military presence in this country. As is known, the solution of the Afghan question has constantly been tied to criticism of Pakistan, whose support for the Taliban has impeded the peace settlement. Elaborating a common SCO position on Afghanistan will require a similarly critical stance towards Pakistan, presenting Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states with a diplomatically confusing situation.
Meanwhile, many have pointed out that in the post-2014 security and geopolitical situation around Afghanistan, regional powers and organizations need to play a more essential role in resolving the Afghanistan crisis and reconstructing the country. The SCO is expected to contribute significantly to this process, although the ISAF campaign in Afghanistan showed that the U.S. and its allies could rapidly do a job in that country that “allies” within the SCO were unable to do for two decades. While accepting the U.S./NATO military presence in Afghanistan and the deployment of their bases in Central Asian countries, the SCO was at the same time critical and suspicious of the U.S. presence in the region.
It is illustrative in this respect that the SCO Development Strategy towards 2025, referring to international organizations such as the UN, CIS, EAEU, CSTO, CICA, ECO and ASEAN in terms of future cooperation, does not mention NATO, OSCE or the EU.
During the SCO summit, President Karimov warned against turning this organization into a politico-military alliance. This was a very essential statement referring to Russia’s and China’s unspoken and hidden anti-Western stance within the SCO. The statement reflected Tashkent’s desire to pursue an independent policy and avoid following the emerging anti-Western course of the Russia- and China-dominated SCO.
Finally, Karimov in a timely manner used the platform provided by the summit to articulate the problem of the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) and suggested the creation of a special UN commission that would summon specialists on Islam to examine the root causes of ISIS and work out a common position on fighting it. Interestingly, Karimov’s proposal came in unison with Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbaev’s proposal on setting up a network for fighting terrorism.
CONCLUSIONS: The SCO is changing structurally and functionally; it has taken an essential step forward and shouldered an unprecedented and comprehensive ambition: to accommodate and shape the overall perspectives of three regions – Eurasia, Central Asia and South Asia. Being unable, so far, to solve any single conflict or discord among its existing six members, the SCO complemented them with a couple of new ones. In such a sophisticated situation of geopolitical reshaping of these three regions, Uzbekistan took over the Chairmanship of the SCO from the Russian Federation.
President Karimov’s speech at the SCO summit in Ufa revealed, among other things, the inadequacy of the principle to prioritize bilateralism in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. Tashkent has, since independence, constantly faced the dilemma of choosing between “self-isolation” and “proactive engagement” in its international and, especially, regional affairs. Being the key country of Central Asia and facing a seething geopolitical environment, it cannot but perform multilateral activism. This, in turn, will inevitably require Tashkent to play an active and leading role in Central Asia. Is Tashkent ready to change its foreign policy modus operandi? Not incidentally, at the past SCO summit, Uzbekistan’s president could not hide his concern. Karimov stated at the summit that during its chairmanship period, Uzbekistan will maintain continuity in the SCO’s activities and allegiance to its basic principles. For him, the Central Asian dimension of this forum seems to remain more important. From this perspective, it would be expedient to replicate the Kremlin’s example and combine the SCO’s 2016 summit in Tashkent with that of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), to which Uzbekistan might give new life.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director of the Education and Research Institution “Knowledge Caravan” in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons & Boris Ajeganov