SCO meeting set to be guided by new imperatives

By Jeremy Garlick Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/6 21:28:39

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT


After the momentous success of the May 14-15 Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, the focus of global attention now shifts to the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which this year will take place in Astana from Thursday to Friday.

The SCO needs to continue to ensure that its discussions, which generally are understandably not made public, are not perceived as a threat by other interested actors such as the US and Europe. Probably the best way to build a positive impression internationally is to release the general conclusions of the summit via the media in a timely fashion, while keeping sensitive details confidential.

If this can be achieved, and the media kept onside, then there is no reason for the SCO to be seen in a negative light. Rather, it may soon come to be seen as a key platform for further development of the burgeoning Belt and Road initiative which has recently attracted so much positive attention in the international media.

2017 looks like being a year of transformation in world affairs. While in the US the Trump administration has struggled to find its feet both internationally and domestically, Chinese President Xi Jinping has continued to lay out his vision for a new style of economic globalization which will benefit all nations involved.

First, Xi seized the opportunity to set the agenda with his inspirational speech in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Then, with momentum already gathered, the Belt and Road Forum made a huge impact on global consciousness via expanded coverage in the international media.

This means that the June meeting of the SCO has even greater importance than previous summits. There is a chance not only to build on the progress made so far, but also to work toward the settlement of a range of crucial issues facing the participants.

Not least among these are questions relating to the SCO's membership and geographical focus. At present, the organization's raison d'etre is Central Asia. Apart from China and Russia, the other four members (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) are all located in this increasingly important region.

India and Pakistan are expected to officially become full SCO members at the Astana summit. Absorbing these two South Asian nations would expand the remit southwards, toward the Indian Ocean.

It also has the potential to alter the internal dynamics of the organization. There therefore needs to be special attention paid to ensuring that the new members are integrated smoothly, minimizing sources of friction through suitable internal mechanisms.

Other significant regional players, notably Iran and Turkey, are also waiting on the sidelines to see if they will be given the chance to become full members. Thus, discussions about the future composition and aims of the organization are likely to be key in Astana.

Nevertheless, for the time being the SCO's focus clearly remains Central Asia. Of course, the region is at the heart of the Belt and Road initiative, which was introduced by President Xi in September 2013 in Kazakhstan.

Up to now, the organization has been very effective in enabling cooperation and defusing possible tensions between its six members. In particular, the SCO has permitted China to expand its economic activity in Central Asia without antagonizing Russia.

Indeed, contrary to some observers' expectations, cooperation between the two powerhouses has been enhanced. Assisted by productive negotiations in the SCO, Russia and China have been able to identify the synergies in their respective positions.

Win-win outcomes have been achieved chiefly in the areas of energy and natural resources. China needs resources, while the other five members are glad to be suppliers of oil, natural gas and other materials through pipelines and other routes.

At the same time, China has been able to begin delivering much-needed infrastructure, such as railways, roads and power plants, to the other five SCO members. This is key to China's policy of "going global" in order to resolve problems of overcapacity domestically by finding overseas markets for Chinese companies.

The next step for the SCO is to establish similar cooperation with its new sister organization, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). This was founded by Russia in 2014 and launched in January 2015.

Apart from Russia, the EAEU also includes SCO members Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Belarus and Armenia. Thus, the opportunity and need for coordination of the two organizations via discussions in Astana is clear.

Other issues that face the leaders of the six states during their meetings relate to the further expansion of the Belt and Road initiative to create a trans-Eurasian trade and cooperation zone.

For instance, connecting Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with the nations of Central and Eastern Europe obviously requires improved transport links between Central Asia and Russia. In particular, there is the question of Chinese companies building high-speed railways such as the project now underway to connect Moscow and Kazan.

Expanding rail and road networks is clearly in the interests of all parties, but it needs to be done in a coordinated fashion so that inefficiencies can be eliminated and misunderstandings avoided.

For instance, Iran is now in the process of developing its rail network. Some of the new sections may be used to transport goods between Russia and India via the Iranian port of Chabahar. Enhancing trade is one of the primary goals of the Belt and Road initiative, but projects need to be integrated as far as possible to maximize the benefits of new infrastructure.

The author is a lecturer in international relations with the Jan Masaryk Centre for International Studies at the University of Economics in Prague.


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