SHANGHAI COOPERATION ORGANIZATION IN THE CONTEXT OF INTERNATIONAL ANTITERRORIST CAMPAIGN

Dr. Pan GUANG


Pan Guang, Professor, Director, Shanghai Center for International Studies, Shanghai Institute of European & Asian Studies; Vice Chairman, Chinese Association of Middle East Studies (Shanghai, China)


The development of the Shanghai Five / Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has made it possible for the first time in history to involve China, Russia and Central Asian states in a multilateral mechanism of regional security and economic cooperation. Since 1996, this mechanism has played a very important role in the confidence building in Central Asia, and prevented the conflicts like the civil war in Afghanistan from proliferating as seen in the Balkans and the Middle East. Within its framework, China and her SCO partners have resolved, in a matter of several years, their border issues left over from the past two centuries impeding the development of good relationships. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing U.S.-led war on terrorism have posed opportunities and challenges to this newly established regional organization. Obviously it needs to formulate and perfect its operational mechanism speedily in order to carry out its mission in anti-terrorism and economic cooperation in Central Asia. The SCO St. Petersburg summit meeting in 2002 was a milestone, in that leaders of the six member states drew up strategic plans for the new priorities of the organization. With major steps now taken to address these priorities, it is believed that a solid foundation has been laid for SCO to better grasp opportunities and meet challenges on her way of steady development.

I. 11 September, War on Terrorism and SCOs Response

After the terrorist attacks on the U.S., the SCO prime ministers attending the Prime Minister-Level Conference at the Almaty, Kazakhstan issued a joint communiqué on 14 September, denouncing the terrorist attacks while expressing sympathy for the American people and the victims. The joint communiqué declared that SCO was ready to closely unite with all countries and international organizations, and that effective measures would be taken to wage an unremitting struggle against all forms of terrorism around the world.1 Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji made two points at the conference: 1) the drafting of The Charter of Shanghai Cooperation Organization should be sped up; and 2), the proposed anti-terrorist center in Bishkek should begin to operate as soon as possible.2

However, many observers have been baffled to find that no other unitary strong actions were taken by SCO. With hindsight it can be seen clearly that this had very complicated reasons.

Firstly, the 9/11 attack was directed against the U.S., and it is natural that the U.S. initially played a dominant role in the consequent war on terrorism. It is impossible and unrealistic for SCO to play any other role than that of a cooperative partner.

Secondly, SCO is by no means a military alliance that demands unitary actions be taken by its members. Moreover, no SCO member state was then under any direct terrorist attack from Afghanistan that called for joint actions of all the SCO members.

Thirdly, the permanent secretariat of the SCO had not come into operation yet. The anti-terrorism center in Bishkek was still under preparation. Consequently, SCO lacked capabilities in making quick responses or unitary actions.

Fourthly, the SCO countries were respectively also members of other organizations, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), or the Dushanbe Group (comprising Russia, India, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the North-Alliance of Afghanistan), or even NATOs Partners for Peace. This means they had the obligations to coordinate their actions with their fellow members in other institutions. Hence, the different degrees of involvement in the unfolding anti-terrorist campaigns.

Fifthly, the requirements made by the U.S. of the SCO members were also different. For instance, the U.S. required military bases and territorial space from Uzbekistan, while information sharing and diplomatic coordination were more needed from China and Russia. This is the main reason why SCO states have played different roles in the war on terrorism.

In short, it would have been illogical and premature for SCO to take lead in the U.S. anti-terrorist campaigns considering the nature and status of the organization as well as the U.S. policy stance at the time.

Before the 9/11 attacks, SCO members had taken different positions toward the counter-terrorism mission of the organization. Kyrgyzstan was the first country that proposed the establishment of an anti-terrorist center. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, threatened by terrorism from Afghanistan, attached similar importance to the counter-terrorism agency. But Kazakhstan had always maintained that SCO focus more on economic cooperation. Russia was also not very interested in the anti-terror mission at the beginning. Leading a counter-terrorism mechanism in CIS already, Russia expressed its support only when it realized that Chinas participation was required. After 9/11, some of the SCO members enhanced their cooperation with the U.S., thereby ironically lowering their expectations of the anti-terror mission of SCO. Russia played its role via the Dushanbe Group, as all the member states shared the position to support the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, bilateral cooperation on anti-terrorism between the U.S. and SCO member states got underway, as that between the U.S. and Russia, and between the U.S. and China. As a result, a dual development was observed. One the one hand, all the SCO members took an active part in the anti-terror war in Central Asia, and the cooperation from SCO members, particularly from Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China, proved critical in ensuring the positive progress of the U.S.-led war. On the other hand, SCO did not play any prominent unitary role in the war, with each of the members taking its part mainly through bilateral anti-terrorist cooperation with the U.S.

This development certainly does not mean that SCO has been reduced insignificant in the anti-terror war in Central Asia. The Shanghai Five was after all the first international community that called for cooperation in countering terrorist groups in Central Asia. Since 1996, the Shanghai Five / SCO has always been the high-profile organization against the three evil forces of terrorism, extremism and separatism in Central Asia. On 15 June, 2001, three months before 9/11, the six member states of SCO signed the Shanghai Convention, which foresaw the necessity of anti-terror cooperation in Central Asia and laid down a solid legal base for combating terrorism.3 After 9/11, SCO members stepped up their coordination and consultation. The foreign ministers and law enforcement leaders of the SCO states held consultation meetings to discuss the situation in Central Asia following the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, and subsequent measures were also taken to accommodate the changes. In addition, their face-to-face meetings, President Jiang Zemin and President Vladimir Putin kept hotline contacts. However, despite all this, it should be recognized that SCO did not work out an effective, comprehensive, speedy and coordinated strategy of response, which may be termed a serious lapse in the wake of the unprecedented terrorist attacks and the consequent war on terrorism.

II. New Challenges Facing SCO

About two years after 9/11, the strategic pattern and balance of power in Central Asia have changed, posing a host of new challenges to SCO.

Firstly, the leading role of SCO in security and anti-terror cooperation in Central Asia has been reduced. Before 9/11, SCO was the indisputable leading vehicle for security cooperation and counter-terrorism campaign in Central Asia. The increased American military presence in Central Asia after 9/11 has made the U.S. the major player in the anti-terror war in Central Asia. Despite the cooperative posture of the U.S. with SCO, it is an undeniable fact that the leading role of SCO in counter-terrorism has been weakened by the sudden and increasing presence of the U.S. in the region.

Secondly, the cohesion of SCO has been undermined. As stated above, due to the lack of an effective, fast and coordinated anti-terrorism mechanism, SCO has not been able to play a unitary role in the war on terrorism, therefore prompting its members to focus more on unilateral individual cooperation with the U.S. and other groups. This has undoubtedly aggregated the centrifugal tendency in the organization and weakened its cohesive force.

Thirdly, the sluggish pace of economic cooperation of SCO has become more serious. Given the rapid growth of the American influence in Central Asia, the U.S. and the West will certainly increase their investment in this region. In contrast, economic cooperation of SCO has made little headway. If this is not changed soon, SCO will be made hollow with its basis of existence and development seriously undermined.

Fourthly, the cultural bondage and cooperation among SCO members has been affected. Central Asia is a rare region where four civilizations of Confucianism, Islam, Slavism and Hinduism merge. It is of great importance to strengthen the dialog of civilizations and cultural cooperation within the framework of SCO. Secular education by the former Soviet Union over more than seventy years has more or less damped the appeal of Islamic extremism. However, in contrast with Middle East, Central Asia harbors popular pro-America and pro-West sentiments. Given the increased presence of the U.S. in the region, influence of the western culture is certainly to grow. This is likely to exert some impact on the cultural links and cooperation traditionally centered upon the silk road from China to Russia and Central Asia.

At present, the SCO members have a clear understanding of the grave challenges they are facing, and are determined to further strengthen their cooperation, especially by the establishment of the counter-terror institution in Bishkek, so that it will be more capable of dealing with the prevailing complex situation. President Jiang Zemin and President Vladimir Putin, in their first meeting after 9/11 in Shanghai on 20 October, 2001, confirmed that SCO should be further strengthened, particularly in carrying out the counter-terror mission. They also agreed in explicit terms that Chechnia terrorists and the Eastern Turkestan terrorists should be closely targeted in the anti-terror campaign.4 China and Russia also agreed to establish a counter-terror working group to deal with the threat of terrorism. This working group held its first meeting in Beijing on 28-29 November, 2001 to exchange views on international situation on counter-terrorism and situation in Afghanistan, and reached a wide-range consensus.5 All the member states of SCO took various similar steps, both bilateral and multilateral to deal with the grave challenges brought about by the changed situation and, in so doing, laid a foundation for the final unitary position taken by SCO leaders at the St. Petersburg summit meeting.

III. Opportunities for SCOs Development

While SCO is faced with new challenges, the changed political, economic and strategic pattern in Central Asia in the wake of the anti-terror war has also presented some new opportunities for its further development.

First of all, almost all the Central Asian countries have joined the international coalition against terrorism, which is unprecedented in history. This has created a favorable environment for SCO to further strengthen its security cooperation and establish its regional counter-terror mechanism. Just as stated above, SCO members had a different position on the security cooperation and counter-terrorism mission before 9/11. In the meantime, some states were concerned that strengthened security cooperation and the establishment of an anti-terror institution could increase the military elements of SCO, which may arouse concerns from the neighboring countries or even the U.S. and other Western countries. This is one of the reasons why there had been little progress in establishing the counter-terror institution in Bishkek since 1999 when the proposal was first put forward. The emergence of an international coalition against terrorism after 9/11 made all the SCO members appreciate the urgency in upgrading the security cooperation and establishing the counter-terror institution. With all the doubts and differences cleared up, a consensus was soon reached among all the SCO members. In fact, since 9/11, more and more bilateral and multilateral cooperation mechanisms have been initiated and established among the SCO members and between the members and other non-members. For example, China has so far established bilateral counter-terror mechanisms or dialogs with Russia, America, India, Pakistan, France, Britain and Germany. In addition to its interest in conducting bilateral anti-terror cooperation with the SCO members, the U.S. has also expressed its readiness to cooperate with SCOs regional counter-terror institution. All these developments have created a favorable atmosphere for SCO to further its security cooperation and carry out its regional anti-terror mission.

Secondly, the collapse of the Taliban regime and the birth of a new Afghanistan have eliminated a hotbed of turmoil in the heartland of Asia, thus opening an unusual window of opportunity for the stability and development in Central Asia, and the SCO member states in particular. Since 1996, the Shanghai Five / SCO has been holding high the banner against terrorism, separatism and extremism. And it was the Taliban regime that had been backing these three evil forces after it came to power in 1996. Evidence so far clearly shows that the evil forces, whether in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or in Russias Chechnya or Chinas Xinjiang, or even in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, were closely linked to Taliban and a1-Qaeda. It is recently discovered that Osama bin Laden once informed leaders of the Eastern Turkestan group that he fully supported a Jihad in Xinjiang.6 Therefore, the collapse of the Taliban regime and establishment of the new Afghan government can no doubt promote the stability and development of the region. Since 9/11, neighboring countries of Afghanistan including SCO member states have all stepped up their efforts to crack down the three evil forces, and made headway in their struggle against terrorism at home. Today some of the most affected areas adjacent to Afghanistan have showed the tendency toward stability and improvement in economic growth and peoples living standard. This favorable change in the situation has brightened the prospects of the region, making it more attractive to foreign investments for one obvious example. So the process of peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan is a very positive contribution to the stability and development of its neighboring countries.

Thirdly, the anti-terror war has also helped to strike such criminal activities as drug trafficking, weapon smuggling, and illegal immigration, which have for long found a safe haven in Afghanistan. This is undoubtedly an auspicious development for the Central Asian countries, particularly SCO members, now jointly combating various cross-border crimes and tackling other non-conventional security problems. It should be pointed out here that these cross-border crimes have not disappeared with the rout of the Taliban regime. Crimes like drug trafficking remain a serious issue. It is reported that the Afghan government has only been able to clear up 15% of the drug-planting areas.7 Drug continues to be smuggled out of Afghanistan. Russia recently uncovered a clandestine group that had been engaged in smuggling drugs from Afghanistan to Russia through Central Asia. However, the cross-border criminal groups have after all lost the most important backing of the state power, thus putting the SCO members in a better position to tackle those regional security and economic issues by means of bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

Fourthly, the geopolitical changes in Central Asia will also facilitate the economic cooperation in this region and even the whole Asian region, a notable case being the energy cooperation in the Caspian basin. For example, in the discussions about the alignment of gas/oil pipelines in the past years, nobody realistically expected that a line could go from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea by extending through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet, such a line has now become possible, and even India may also benefit from this arrangement. This new development will help diversify the outlet of energy development in Central Asia, and break the deadlock of energy development in the Caspian Sea region caused by the rivalry of pipelines. In the meantime, the birth of a new Afghanistan and Irans improving relations with Europe and Japan are also promoting more investments and technology inflow from the West to Central Asia, thereby further pushing forward the energy development in Central Asia. All these developments are creating a favorable environment for SCO to foster its economic cooperation, and energy cooperation in particular.

IV. After St. Petersburg: SCOs Steady Progress

On 7 June, 2002, leaders of the six SCO members met in St. Petersburg holding in-depth and wide-ranging discussions on the major international and regional issues. Based on a review of the work of SCO in the past year, the summit meeting worked out further steps to be taken by the organization. Very significantly, The Charter for Shanghai Cooperation Organization and An Agreement on the Anti-Terrorism Agency in the Region were signed by the six leaders as two major strategic steps to speed up institutional building, raise the level of anti-terror cooperation and bring the organization into mature shape. According to the documents signed, a permanent body and a regional anti-terror agency would formally start to operate in both Beijing and Bishkek, respectively.

The strategic importance of An Agreement on Anti-Terrorism Agency in the Region lies in the fact that it has provided an effective legal basis for initiating the substantial cooperation in the security field. Thus, the Bishkek counter-terror mechanism, talked about for more than three years after 1999, would be finally established. With this development, the overall coordination and rapid response capabilities of the SCO against terrorism and cross-border crimes would be enhanced. On 10 and 11 October, 2002, China and Kyrgyzstan successfully conducted joint military counter-terror maneuvers in their border area following the SCO anti-terrorism guidelines. It was the first bilateral joint military operation within the SCO framework, signifying the formal start-up of the SCO anti-terror mission. It can be predicted that, against the background of the security situation in the region, SCO and its mechanism for combating terrorism will play an increasingly active role in the future.

It should be noted that this mechanism does not exclude or reject any other states or groups. It is meant to become an important terror-combating force in cooperation with the CIS counter-terror centers in Minsk and Erevan, and in cooperation with the U.S., Japan, Europe, India, Pakistan, Iran or any other country. Interim Scheme of Relations between the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other International Organizations and States signed at a meeting of the Foreign Ministers Council of the SCO on 23 November, 2002 in Moscow will promote this kind of cooperation.

As to SCOs relations with the U.S., there already exists counter-terror cooperation between SCO and the U.S. All the SCO members have established bilateral ties of counter-terror cooperation with America, and these existing ties have laid down a solid base for an evolving SCO-U.S. counter-terror regime. Take Sino-U.S. anti-terror cooperation for example. At the initial stage after 9/11, attention was mainly focused on sharing intelligence and uprooting the financial sources of the terrorist groups. In addition, it also became important to keep the political and economic stability in Pakistan, to support Pakistans actions against terrorism, and to prevent any escalation of Indian-Pakistani conflicts. In the long term, this cooperation requires much to undertake. Through the three summit meetings between President Jiang Zemin and President Bush on 19 October, 2001, 21 February and 25 October, 2002, China and the U.S. have outlined the long-term strategy for the Sino-U.S. anti-terror cooperation, and bilateral cooperation has made in-depth progress in this direction. The Sino-U.S. bilateral anti-terror working groups, including the financial anti-terror working group, have been established and experts of the two countries are in regular consultations. In August 2002, the U.S. officially added ET Islamic Movement to her list of terrorist organizations. Two weeks later, the U.N. Security Council also added the organization to its list of internationally recognized terrorist organizations, and all the U.N. members are now obliged to freeze the overseas assets of the group. The opening of an FBI office in Beijing in November 2002 is another positive measure to further the Sino-U.S. cooperation in combating terrorism and various cross-border crimes. China and U.S. also reached an agreement on bilateral cooperation on port and shipping security recently. In the meantime, other SCO members are carrying out similar cooperative efforts with the U.S. and fruitful achievements are also being made. All this, while serving the objectives of SCOs counter-terror mission, is also beneficial to the U.S. global struggle against terrorism.

To conclude, The Shanghai Five / SCO process has made this Sino-Russia-Central Asian group integrated into a stabilizing multilateral institution that will help to promote the stability and cooperation in the region. The U.S. military entry into Central Asia for the first time, the possible expansion of the U.S. war on terrorism, the postwar development in Afghanistan, the internal situation in Pakistan, and the relations between the two nuclear powers in the continent, will certainly have a great influence on the future trend of the development of SCO. After the summit meeting in St. Petersburg, SCO, with its dedication to counter-terrorism and economic cooperation, will prove to be an increasingly important and effective institution of action, regionally or hopefully, globally as well.


1 See: Kazakhstan News Bulletin, 14 September, 2001.
2 See: Xinhua News Agency, 14 September, 2001.
3 See: The Shanghai Convention (Shanghai), 15 June, 2001.
4 See: Jiefang Daily (Shanghai), 20 October, 2001.
5 See: Peoples Daily (Beijing), 30 November, 2002.
6 The State Council Information Office of PRC: East Turkistan Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away with Impunity, Beijing, 21 January, 2002.
7 Report by U.N. Office for Drug Control & Crime Prevention, 2002.

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