openSecurity

Out of Asia

The meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation could hail a realignment of power politics in Asia, argues Ángel Gómez-de-Ágreda
Ángel Gómez de Ágreda
4 June 2010

Meryl Streep and Robert Redford will probably not be starring in this movie. In fact, this is a decidedly anti-Hollywood affair (the US having been rejected in 2005), though it could be Bollywood's next super-hit; India is poised to finally join the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation).

The SCO is meeting next week and they are most likely going to decide on the terms for allowing other nations to join the Organisation. India is the most likely candidate to be the first to exchange its observer status for full membership.

If India was to join the SCO – and more so if Pakistan did too – a radically different scenario would emerge. Regional rivalries and border conflicts between the two giants would be provided with a forum to be discussed peacefully and common goals would probably diminish the impact of former hostilities.

India could benefit from the group's shared interest in stopping radical and terrorist groups and synergies could be found to further develop the energy network which is already being developed among SCO members.

Seen by some as an anti-western partnership, the SCO has proven a solid institution so far. Its declared aim is to maintain stability in and around the nations which take part in it. The main goals are to fight separatism, terrorism and extremism. Non-interference in inner matters is, nonetheless, of paramount importance in its philosophy. The recent events in Kyrgyzstan fall entirely into its domains. 

Custom made to meet the needs of a turbulent region, the SCO has become the key organization in Asia. Including Russia, China and the “stans” which emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, it serves also as a confidence-building institution in a region which could definitely use a lot of it. Unlike the European Union, which was born as an economic institution and is now developing a security and foreign affairs body, the SCO was founded as a security organization and developed very quickly into a forum for economic cooperation among member states.

A few military exercises have been executed by the SCO during the last few years. Although it is not meant to be a defence organization, it has shown an interest in the situation in Afghanistan and could very well play a role in the stabilization of the country. The conflict, after all, is not circumscribed to that country alone but is felt by many of its neighbours with which the Taliban have links. 

Asia’s self-awareness in embedded in the spirit of the organization. Catalyzed by the massive presence of the US in the continent, the SCO claims that it is not an anti-American or anti-western institution, but one that seeks “Asia for the Asians”, a replica of the Monroe Doctrine in America. That perception could change if Iran – also a candidate – joined the organization anytime soon.

While the SCO tries to push the US out of Asia, the new National Security Strategy developed by President Obama’s administration remains ambiguous as to the US desired role in Asia. While it acknowledges that the world cannot and must not be ruled from a single capital, it still seeks universal leadership and makes this ambition its key point.

Many of the institutions which have led us to the present through the dark years of the Cold War are useless or counterproductive today. The SCO is a more modern concept far better suited for the global world. Ad-hoc groups and initiatives make much more sense than old-fashioned, western-led groups. 

New powers are challenging the need for the US to lead all initiatives time and again. The deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil regarding the enrichment of Iranian uranium is but the most prominent example. The US should grow accustomed to these deals even if it is contrary to the doctrine expressed in the new National Security Strategy which claims that nothing can be achieved without the US.

Five leaders of SCO meet in 2001

SCO heads of state meet in Tajikistan, August 2008. Wikimedia/Kremlin.ruThe world should no longer be conceived as the competition of the west against the rest. Firstly, it is not in the west's best interest to pursue that line of action. Secondly, it is no longer clear that the west would prevail. The US may be ready to lead, but there are many nations willing to contribute in their own right. A more cooperative approach is needed to solve the many challenges facing the world today.The only rules the nations of the world will accept are those which apply to all. Gone are the days in which there were nations with rights and nations with duties. Most of the wars we are fighting today derive from that same notion of colonial times and are precisely those which are going to meet more opposition.Also, it remains to be seen whether the SCO would survive an eventual withdrawal of the US from Asia. Deprived of that raison d’etre, tension could grow unbearable between the different powers. For the time being, the writing is on the wall; cooperation is a necessity in Asia. Crises are arising throughout the continent, from Israel to Korea, and no single nation can face all of them at the same time.

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