On April 13 Shanghai Cooperation Organization Secretary-General Zhang Deguang announced that the SCO’s upcoming June summit would consider renaming and reforming the organization’s secretariat, as well as granting permanent membership to observer countries that have applied for membership. India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan currently hold observer status within the SCO, and Belarus has applied to join as an observer. A meeting of member-state defense ministers is scheduled for the end of April in Beijing and will examine the issues surrounding joint military exercises for 2006-07 (Avesta, April 14).
These SCO meetings are being presented as an opportunity to develop further the multilateral security body, driven largely by the geopolitical interests of Russia and China, and may signal a widening of the organization beyond Central Asia. What is clear is that in advance of these meetings Chinese diplomats are busily promoting the image of the SCO and using this body to advance its own geopolitical interests within the region.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev met senior Chinese officials during his visit to Beijing on April 11-13. He confirmed that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev would pay another official visit to China — his twelfth — and noted the importance attached to bilateral relations. During Tokayev’s meeting with Zhang the Chinese diplomat stated that the SCO summit in June would pave the way to deepen and expand the activities of the SCO; apparently generating concrete interest from the Kazakh delegation. Zhang skillfully seized the opportunity of Tokayev’s presence in Beijing to call for enhanced bilateral ties, extending these politically, economically, and culturally.
Tokayev was equally keen to foster stronger ties with China, which he argued naturally reflects the number of people living in the Chinese region bordering Kazakhstan, which is expected to reach 300 million in coming years. He expressed confidence in the similarity of political outlooks between Beijing and Astana and his hopes that problems could be resolved. “We have expressed our stance on the border rivers. This is a very complicated and topical issue. [Chinese] Prime Minister Wen Jiabao expressed the view that these discussions should be continued in the future,” according to Tokayev. Bilateral economic relations are growing rapidly; trade between the two countries may reach $10 billion over the next four years. Whatever the exact figures, China wants to strengthen bilateral ties with Kazakhstan, and both regimes have varied reasons for supporting the development of the SCO (Kazakh TV First Channel, April 14).
China’s economic interests in Central Asia are growing steadily, and its political calibration of the region is making marked increases in the planning of Chinese policy makers. For example, a bilateral credit agreement worth $269 million was signed in Beijing when a Tajik government delegation visited China in March. The Chinese government plans to allocate funds for the restoration of the Dushanbe-Ayni-Shahriston-Istaravshon-Khujand-Buston 410-kilometer motorway along the Tajik-Uzbek border (Avesta, April 10). On April 14 the Chinese CAMC Company and the Chinese Export and Import Bank signed a contract on building a new cement plant in Kyrgyzstan’s southern town of Kyzyl-Kiya. Its estimated cost runs to almost $80 million. The Chinese consortium intends to complete the plant within 15 months. As well as creating around 1,000 jobs and increasing revenue, the deal is another indicator of closer economic ties between China and Kyrgyzstan (Kyrgyz TV 1, April 14).
China is capable of making inroads into even the most difficult regimes of Central Asia. Turkmenistan’s Majlis (parliament) has recently adopted a resolution on ratifying a general agreement between Turkmenistan and China on the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline project. This also regulates the sale of natural gas from Turkmenistan to China, confirming the original agreement signed in Beijing on April 3 (see EDM, April 10). The Majlis also ratified an agreement between Turkmenistan and China on cooperation in fighting terrorism, separatism, and extremism, which was in the spirit of the SCO without implying Ashgabat’s interest in the organization (Turkmen TV First Channel, April 13).
The pattern of greater economic activity within Central Asia underlies much of Chinese diplomacy towards the region, which is highly prioritized as an area in which Beijing wants to minimize Western influence. Many Central Asian regimes appear willing to move forward within the SCO, and China seems to want to push for the possible expansion of at least the secretariat and attract new members beyond the region itself. Beijing needs to fulfill more of the practical commitments implied in the security cooperation mandate of the SCO, an area its Central Asian neighbors are keen to expand. The June SCO summit will demonstrate Beijing’s complex, cautious yet positive drive to promote its interests in Central Asia through the SCO, and perhaps to muddy the waters a little by giving observer nations such as India or Pakistan another forum within which to voice their own concerns. In any case, Beijing’s canvassing for the possible expansion of the SCO reveals its own unease with the status quo.