Although the international community has condemned Beijing’s crackdown against rioters in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the Russian government was among the first to show its active support for the Chinese authorities. The riots began March 10, and the subsequent crackdown has caused dozens of civilian deaths.
The Russian Foreign Ministry called the ongoing riots in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, illegal, restating its view of Tibet as “an inalienable part of China.” Moscow has also stated that an international boycott of the Olympic games in Beijing this year would be unacceptable. There are a multitude of reasons for the Russian government’s support of China, but at the top of the list are economic and military ties, a shared perception of terrorism threats, and Russia’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Besides Russia, the SCO includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
While the international community is primarily concerned that their future relations with China will be complicated by the violent suppression of riots, their reaction to the Tibet situation will inevitably affect China’s neighbors and the SCO’s internal dynamics. The Tibetan Autonomous Region has emerged as a volatile zone in China where the SCO might potentially play a role. Tibet, located between India and the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, will likely shape the scenarios for future SCO anti-terrorist exercises. The SCO’s counter-secessionist campaign has already subtly incorporated the region, but Tibet will now likely have even greater importance for the organization. In suppressing the recent riots in Tibet, Chinese authorities acted within the organization’s primary purpose; namely, fighting against the three evils of “terrorism, separatism, and extremism.”
Until recently China has been strengthening the SCO in order to secure Russia’s cooperation as well as that of the Central Asian states on its western frontiers. The SCO’s annual anti-terrorist exercises, “Peace Mission,” are designed to train a joint force to deal with security threats arising on the territories of its member states. A scenario dealing with a mass uprising similar to the one in Andijan, Uzbekistan, in May 2005 was used in the SCO’s August 2007 exercises at Russia’s Povolzhsk-Uralsk military district. With Tibet coming into the picture, the range and scope of the SCO’s joint exercises will expand yet again.
Both Russia and China have been major investors in “Peace Mission” activities, while Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have sought to increase their participation every year. In 2006 Russia and China conducted bilateral anti-terrorism exercises on China’s Shandong peninsula in full view of Taiwan.
While Moscow and Beijing share a common concern with secessionist movements within their territories, other SCO members have followed their lead on key policies. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, for example, often mimic Russian foreign policy even when their interests are not directly concerned. The Kyrgyz government, in particular, has been loyally repeating Moscow’s foreign policy statements. Similar to Russia, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry sought to publicly state its condemnation of Kosovar independence and still refuses to recognize Taiwan’s autonomy.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have their own rationales behind their statements in support of the Chinese government. The Kazakh government has backed Beijing’s policies in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region that seek to curb separatists movements by the local Turkic population. For Uzbekistan the SCO and Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization represent a multilateral shield against international criticism of its domestic politics. Most analysts in EU governing bodies compare the way the Andijan incident in 2005 was handled with the Chinese government’s bloody suppression of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Shortly after the Andijan events, Uzbek President Islam Karimov visited Moscow and Beijing, where he was assured of political support. Finally, growing economic ties between the Central Asian states and China have increased political cooperation between both regions as well.
Currently, the SCO’s roster includes economically and internationally weak Central Asian states, undermining the group’s geopolitical importance. However, the organization has limited options for expansion. India’s interest in the Central Asian region, as well as military cooperation with Russia and China, has been increasing in the past few years, making it a potential candidate for full SCO membership. But Pakistan’s interest in the organization complicates matters. The possibility of Iranian membership in the SCO is also controversial. SCO members are attracted by Iran’s energy resources and Russia enjoys a profitable arms trade with Tehran. But by admitting Iran the SCO would risk involving the organization in the diplomatic difficulties surrounding the country’s nuclear program, along with its tension with Israel. Turkmenistan and Afghanistan have the best prospects of joining the SCO. Because the SCO’s expansion in the short-term is improbable, the organization is more likely to concentrate on its internal consolidation.
China’s ability to resist international criticism and successfully host its Olympic games this year will send a message to SCO members about the country’s increasing economic and political influence in the West. Similar to Russia, China is becoming an increasingly valued partner among Central Asian leaders due to Beijing’s handling of domestic and international crises. In the coming months the SCO will gain even greater importance and appreciation among its member states.
(BBC, Ferghana.ru, March 10-17)