Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 6

An anti-American duo–Russia and China–drowned out Central Asian voices at the meeting of foreign affairs ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member countries held on January 7 in Beijing. Officially labeled “extraordinary,” the meeting was the first held since the organization’s inception in June 2001.

Russia and China were clearly groping to lend the SCO some relevance in the post-September 11 world with their joint effort to compete against the United States in Central Asia and globally. Such competition, in fact, had been the SCO’s primary goal, conceived by the group’s initiators in Moscow and Beijing in the pre-September 11 international setting, and packaged in antiterrorism rhetoric. Four Central Asian countries–Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan–were dragged along willingly or, mostly, unwillingly.

The ensuing developments exposed the SCO as irrelevant, both as an anti-U.S. containment front and as an antiterrorism instrument. No one asked for the SCO’s opinion on the events; the SCO itself had difficulty formulating a position; and, most significantly, its four Central Asian member countries went their own ways cooperating militarily and politically with the United States and other Western countries.

With the antiterrorism operations now winding down in Afghanistan, and U.S.-led Western forces apparently settling down in Central Asian countries, Moscow and Beijing have apparently decided to refloat the SCO and try to line up the Central Asians behind a common Russo-Chinese agenda. That agenda inspires significant points in the SCO foreign affairs ministers’ joint communique, almost certainly drafted in Moscow and Beijing, and apparently signed on the dotted line with token resistance by the four Central Asian ministers at the January 7 meeting. Those points in the communique do not reflect the policies currently being pursued by the governments in Astana, Bishkek, Dushanbe and Tashkent.

The first point omits–glaringly–specific mention of the United States when citing the September 11 assault. That outrage, it seems, was perpetrated against either no country in particular or a nameless one. The document goes on to stipulate–again with implicit reference to the United States–that “antiterrorism operations… cannot be arbitrarily expanded.” Instead, “the United Nations and its Security Council should play the leading role in the international struggle against terrorism.” Furthermore, all antiterrorism efforts should be governed by a “comprehensive convention on international terrorism,” one “acceptable to all parties,” to be drafted as soon as possible by the “international community.”

The drafters of this document cannot be unaware of the fact that such proposals are nonstarters to the United States and its Western allies. The Central Asian countries, whose ministers signed this communique, act meanwhile as hosts to American and other Western forces, under arrangements that presage an open-ended military presence, without any UN authorization, let alone one subject to Russian and/or Chinese vetoes in the Security Council, and in the absence of a normative convention such as sought by Moscow and Beijing. The four Central Asian foreign affairs ministers’ signatures cast unnecessary and perhaps gratuitous doubt on the solidity of their support for U.S.-led military efforts against international terrorism. It seems equally possible that the Central Asians’ decision to sign, and more broadly their conduct in the SCO, might be conditioned by their experience in the CIS, where they often sign documents drafted for them, in the knowledge that such documents appease Moscow while usually remaining without practical consequences.

While groping for devices to restrict U.S. latitude of antiterrorist action, the joint communique appears to offer something approaching antiterrorist carte blanche to SCO member countries: “All SCO countries, concerned by the terrorist threat, regard SCO member countries’ actions in this regard with understanding.” In their concluding briefings, the Russian and Chinese foreign affairs ministers, Igor Ivanov and Tang Jiaxuan, made clear that this understanding covers Russian actions in Chechnya and Chinese actions against Uighur militants in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region.

The document stipulates that “antiterrorism actions should not lead to interference into the internal affairs of sovereign countries”–a stricture against international intercession on human rights and democracy issues. It calls, furthermore, for entrusting antiterrorism efforts in various regions to “regional and subregional bodies”–an indirect reference to the CIS and the SCO itself. The Russian and Chinese ministers in their briefings made that explicit, along with an intent to “coordinate” the two organizations’ efforts in Asia. They also made explicit reference to CIS “rapid deployment forces,” the CIS Antiterrorism Center, and a planned SCO Antiterrorism Center as “multilateral” mechanisms for antiterrorism actions. Meanwhile, the first of these mechanisms exists only on paper; the second is not yet operational; and the third will be discussed at the SCO’s planned summit in St. Petersburg next June, when the SCO’s Charter is to be adopted. The Beijing ministerial meeting was expected to have announced progress on the draft charter, but failed to report such progress.

A series of noncontroversial points in the communique registered support for Afghanistan’s pacification and post-conflict rehabilitation, for Afghanistan’s interim government, and for that country’s “neutrality”–a concept likely, however, to be subject to varying interpretations down the road (Itar-Tass, RIA, Interfax, Xinhua, People’s Daily, January 7-8; see the Monitor, June 22, November 27, 2001).