Uzbekistan, Central Asia Try to Redefine Shanghai Cooperation Organization

For much of its 20-year existence, some observers have suggested the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) could become an anti-Western bloc dominated by China and Russia. The group’s Central Asian members have complex collaborative relationships with the United States and Europe, though and Uzbekistan, the host of SCO, used its chairmanship of the event held in Samarkand September 15-16 to emphasize the group is not and should not be anti-American or anti-NATO.

“During our chairmanship, we sought to intensify practical cooperation within our organization, to increase its potential and international prestige. Along with security issues, priority was given to enhancing trade, economic, and humanitarian cooperation,” Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said in his remarks at a summit covered by more than 800 journalists from around the world.

Mirziyoyev welcomed 13 leaders, from members China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia and Tajikistan. The presidents of Belarus, Iran and Mongolia attended as observers, while those from Azerbaijan and Turkey attended as invited partners.

Minsk and Teheran aim to join the group soon. Iran, which has tried but failed to gain admission for years, signed a membership memorandum with the SCO leadership, while Belarus also expressed its desire to join.

“The SCO is evolving from a regional to a global bloc,” Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko noted, arguing that his country’s interests are closely aligned with those of the SCO members. “We are very grateful for the unanimous support of our bid to join the organization as a full member,” Lukashenko said. “We can offer our transit, industrial and scientific potential, and experience in peacekeeping and multilateral diplomacy,” he added.

Iran is closer to joining, say SCO officials, pointing to the memorandum. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi denounced “American unilateralism,” calling for the expansion of free trade within the SCO, boosting financial deals and banking, making clear that Tehran views membership as a way to attempt to bypass U.S. sanctions.

Xi-Putin meeting

The most newsworthy meeting of the summit was held on the sidelines between Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which the leaders pledged to respect one another’s “core interests”—a euphemism in Beijing for Russian support on issues related to Taiwan.

Chinese accounts of the meeting were vague about Xi’s pledges. The two leaders have met frequently over the years but had not done so since the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The trip to Central Asia was Xi’s first overseas venture in the years since the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020.

Putin thanked Xi for what he called a “balanced approach” regarding Ukraine, while criticizing Washington for its “ugly policies,” such as supporting Kyiv.

Xi took a more measured tone, though, saying that “in the face of changes in the world, times and history, China is willing to work with Russia to reflect the responsibility of a major country, play a leading role and inject stability into a troubled and interconnected world.”

Putin argued that Moscow and Beijing “jointly stand for forming a just, democratic and multipolar world based on international law and the central role of the United Nations, not rules invented by some who try to enforce them on others without explaining what they are.”

Yet local analysts told VOA the SCO’s fundamental goals have not been hijacked by these current events—or by the group’s two biggest members.

Ulugbek Khasanov, professor at Uzbekistan’s University of World Economy and Diplomacy, acknowledges the SCO is a complex circle of nations disagreeing with each other on many critical issues. “But they gathered in ancient Samarkand with an agenda to strengthen security, trade and innovative cooperation.”

Khasanov calls the SCO mission diverse and ever evolving, viewing its focus on climate change, food and energy security, and regional security as a positive sign of collaboration.

Taking action

Kazakh and Kyrgyz analysts shared similar insights with VOA, but they argued that members will need more tangible steps to improve the group’s potential.

These Central Asian scholars echo their governments’ desire to avoid letting the SCO become a proxy for China and Russia. The SCO must be “a just and equal platform” for all members, Khasanov, once a top communications officer in Tashkent, agrees with that intention.

“Central Asia is at the heart of this organization,” says Khasanov, “and if you want to work with the region, you must listen to Uzbekistan’s ideas and proposals, not least its position on Afghanistan.” In other words, to act locally in Central Asia, he maintains, China, Russia, and others need to reflect Central Asian priorities and agendas.

Muzaffar Djalalov, head of Inha University in Tashkent, says the SCO must be a development platform above all.

“All the members have their own interests and policies. But what’s clear is that the SCO is not a military bloc and should not be seen as a ‘scale’ balancing between the West, on the one hand, and Russia or China.”

Establishing priorities

Djalalov sees the SCO members eager to partner in areas closer to the agenda that Central Asians tend to prioritize—education, science, and health care. He cheers President Mirziyoyev’s proposals for a SCO role promoting digital literacy and information technology.

“Some SCO countries have better experience and skills. Collaboration in these fields is key for our overall development.”

International observers see Tashkent’s proposal to launch an assistance fund for Afghanistan as a significant humanitarian step.

Roli Asthana, U.N. resident coordinator in Uzbekistan, told VOA the U.N. takes seriously every initiative that brings countries together. “As President Mirziyoyev reiterated in his speech, international cooperation is absolutely critical to solving the global challenges of today.”

When asked for the U.N.’s take on the SCO summit, Asthana said, “Whether it is climate, connectivity, recovering from the pandemic, preparing for future pandemics, or people-to-people links, global challenges require international cooperation. And it was heartening to hear leaders today commit to cooperation on important issues like trade, connectivity, food security and sustainable development.”

India—notable as the only consolidated democracy among the group’s members—joined the SCO in 2017 alongside rival Pakistan, and it is the incoming chair. The two rivals stood out in Samarkand by not holding bilateral talks.

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