World leaders are streaming into Astana for the 10th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization today and tomorrow. Its identity is still evolving -- it's part military alliance, part regional development bank, part geopolitical talk shop -- but it must be doing something right, because other countries keep wanting to join. Its military function -- which a few years ago was the main focus of the organization -- has declined relatively in importance as Russia, the SCO member most interested in defense cooperation, has shifted its energies to building up the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And the SCO is instead increasing its economic activities, a reflection of China's desire to get a greater foothold in Central Asia.
So where is the organization heading? I asked Alexander Cooley, who follows the SCO closely, about what he expects from the summit.
Q. What will you be looking for out of the summit? What should we be looking for to get ideas about where the SCO is going?
A. Beyond broad platitudes about friendship and enduring "good neighborliness," I would be interested in seeing what specific measures they announce on the non-security side of things, especially the economic agenda. This has been Beijing's priority for a couple of years now, but it has not made much headway. Also, look for a possible announcement of infrastructure projects that will be funded by the SCO's "Anti-Crisis Fund." With a pledge to give up to $10 billion, this could serve as the region's main source of foreign developmental investment and will further accelerate the re-orientation of the region's infrastructure towards China. I would also be interested in whether the group releases a statement about the Middle East uprisings. At the last Astana Summit in 2005 the group was fixated on denouncing the Colored Revolutions and backing the Uzbek government in the wake of Andijan.
Q. There is talk of Afghanistan being admitted as an observer country. How do you interpret that? Does it suggest that Kabul might be trying a sort of multi-vectored diplomacy to balance out its current reliance on the US and NATO?
A. I think that's exactly what's going on, but I wouldn't view Afghanistan attaining observer status as significant. The SCO has maintained an Afghanistan contact group for some years now and conducted several meetings on the situation there, so this seems like a logical move. For sure, Karzai would like to signal that he is prepared to seek out alternative partners and chart a more independent foreign policy, but its not credible at this point.
Q. Any other possibilities of expansion? For example, there has been speculation that India and Pakistan will take some step toward membership.
A. I don't think the issue has been settled yet - in China, there is a debate about whether to deepen existing cooperation before admitting new members. Because the Pakistan application has been pending for some time, I think that they want to show that there is some momentum and a formal procedure for opening membership talks. But admitting India would change many dynamics and introduce a third major power in the group. Moscow might see Indian membership as a useful check on Chinese dominance of the organization, but Beijing would be less thrilled. Pakistan's hard tack towards China following the US Bin Laden operation is an important new development, though I'm not sure how the organization can admit Pakistan without also accepting India. But let's see -
Q. Do you expect any US presence at the summit, or news about closer US cooperation with the SCO?
I would expect a symbolic US rep to attend. But the type of cooperation the US is interested in securing from China (NDN through China, more money for Afghanistan's reconstruction, strong statements of support for the international efforts) are steps that Beijing is still not prepared to take. At a basic level, Beijing has adopted a hedging strategy in Afghanistan, as it is not convinced that the Karzai government and the US effort will actually stabilize the country. There is also a persistent fear of blowback in Xinjiang if they were to support the US more publicly.