Security alliance serves to justify authoritarian rule
Tomorrow, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) will celebrate its 10th anniversary at a summit in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana. A key part of its birthday bash will involve the six member states - China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - deciding whether to promote Pakistan, India and Iran to full membership, and if Afghanistan is worthy of gaining observer status.
For those who remain deeply sceptical about the group's role and goals in Asia, the list of countries hoping to join will only add to their suspicions.
With the notable exception of India, all the SCO's member countries and the ones on its fringes (Mongolia also has observer status) share two things in common: a lack of both genuine democracy and the rule of law. Not only that, they are also among the most corrupt nations on earth.
The group likes to present itself as an eastern version of Nato, a security alliance for central and north Asia that combats terrorism and drug trafficking while serving as a counterweight to Washington's power. The reality is that it is the anti-Nato. Rather than defending democracy against totalitarianism, the SCO is above all a means to both justify and guarantee the authoritarian rule that is common to all six member states.
As its name suggests, it is China that is the prime mover in the organisation and it is Beijing that has benefited most from the shield the SCO provides for crushing internal opposition and trampling on human rights. So while the West was urging China to show restraint after the Uygur protests in Urumqi in Xinjiang in July 2009, the SCO swiftly condemned the disturbances and stated that China was acting within the law to stamp them out. Predictably, the group also opposed the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, describing him as a criminal.
More alarmingly, SCO countries flout international law routinely. Last month, Kazakhstan agreed to return to China a Uygur refugee who had fled Xinjiang in the wake of the 2009 riots, despite the fact that he had already been granted refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kazakhstan. But under SCO rules, any individual suspected of terrorism, separatism or extremism in an SCO state who flees to another member country has to be extradited, regardless of their refugee status.
Further proof that the group's real mission is preserving the status quo in China comes from its deeply ambiguous approach to drugs. According to the current secretary general, tackling cross-border drug crime is one of the group's main aims.
But if that is really the case, why is Afghanistan, which produces 90 per cent of the world's opium, being considered for observer status? And of course, the heroin refined from Afghan opium reaches the West, the Middle East and the rest of Asia via Tajikistan, Russia, Iran and Pakistan, all of whom are SCO members or observers.
Ignoring drug trafficking is another way for China to reward the other group members for their loyalty. They can already count on Beijing's economic largesse - in 2009 China announced US$10 billion in loans to SCO nations - and support, as long as that doesn't conflict with Beijing's policies.
Thus, Uzbekistan received assistance in cracking down on unrest in 2005, but Russia failed to get the SCO to recognise the breakaway Georgian states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Given the ongoing resistance to Beijing's rule in Tibet and Xinjiang, such demands for autonomy are a little too close to home.
China has long complained about US hegemony while looking for ways to counter it. But rather than channel its growing influence on the world stage through organisations like the United Nations, Beijing seems to believe that the best way to assert itself is by running a coalition of gangster states. No wonder, then, that the rest of the world continues to look to Washington for leadership.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist