Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Flare-ups among China-backed SCO members expose embarrassing limits

  • Beijing needs to be an active mediator via the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation such as in deadly fights between dialogue partners Azerbaijan and Armenia and between member states Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan if the grouping is ever to be more than a talking shop

On paper, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is vast as its member states collectively represent more than two-fifths of humanity, not least because China and India, two of the world’s most populous countries, are members. But critics have often observed that it’s less than the sum of its parts.

That is no doubt true, at least for now. But the West better hope it never becomes equal or even greater than the sum of its parts. Because then, it will truly mark the rise of Eurasia. And given the unfortunate trajectory into which Russia has locked itself under Vladimir Putin, China will likely be at the head of it. But for now, that will remain aspirational. That is inadvertently made clear by the “Samarkand Declaration of the Council of Heads of State of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation”.

At the outset, it states: “Security is the main theme of the Samarkand Declaration … in Central Asia.”

But a glance at the SCO’s list of members and partners would show that two “dialogue partners” – Azerbaijan and Armenia – started fighting each other days before the summit and two SCO members – the Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan) and Tajikistan – during it. That’s not exactly a recipe for unity and partnership.

After dutifully “[affirming] the non-targeting of SCO against other states and international organisations” in section 8, it declares further in section 13: “The Member States consider Central Asia to be the core of SCO and support the efforts of the countries of the region to ensure prosperity and peace, sustainable development and the formation of a space of good-neighbourliness, trust and friendship. They advocate further strengthening the role of SCO in enhancing stability …”

That’s a tad ironic, if not embarrassing, in light of the latest flare-ups among members and partners. Those words were probably being typed when guns were still firing at each other.

China urges SCO states to ward off foreign-backed ‘colour revolutions’

It was a good thing for Beijing – which has invested so much prestige and resources in the regional grouping – that everyone was focusing on the meetings on the sidelines that Putin held separately with President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The war in Ukraine, after all, still gets centre stage so far as the world media is concerned.

But the success of China in building up, stealthily, its own influence – as a result of a weakened Russia – across Central Asia via the SCO as the prime instrument may be of even greater economic and geopolitical consequences in the long run. It is, after all, intended to be the land mass answer for China to the maritime encirclement of the United States and its allies in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

But while China talks like the big brother of the SCO, it needs to start acting more like one. It needs to play a far bigger and more active role in mediating intra- and inter-conflicts among SCO members and partners. So far, it has been slow all this year.

In January, riots broke out in several cities across Kazakhstan, ostensibly triggered by sharp rises in gas prices. Putin was nimble – that was before the Ukraine invasion – and dispatched troops quickly to help quell the unrest at the request of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Beijing issued no more than a few words of support.

In this context, by making Kazakhstan Xi’s first foreign state to visit since the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, Beijing was trying to make up for lost time and to underline the importance of the Kazakhs’ role in the region for China.

China, Kazakhstan pledge more cooperation, political trust

But since the Ukraine invasion, though, Putin has been distracted in Central Asia. Despite the presence of Russian peacekeeping troops since 2020, fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia last week and saw more than 100 people in total killed from both sides. Now France, Türkiye, Russia and even the US, in the person of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are trying to mediate.

Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have long been at loggerheads with each other. The latest border flare-ups has seen more than 80 people killed so far. Perhaps China thinks both countries fall under the Russian sphere as they are members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation. But their ongoing hostilities also speak to Russia’s and the CSTO’s ineffectiveness.

Understandably, being less than the sum of its parts, few people think the SCO has much to offer in both sets of conflicts. So while the SCO’s focus is supposed to be on security cooperation and economic development, especially in Central Asia, China barely plays a peacemaking role at the head of the table. That won’t do if it wants the SCO to be a real security and economic multilateral institution rather than just a talking shop.