Can the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation be the regional body that stabilises Afghanistan?

Synopsis

The crisis in Afghanistan presents a major opportunity for the SCO to realise its regional ambitions.

Introduction

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation‘s (SCO) importance for Afghanistan seems self-evident if one can see its member and observer nations.

Its founding leaders are the two great powers of the east — Russia and China. Its other initial members were Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan to the north and northeast of Afghanistan. India and Pakistan were inducted as full members in 2017. Besides Afghanistan, Iran, Belarus and Mongolia are observers.

Read more: Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)
The Shanghai Five and SCO

The SCO was preceded by the creation of a “Shanghai Five”— Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The purpose of the Shanghai Five was to stabilise this frontier, as well as build on the shared Sino-Russian interest in preventing American meddling in Central Asia.

What are the issues associated with the SCO?

Did not deepened regionalism in Central Asia: Two decades after its formation the institutional promise of the SCO remains just as promise.

Different interest among Russia and China in Central Asia

For providing security: While military confidence building measures have grown under the SCO banner, Russia had its own security organisation for the region named Central Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

Members of CSTO include three members of SCO (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) and  Armenia and Belarus.

Russia sees itself as the sole protector of the former Soviet Republics and may not be ready to share that role with China.

For trade relations: Russia prefers the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) under its own leadership to promote trade integration in Central Asia.

Read more: Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU)

China is not a member of either CSTO or EAEU. This is one reason for the weakness of SCO regionalism.

Quarrels within other members on regional security challenges

Uzbekistan seems open to a cautious engagement with the Taliban.

On the other hand, Tajikistan and Iran, due to the ethnic and linguistic links with the Tajiks in Afghanistan, has been critical of Kabul’s evolution under the Taliban.

India and Pakistan, needless to say, are poles apart on the Taliban.

What should India do?

Given this divergence, it is unlikely that the SCO can come up with a “regional solution” for the Afghan crisis.

So, in the upcoming SCO Summit, India should  remind other leaders of the “three evils” that the SCO set out to defeat — terrorism, extremism and separatism. Further, India should focus on finding common ground with those members of the SCO who do share India’s concerns about Afghanistan.

Source: This post is based on the article “Can the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation be the regional body that stabilises Afghanistan?” published in the Indian Express on 14th September 2021.

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