CABAR.asia: The Position of Uzbekistan in the SCO and its Transformation Options
“The SCO, as an economic cooperation mechanism, is not particularly attractive to Tashkent. In addressing important issues, Uzbekistan relied and still relies solely on a bilateral format. Moreover, the Uzbek side strongly blocks unwanted projects and initiatives in the economic sphere,” – expert from Tashkent, commenting for CABAR.asia and analyzing the position of Uzbekistan in the SCO.
Last week, Uzbekistan hosted the 15th Summit of the Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. At this time, the leaders of the six member countries last gathered in this manner within a narrowly formatted meeting. However, the results of the summit did not bring any significant results. The expected expansion of the SCO to include India and Pakistan did not happen again although last year’s summit in Ufa widely reported an “Approval of final documents for the admission of new members.”
Immediately following the SCO summit, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to China was more important not only for these two countries but also for other members of the Shanghai association. Despite a huge amount of material on the results, it should be noted that the jubilee summit in Tashkent was not productive. Observers note today that the SCO is facing the beginning of a new transformation – a transformation into a more important international organization. The inevitable expansion and the inclusion of India and Pakistan into the SCO will give it a totally different meaning, different horizontal objectives, and new challenges.
Indeed, having transformed from the “Shanghai Five” into a full-fledged organization, the SCO, in fact, has maintained the same form for the past 15 years. The six members of the organization have not changed along with each summit not seeing drastic alterations as well. Now already in this situation, it is still unknown as to how this fact will change the upcoming summit in Astana and will be reflected in the very activity of the SCO itself. While taking into account the position of Beijing on the accession of India to the organization, it can be expected that the real inclusion of India and Pakistan may be postponed for another year.
Meanwhile, it is worth noting that in the year between the Ufa and Tashkent summits, Uzbekistan held the SCO chairmanship. In this regard, the actual analysis of Uzbekistan’s position within the SCO is portrayed as one of the most cautious associations’ participants. How does Uzbekistan assess the outlook of the SCO? Does Tashkent support expansion of the organization? And finally, how will it change the foreign policy orientation of Tashkent in the near future?
Uzbekistan’s Position in the SCO
As it is well known, Uzbekistan was the last of the current permanent members of the SCO to join the organization. By the way, the first time the Uzbek leadership was invited as a guest to a meeting of the “Five” was by Tajikistan in 2000. And a year later in 2001, a full-fledged organization was established in Shanghai, where there were now six member countries. In subsequent years, Uzbekistan has consistently adhered to a position in which they agree that the SCO as a multilateral structure of Central Asian countries is needed for effective cooperation with Russia and China, as well as to discuss the pressing issues between the countries of the region themselves.
However, there are several features of Uzbekistan’s participation in the SCO. Concerning the analysis of the Uzbek side’s activities of the organization, Tashkent tries to use the SCO format to effectively advance its interests in the international arena, as well as ensure the main principle of its foreign policy strategy – equidistance from all “power centers”.
It must be admitted that the Uzbek government, in the person of President Islam Karimov, has learned to skillfully use the SCO and the CIS structures at the right moment to send messages to their partners. For example, at the SCO Dushanbe summit, Karimov toughly commented on the “Ukrainian events”, thus scoring necessary points with Russia. Since then Islam Karimov has also used the CIS arena to further condemn the actions of Ukrainian authorities. These statements by the Uzbek leader were not in vain and as a consequence have led to a warming of Uzbek-Russian relations that have been somewhat overshadowed by Tashkent’s plans to obtain weapons from NATO.
The Uzbek side does not have any other real intentions to use the SCO platform. This is indicated by two indisputable factors.
The SCO, as an economic cooperation mechanism, is not particularly attractive to Tashkent. In addressing important issues, Uzbekistan relied and still relies solely on a bilateral format. Moreover, the Uzbek side strongly blocks unwanted projects and initiatives in the economic sphere. For example, Uzbekistan last year, using the powers of the organization’s presidency, quite sharply rejected the Chinese proposal to establish a free trade area in the SCO framework. According to first Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, “Uzbekistan is not willing to consider the proposals on the elaboration of the question concerning creation of the SCO free trade zone.”
On the other hand, Uzbekistan is also not particularly needed in SCO security matters. It is also known that on the central issue of the security sector within the SCO, Uzbekistan’s vision of Afghanistan does not coincide with the vision of the SCO’s main participants. According to the opinion of Uzbek experts, the SCO’s position (Russia and other members) on the “Afghan problem” is opportunistic and not aimed at addressing real threats emanating from there. As noted by Uzbek specialists for a long time, Russia and other SCO members determined the Afghan problem as key simply because the US and NATO were there. Following the withdrawal of Western troops, the “Afghan problem” actually dropped from the agenda of SCO sessions.
Uzbekistan also consistently promotes a specific mechanism to resolve the situation in Afghanistan with the help of the formula 6+3. Created under the auspices of a UN Contact Group, a 6+3 framework could indeed be effective in light of the fact that it contains all six of Afghanistan’s neighbors – Iran, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and also Russia, the US and NATO. But at the same time, the Uzbek authorities are wary of any initiatives of an Afghan settlement within the framework of the SCO.
From the aforementioned points, it follows that Uzbekistan has no coherent strategy for participating in the SCO. At different times, Tashkent has had different priorities and varying degrees of interest. At this stage, Tashkent’s attitude toward the SCO has not changed and stems from the need to continue to engage the organization, which is perceived as a unique discussion platform and not much else.
Will the SCO change its format?
On the issue of SCO enlargement, Tashkent has always advocated the definition of balanced positions. Of course, based on the Charter of the SCO, Tashkent was not denied the possibility of SCO membership. However, the inclusion of India and Pakistan is not in the interests of Uzbekistan as it is not exactly in the interests of the other Central Asian SCO members.
But now, after the signing of the memorandum on obligations, expansion is inevitable. It is clear that the inclusion of the two nuclear powers with polar interests and a very complicated relationship will not bring anything to the SCO aside from further controversy and slowness. Central Asian SCO member states’ prospects for expansion opportunities in terms of deepening economic cooperation with these South Asian countries seem to be imaginary at best.
On this basis, the Uzbek leadership here has mostly supported the decision of the majority of participants, including India and Pakistan, rather than their own interests.
In general, the issue of expansion and the inclusion of two new members is more a formality. Already, it has been argued that the very fact of India and Pakistan’s final accession may be delayed. Moreover, by the time of accession to the organization, the formatting of SCO meetings and summits could also be transformed. Chinese experts are already offering different options for preserving a narrow-format meeting level for the original founding nations. In particular, the report titled “Russian-Chinese Dialogue: Model 2016”, where leading Chinese specialists are recognized, reads, “The entry of India and Pakistan to the SCO enhances the geostrategic influence of the organization. However, this complicates the economic cooperation between member countries.” Chinese experts say that by expanding and accepting new members the SCO can become trapped as an average international organization, which reduces effectiveness. For this reason, Chinese analysts emphasize the need to respect the interests of the “old” members, thus offering to create a preferred list of participants. If the Chinese side will be able to push through the idea that the SCO continue to expand and take on more and more new members, in the meantime the organization will turn into an uncontrollable amorphous area without a real agenda and real affairs.
Also, it should be noted that the report also invited a discussion of another format, one that would give an opportunity to form an alternative to the current veto mechanism. In particular, it proposed a very interesting formula giving a veto to small Central Asian states of the SCO. As you can see, the decision on the expansion of the SCO has already been made, but within it are lively discussions on the further decision-making processes of the SCO.
After the last withdrawal of Uzbekistan from the CSTO, Tashkent consistently demonstrates and works on building relationships with partners solely on a bilateral basis. So, for example, Uzbekistan uses the bilateral approach in solving the important issues with each of the participants of the SCO.
The Uzbek side highlights China specifically, which Tashkent has recently built a special relationship with. The Uzbek authorities attach sufficiently high value to these relations. One example is the fact that Islam Karimov last year refused to go to Moscow in May for the 70th anniversary of the Victory Day parade. Yet three months later in September, Karimov personally participated in the victory parade in Beijing.
It is known that Uzbekistan remains far from being completely dependent on China and its loans to countries in the region. But apparently, this fact gradually began to change.
So far, the Uzbek authorities adhere to a policy of localizing the activities of Chinese companies within certain areas on its territory. For example, Chinese TNC’s work in Jizzakh region, in Navoi, built a tunnel through the Kamchik pass. But now China’s role in Uzbekistan’s foreign economic activity has gradually increased. A number of factors, including the state of the Russian economy, the return of a large number of migrant workers, and the overall situation in the global economy – all this makes the Uzbek leadership somewhat weakened in its position to China. As a confirmation of the assumptions made, a part of Xi Jinping’s visit to Uzbekistan may be noted. In particular, while speaking to members of the Senate and the Legislative Chamber of Majlis, Islam Karimov and Xi Jinping said that China would give Uzbekistan a $2.7 billion loan.
In addition, their own relevance is not lost on the Chinese proposal to build a railroad through Uzbekistan. As you know, over the past 4 years, the Chinese are strongly promoting a project to build the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway. Although the construction launch of the 4th gas pipeline “Turkmenistan-China” is delayed, however, agreement in principle has already been reached. This project also includes a significant expansion of Chinese capital in the Uzbek economy since the export of Uzbek gas to China is expected via pipeline D.
Concerning the discussion of all these projects and areas of cooperation, China usually uses only a bilateral format. The Uzbek side, traditionally supporting this format, so far is happy. But a reasonable question arises: to what extent will bilateral formats of cooperation with China effectively defend Uzbekistan’s interests? It seems that Uzbekistan has not yet asked this question.
The foreign policy and foreign policy orientation of Uzbekistan has not been particularly stable. The Uzbek government sometimes allows themselves plenty of sharp maneuvers and changes in orientation. It should be recognized that much of Tashkent’s behavior with Uzbek authorities is “got away with it”, due to relative independence from external actors. At this moment, it appears that primarily the economic independence of Uzbekistan is becoming more restricted. More specifically, it would be better to note that Uzbekistan has become increasingly dependent on its economic partners and is increasingly integrated into the global economy.
In this regard, the processes taking place within the framework of the SCO also exert their influence on the foreign policy of Uzbekistan. Today in Tashkent there is a clear understanding that the Chinese factor was to provide the same importance for the Republic of Uzbekistan as it did for China’s immediate neighbors (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) who are already more than 20 years under economic pressure from their eastern neighbor.
At a time when Beijing has ceased to rely only on the SCO and passed on to an exclusively bilateral approach, Tashkent also felt pressured by China. According to some reports, the Chinese authorities have significant leverage on the Uzbek leadership for expanding Chinese companies in Uzbekistan by using all possible channels. Experts write that China is gradually changing the focus of its regional policy and relying on the expansion of its positions in Uzbekistan.
The SCO Summit showed another feature of the Chinese authorities’ strategy. According to the experts who participated in the event, the Chinese side strongly blocked all attempts to bring to the discussion some of the issues members managed to brainstorm. It is known that participants put forward initiatives to discuss water and energy problems within the framework of the SCO, but, due to the principled position of Beijing, it was withdrawn from the agenda.
In addition, again in a bilateral format, the Chinese authorities are strongly pushing the idea of China’s involvement in ensuring regional security but not within the SCO framework. In particular, the Chinese need to greatly increase protection of infrastructure facilities in Central Asia. A sharp debate followed concerning the turnover of data acquired after the events in Kazakhstan related to mass meetings, as well as with the series of terrorist attacks in the west of the country. Using these events, the Chinese authorities have become even more confident to talk about the impossibility of the Central Asian countries ensuring regional stability on their own.
If confirmed, the scenario under which China will decide to strengthen the block’s security matters present some challenges to the national security of the Central Asian republics. The Chinese authorities, while intensifying security matters, can come to only one unique solution: to strengthen bilateral cooperation in the military sphere and gradually legalize the presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the territory of SCO member states. Incidentally, at the 2010 SCO summit in Tashkent, a speech by then President Hu Jintao was entirely devoted to security issues with six points clearly making an allusion to the need to ensure the security of infrastructure facilities by paramilitary forces on SCO countries’ territory.
While taking into account all of the above, it was appropriate for the “small” SCO members to act in order to preserve the possibility of multilateral cooperation, especially now with the addition of two giants. At the highest political level, it is advisable to continue to support SCO functions. Let the “amorphous” be, but still the existence of the multilateral framework provides some leverage for further balancing between the interests of Moscow and Beijing. It seems that such a formulation would be an appropriate position for Tashkent.
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The views of the author may not coincide with the position of CABAR.asia