The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has intensified its focus on regional economic initiatives like the China-led Silk Road Economic Belt and the Russia-lead Eurasian Economic Union. At the Ufa summit in Russia, the member states adopted the SCO Development Strategy, which included bolstering finance, investment, and trade cooperation as a priority in the next ten years.
While Russia remains sensitive to China’s expanding influence into the former Soviet satellite states, the Central Asian member states are in need of infrastructure and energy investment and have been receptive to Beijing’s proposal to focus on economic cooperation through proposals such as launching a development fund and a free-trade zone. Russia is acutely aware that it cannot and will not try to compete with China’s growing global economic influence, even if it is pushing into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan have proposed expanding the energy cooperation among members, establishing a unified energy market for oil and gas exports. While some experts say the organization has emerged as an anti-U.S. bulwark in Central Asia, others believe frictions among its members effectively preclude a strong and unified SCO. This may be true, specifically as India and Pakistan, long-time rivals, join the membership roster, because the SCO adopts decision made by consensus and all member states must uphold the core principle of non-aggression and non-interference in internal affairs. Crosston points out that a penchant for China and Russia pursuing micro-agendas is also likely to undermine group cohesion and sow mistrust.
However, a recent study conducted on the SCO’s voting record has shown that the foreign policy of the SCO is mixed. On one hand, the overall member and observer states have been increasingly voting in similar ways across all voting forums since 1992, when the post-Soviet member states were all admitted to the United Nations. As the voting patterns become increasingly similar, the risk for an individual state of committing itself to closer cooperation is reduced; it is simply less likely to find itself in a vulnerable outlier position or be forced to compromise on important policy preferences. Hansen points out that continued convergence in this way suggests, all things being equal, that the SCO will find it still easier to widen and deepen its foreign policy cooperation and even to allow observer states to join the group as full members. On the other hand, the slowing down of the process of convergence indicates that the member and observer states have reached a line that a least some of them will be reluctant to cross. This includes a mixed pool of core preferences on human rights, nuclear development, or weapons technology. This will likely continue to evolve and possibly become contentious with the addition of Pakistan and India, whose membership seems to have been driven by China’s fear of a new wave of terrorist attacks by Uighur separatists or ISIL fighters in Zinjiang or elsewhere in China . Russia remains a leading outlier: the growing influence of China may cause Russian policy makers to hesitate before committing to a closer cooperation or to future SCO enlargement, as what is good for China is not necessarily good for Russia.
Through the SCO, China has largely benefited from offering the Central Asian states an alternative to Russia. As Grieger points out, China has significantly expanded its trade with, and investment in, the Central states. It has established a diplomatic and strategic foothold in the region, which allows it to gradually dilute Western influence. It has been able to pursue resource security interests but has been cautious not to enter into energy or mining competition with Russia. In energy matters, Chinese and Russian interests are often complementary as Russia relies on oil exports and China’s economy greatly depends on external energy sources.
China and Russia will continue to be skeptical bedfellows in the coming years despite opportunities. While their interests may overlap economically and in the security of their overlapping regions, neither is known for being particularly trustworthy of each other. This hurdle will be hard to overcome. China will continue to need trade agreements with the United States. This could leave Russia as the odd man out with increasing Western sanctions. China’s alliance with Russia could prove contentious for Western investment, so Russia will need to play well with China in a true partnership over the next decade or else it will risk being squeezed out of any global power economically.
The continued rise of China and resulting dilemma in relations between Russia, China, and the Central Asian states within the SCO could cause regional schisms. China’s economic rise could threaten to move Russia out of the seat of power while sanctions are increasingly piled on. China’s influence in areas like Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and others continues to grow through investments and industry. If SCO membership becomes weighted in China’s favor through this increasing influence, Russia could find themselves out in the cold and their agendas out of favor in the SCO.
What about the rest of the membership of the SCO? According to Beaten Eschment, an analyst at the Research Center of East European Studies at the University of Bremen, there is no unified Central Asian perspective. The countries’ interests are all pointedly different: Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are economically and militarily dependent on Russia; Turkmenistan, while not a member of the SCO, is trying to stay as neutral as possible like Mongolia. Uzbekistan is pursuing its own policy that bounces between Russia and China at the same time, while Kazakhstan, the biggest and militarily and economically strongest country in Central Asia is a complete Russophile, but is afraid that Russia will try to annex their northern territories after the situation with Crimea in Ukraine. These small concerns may give China the advantage in setting the SCO’s priorities so that the smaller members seek to limit Russia’s influence on their borders.
What links all of the SCO members is the rejection of Western-dominated institutions, whether it is the United States, United Nations, World Bank, NATO or other structures. The SCO see itself as a forum against the US-global order. Its approach tends to be comprehensive and not based only on military power, but also in China’s belief of economic ties and soft power. The SCO’s non-interference principle could establish a new modus operandi for international organizations. Unlike the United Nations or NATO, the members of the SCO have chosen to stay out of violent conflicts within its member states, such as when violent conflict between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan broke out in 2010. The members of the SCO stayed largely passive despite their ability to pull joint forces together that could intervene. This allows member states to avoid getting pulled into costly wars that could be to the detriment of all member states and to the organization as a whole.
While it will likely remain semi-ignored by Western media, the SCO will continue to make great strides in its development and growth. Alignment of Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, and China creates the largest block of anti-Western sentiment in history. It could provide a counter balance to Western organizations’ influence not only in the Central Asian region but even from the edges of Europe all the way to the Pacific. China views this expansion as absolutely necessary to compete in a global market. If the SCO is to have real weight in the international arena and become a truly prestigious organization that is able to rival NATO, it requires additional members and revenue streams. President Putin suggested that China and Russia should “enhance coordination in international and regional affairs [so as to counter Western influence].” Prospects are good that Russia and China will continue to prioritize working on large multilateral projects in transportation, energy, innovative research and technology, agriculture, and the peaceful use of outer space. If the SCO can expand its membership and momentum on these priorities, Western organizations may soon find themselves facing an unexpected competitor with the resources and intent to box them out of markets and contain United States influence on the global stage.
China’s policies spur Central Asians to cautiously chart independent course
China’s brutal crackdown in its north-western province of Xinjiang and growing questions about the dark side of some of its Belt and Road investments is fuelling anti-Chinese sentiment, prompting some countries to explore ways to chart an independent course, and feeding into the narratives of rising populist leaders.
The incarceration of up to 2,5000 Kazakhs in re-education camps in Xinjiang designed to install Chinese values and loyalty to President Xi Jinping, erase nationalist and militant sentiment, and introduce ‘Chinese characteristics’ into perceptions of Islam among the region’s Uyghur population, a Muslim Turkic ethnic group, has spurred a Kazakh search to cautiously chart an independent course.
An estimated 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs live in Xinjiang, 200,000 of which obtained Kazakh citizenship after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. In contrast to Uyghurs, they were able to move freely across the Kazakh-Chinese border until 2016 when China stepped up its crackdown in Xinjiang.
Chinese policy also figures in crucial Pakistani elections with populist contender and former international cricket player Imran Khan demanding greater transparency in China’s US$ 50 billion plus investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a Belt and Road crown jewel and the initiative’s single largest investment. Mr. Khan is also demanding a more equitable distribution of Chinese investment among Pakistan’s provinces.
Irrespective of whether Mr. Khan emerges victorious from the Pakistani polling, he is likely to be a major voice. His call for greater transparency resonates with significant segments of the business community represented by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry who have been critical of commercial terms that advantage Chinese companies with reduced benefit to their Pakistani counterparts.
Mr. Khan’s call for greater transparency is likely to get a significant boost if Pakistan is forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund to bail out its troubled economy.
Major political parties and business organizations in the Pakistani province of Gilgit-Baltistan have meanwhile threatened to shut down the Pakistan-China border if Beijing does not release some 50 Uighur women married to Pakistani men from the region, who have been detained in Xinjiang.
The province’s legislative assembly unanimously called on the government in Islamabad to take up the issue. The women, many of whom are practicing Muslims and don religious attire, are believed to have been detained in re-education camps.
Concern in Tajikistan is mounting that the country may not be able to service its increasing Belt and Road-related debt. With the World Bank and the IMF warning that Tajikistan runs a high risk of debt distress, Tajikistan has seen its debt-to-GDP ratio balloon from 33.4% of GDP in 2015 to an estimated 56.8% in 2018.
The emerging stories of Kazakhs released from re-education camps in Xinjiang and a court case a Chinese national of Kazakh descent accused of entering Kazakhstan illegally after working in one of the detention centres holding hundreds of thousands of mostly Turkic Muslims is forcing the Kazakh government to stand up more forcefully for the rights of its nationals and reinforcing its desire to steer a middle course between Chinese and Russian ambitions in Central Asia.
41-year-old Sayragul Sauytbay is on trial for allegedly illegally crossing the Chinese-Kazakh border border to join her husband and two children in Kazakhstan. Ms. Sauytbay told the court she had escaped to Kazakhstan after being told by Chinese authorities that she would never be allowed to join her family because of her knowledge of the camps.
Chinese authorities have denied the existence of the camps despite mounting evidence from both official documents and witness accounts. China’s foreign ministry said it “had not heard” of the camps.
Ms. Sauytbay’s defense is attracting attention and spurring anti-Chinese sentiment not only because of her first-hand account of the detention camps but also because of her assertion that she had access to classified Chinese documents that shed light on the sprawling network of re-education centres.
Ms. Sauytbay’s trial puts the Kazakh government, an important Belt and Road partner, in a bind. She has admitted having illegally entered the country but said she would disappear in one of Xinjiang’s detention camps if she were returned to China. Ms. Sauytbay has requested political asylum in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan has until now to sought to raise the issue of the fate of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang quietly and cautiously with China. Returning Ms. Sauytbay would open the government to accusations that it is kowtowing to Beijing and failing to protect its people. Allowing her to stay, would give further credibility to reports on the extent and nature of the crackdown in Xinjiang.
The trial also boosts Kazakh efforts to steer a middle course between Chinese and Russian influence in Central Asia by forging closer ties to European nations and the United States as well as the Muslim world.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev discussed with President Donald J. Trump, on a visit to Washington in January, an “enhanced strategic partnership” that would strengthen cooperation “on political and security issues, trade and investment, and people-to-people relationships.”
Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev travelled to Washington on a similar mission, seeking US support for his liberalizing economic and political reforms.
Central Asian leaders suggested to European Union High Representative for Security and Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini that they were looking to Europe rather than China and Russia for assistance in building sustainable economies that can create jobs for the region’s mushrooming youth population.
That is not to say that Central Asian nations, most of which are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, do not welcome massive Chinese and Russian investment. They do, but also realize that the investment may improve their infrastructure and enhance security but does not necessarily ensure their ability to sustainably create jobs.
In a sign of the times, Russian commentator Yaroslav Razumov noted that Kazakh youth recently thwarted the marriage of a Kazakh national to a Chinese woman by denouncing it on social media as unpatriotic.
Quoting Kazakh commentators as blaming Russia for stirring anti-Chinese sentiment in their country, Mr. Razumov, in an article entitled ‘Ally, but not a friend,’ warned that Russia, and by extension China, “must learn to live with this.”
Astana: City of new opportunities
Relocating a capital, and creating from scratch not only an administrative and diplomatic centre, but also a new continental and global hub, is a huge task. The few countries that have attempted this can confirm the complexity of this challenge. Yet despite the challenges, no-one can doubt that the goal of the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to move our capital from Almaty in the South to the heart of our large country has been achieved.
It was a bold decision, which some at that time were worried was simply too ambitious. Kazakhstan had only just gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country was transitioning, with great difficulties, from a planned to a market economy. And despite being the 9th largest country in the world, the global community knew very little about us.
That is no longer the case. Today, Kazakhstan’s capital has become a modern city that is playing an ever-growing political and cultural role in the world community. The choice of President Nazarbayev, who believed the new capital would accelerate, not hold back our country’s progress, has been proved right.
Astana is a symbol of Kazakhstan’s ambition for its citizens and its global partners. It is a source of pride and a capital accessible to all and has become a driver of national prosperity. Internationally, it has helped put Kazakhstan firmly on the map as it plays its part in tackling some of the world’s toughest challenges.
In twenty years, our population has tripled to more than one million people. Providing the housing, roads and the many other socially important services a 21st century city needs has been a major feat of planning and construction. Today’s economic indicators prove that the city is now self-sufficient and profitable. And not only in financial terms.
Astana has been chosen by major international firms to establish their headquarters and production centres for Kazakhstan and Central Asia. They see our capital and our country as a reliable bridge between east and west and as a continental centre with further high development potential.
Kazakhstan, with Astana at its heart, has created a very favourable business climate. Over the past few years, the nation has attracted ever-increasing investor attention as one of the fastest-growing economies. Continuously increasing foreign investment in Kazakhstan is testament to our stability and ongoing reforms. I am confident that the launch of the Astana International Financial Centre, which operates on the basis of the English law, will create further incentives to conduct business in this city.
In addition, thanks to the country’s investment policy, last year Astana was recognised as having the most favourable conditions in the country for doing business.
It is not just as a successful and reliable economic partner that Astana is making its international mark. The city has become a centre for diplomacy where regional and global initiatives are launched to promote peace and cooperation, expand trade, and encourage sustainable development. Astana is now established as a place which brings people together and helps find solutions to the challenges of our time.
It is where, for example, the Eurasian Economic Union and Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative – both important for regional prosperity – were proposed to the world. Expo 2017, in which over 100 countries took part, provided the opportunity for advances in future energy to be shared.
Astana also hosts the annual Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, recognised as a major platform for inter-faith dialogue. The Astana Declaration, which came out of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe summit here in 2010, set out a bold vision for the future of Eurasia.
Astana is seen by the international community as a neutral and welcoming location where progress can be made on major conflicts and disputes. In this regard, it is difficult to overestimate the significance of the Astana Process, which remains the only forum that brings together all the main parties in the Syrian crisis. Kazakhstan will continue to be committed to peace and dialogue and I have no doubt that Astana will play a key role in helping to achieve these goals.
Twenty years, of course, is a very short time in the life of a city, especially a capital. But in just two decades, Astana has come a long way and made a big impact. Thanks to our leadership and the enormous effort of the people of Kazakhstan, Astana today is a successfully developing young capital with a bright future.
Kyrgyzstan: Looking for digital solutions to combat child labour
A group of young digital specialists – supported by the ILO in Kyrgyzstan – was among the prize winners in a ‘Hackathon’ aimed at promoting children’s rights.
Following a marathon 48-hour event involving 18 teams of information technology experts and their mentors, they designed an innovative application that has the potential to monitor the incidence of child labour in communities.
The ILO Child Labour Project in Kyrgyzstan provided general guidance and mentoring to the team to ensure the conformity of the software to the operational mechanisms of the national child protection system in Kyrgyzstan.
Their design came second in the competition, “Central Asian Hackathon, Generation Z: Wellbeing of Children”, which was organized by the Central Asian Coalition on Promotion of the Rights of Women and Children and the “League on protection of Children Rights” Public Fund, in partnership with the ILO, UNICEF, UNODC, the Embassy of Netherlands, and public and business companies.
‘The application helps to conduct interviews with children, formulate recommendations and determine their status,’ said Victoria Petrova, business processes analyst of the ILO-supported IT team. ‘It will help officials to assess the situation of the child, determine whether the child is being exploited and what needs to be done to resolve the situation.’
“We are on constant search of new solutions and new partnerships,” explained Amina Kurbanova, ILO National Project Coordinator in Kyrgyzstan. “The Hackathon gave us a unique opportunity to establish partnership with a new group – young highly qualified IT professionals, and to develop an application that may greatly facilitate child labour monitoring process.”
The IT team, “Testovoe nazvanie”, collected USD 1,500 in prize money. The ILO now plans to support pilot testing of the new software by the line ministries.
“We are grateful to the ILO for this support. It is obvious that the proposed technologies could be applied in the daily work of social workers, police inspectors, labour inspectors and social pedagogues. The Ministry will carefully study the results of the pilot testing and will closely work with the IT Team specialists during fine-tuning of the application,” says Jyldyz Polotova, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Development of the Kyrgyz Republic.
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