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What the SCO Summit in Bishkek Confirmed

Mikhail Konarovsky

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Ensuring security and creating favorable conditions for the economic progress of states, regardless of their size and global political weight, is a long-term challenge for global development as a whole. This agenda gains greater relevance against the backdrop of increasingly turbulent global and regional processes that are characterized by both the exacerbation of old challenges and the expansion of new and non-traditional ones, the blurring (primarily at the initiative of the United States) of the basic principles of international law and inter-country relations, growing political egotism, protectionism in trade and economy, etc. Preventing these developments is becoming progressively more difficult without building up clear and substantive interaction between states that would not want these trends to become irreversible.

These circumstances were naturally the focus of the recent Bishkek summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), an alliance that has begun to stake its claim to being both a both trans-continental and global organization following the accession of India and Pakistan to its ranks. At the same time, while last year’s Shanghai 8 meeting in Qingdao, China was a sort of overture for its two new members, the Kyrgyzstan summit demonstrated the Organization’s rather quick (albeit not entirely smooth) adaptation to its qualitatively new geostrategic parameters.

The continued development of constructive bilateral contacts between SCO member states and within the organization itself provided a significant positive political background for the summit. As before, the example was set by Russia and China, whose strategic interaction and trade and economic cooperation was further solidified in the period between the previous summit and the one in Bishkek. Recent examples of this include the participation of President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin in the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in April 2019, and the subsequent visit of President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping to Russia and his participation in the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. The recent re-election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India reinforces the possibilities for the country to implement strategic structural changes inside India, build stable long-term relations with its neighbors (primarily with Russia and China) and increase India’s role in regional and global affairs, which is the object of the country’s progressively growing desire. These developments also open new opportunities for broad cooperation within BRICS and the consultative mechanism of three SCO members — Russia, India, and China (known as RIC). The next RIC meeting is scheduled to take place alongside the upcoming BRICS summit in Osaka in late June 2019, which will be held concurrently with the next G20 summit.

Another important positive factor in the further improvement of cooperation within the SCO and the raising of the organization’s political profile in Eurasia and beyond is the recent intensification of interaction among the Central Asian states, the majority of which (four out of five) are SCO members. This interaction is gaining momentum across the entire spectrum of political, trade, economic and humanitarian spheres, alongside increasing bilateral cooperation with the organization’s members. The landmark resolution of the UN General Assembly of June 22, 2018 “Strengthening Regional and International Cooperation to Ensure Peace, Stability and Sustainable Development in the Central Asian Region” noted the important role that Central Asian states play in ensuring security, stability and sustainable development in the region. In particular, the resolution noted their efforts to achieve stability in Afghanistan. In this regard, it is necessary to note the progressive growth of interaction within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which celebrated its fifth anniversary on the eve of the SCO summit. Let us not forget that four out of eight SCO members are also EAEU members, as are one observer (Belarus) and one dialogue partner (Armenia). The recently signed agreement on mutual cooperation with China opens up additional opportunities for this alliance.

The principal message of the general political declaration adopted at Bishkek was the firm intention of the participants to continue broad cooperation in all three principal areas: security, economy, and humanitarian ties. The list of these specific areas alone testifies to the ever-growing dynamics that span an increasingly greater number of areas of interaction and involving not only states but also their specific regions and individual constituent entities, in joint activities. Therefore, a broad and multi-layered system of sectoral and humanitarian ties within the entire organization is gradually beginning to take shape. Another significant outcome of the summit was the confirmation of the readiness of the parties to continue to follow the course of active cooperation in building international relations of a new type based on the principles and norms of international law, mutual respect, fairness, equality and mutually advantageous collaboration, as well as on cooperation in shaping a general vision of the “community of common destiny” that China has been actively promoting in recent years. While discussing the state of affairs in another area of fundamental importance for the SCO (international and regional security and combating terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking), the parties paid special attention to the implementation of all the adopted documents and the intensification of specific cooperation within corresponding mechanisms and working groups.

The SCO member countries confirmed their commitment to preserving the organization’s development dynamics both in the final Declaration (which covered virtually the entire range of international and regional issues) and in nearly twenty documents signed or approved at the summit. Among the most important of these documents are the approval of the Programme for the Development of Interregional Cooperation of the SCO member states and the Procedure for the Work of the Forum of Heads of Regions of the SCO member states, which may give an additional impetus to trade and economic cooperation within the organization, as cooperation in this area is still far from perfect. An important role in this regard could be played by the task of studying issues in expanding the SCO’s capabilities in transportation and communication. This would constitute a specific contribution of the organization to fulfilling the task of linking the EAEU and China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI).

At the same time, the summit once again highlighted the lack of consensus within the SCO concerning the Belt and Road Initiative. With the exception of India, all the participants spoke in favor of the linking projects and other arrangements concerning the initiative. New Delhi is known for its continued skepticism towards the BRI in connection with the China–Pakistan cooperation in transportation and logistics in Kashmir, a region that is disputed by India and Pakistan. India’s political sensitivity in this regard is quite understandable, and it is something that the SCO will have to keep in mind.

The package of documents approved in Bishkek draws particular attention to the approval of further actions by the SCO–Afghanistan Contact Group in order to facilitate the expedited launch of the peace process in Afghanistan. The instability in the country and the protracted armed confrontation between Kabul and its Taliban opponents have been the principal challenge for stabilizing the regional situation for many years now. This circumstance affects the national interests of all SCO member states without exception. The general instability in Afghanistan has been increasingly affected in recent years by ISIS militants infiltrating the country (coming from, among other places, regions adjacent to Central Asia and China), as they lost control over a significant part of Syria. This development demonstrates a link between the two crisis-affected regions, especially since the majority of terrorists migrating to Afghanistan are natives of Central Asia and Muslim-populated regions of Russia and China. Such activity is unequivocally viewed as an immediate threat to the stability in the regions to the north and northeast of Afghanistan.

The SCO member states have repeatedly, and at various levels (including the very highest level), expressed their grave concerns over the entire range of problems in Afghanistan. The Bishkek summit was no exception. The Declaration signed at the end of the summit confirmed the organization’s readiness to advance a political settlement of the conflict under the direction, and with the participation, of the Afghan people themselves, both bilaterally and within the SCO–Afghanistan Contact Group. This item of the Declaration testifies to the SCO’s Afghanistan policy taking a more precise shape, which translated into the development of a roadmap at the Group’s scheduled meeting in Bishkek in April.

The continuing deterioration of the situation in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan breathed new life (at Russia’s suggestion) into the work of the Contact Group two years ago. The heads of state of the Shanghai 8 decided to develop a roadmap, a decision that has practical value that appears particularly relevant today, as there are plans to launch a peace dialogue and the United States and NATO may withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. In an attempt to speed up the process, Washington appointed a special representative for Afghanistan last autumn who was tasked with finding a formula for launching a dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban and creating conditions for the withdrawal of troops from the country. At the consultative meeting between representatives of the United States, Russia, and China in April of this year, a consensus was achieved concerning the common vision of a new stage in the Afghanistan process. Engaged in active work with the opposing parties, Russia recently proposed the so-called Moscow format of talks for the Afghan parties concerned. For the first time ever, this format made it possible to establish direct contact between them. Some Central Asian states operate in a similar vein. One prominent example is Uzbekistan, which has offered to host inter-Afghan talks. In this regard, pooling the efforts of SCO member States, or at least clearly coordinating their practical steps concerning Afghanistan, appears particularly relevant in the near and medium term. The Bishkek summit sent a specific signal in this area as well, stressing the significance of further interaction in various international formats, including the Contact Group, the Moscow Consultative Format, etc.

Preserving peace and stability in the Eurasian space (including the SCO space) is largely determined by the general political climate in Asia. The tasks the SCO faces are similar to those challenges that this key world region faces today, and this similarity was clearly manifested at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) held in Dushanbe after the Bishkek Summit. The Dushanbe meeting was attended by 27 member states and 13 observers, including international organizations. The meeting’s attendees emphasized, in particular, the need to pay special attention to the situation in Afghanistan.

The SCO is becoming increasingly confident in the path it is treading towards becoming the crucial foreign political hub of the broadly understood Eurasian space. The expanding multidimensional participation of its members in large-scale trans-regional economic projects and initiatives is laying solid economic foundations for such prospects. Against this background, we can hardly expect the SCO to be able to boost the economic component of its activities and turn it into the core of its work. This place will most likely be held by the multidimensional security sector. The SCO states will become more involved in the Eurasian economic agenda through the transnational economic institutions they have already established (or are planning to establish). The Shanghai 8 will most likely play the role of a serious multidimensional political center. Both this area and the further bolstering of coordinated policies of SCO member states in the short and medium term should be the focus of Russia’s year-long chairmanship of the SCO that it assumed on June 13–14.

From our partner RIAC

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation. Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of International Research, MGIMO University, RIAC member.

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Defense

The Chinese Navy: A new force is rising in the East

Themistoklis Z. Zanidis

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The information coming to the West from various sources, either open or closed, regarding the Chinese Navy, concludes on the finding that in the last couple of decades an extensive program of modernization and numerical expansion of the Navy, by the Chinese authorities, is underway. The fundamental pillar of China’s (not-so-future) Navy, known as the People’s Liberation Army Navy PLAN, (will be) for its aircraft carriers; cruisers; destroyers; amphibious assault ships; and submarines. In general, China is arming with modern multi-purpose ships, with the purpose of attacking and defending capabilities. Its discernible ambition is to use its fleet against the dominant US Navy, whose presence is pronounced in the China Sea and consequently in the Pacific Ocean. As a matter of fact, the Chinese Navy is already considered to be the second most powerful in the world, exceeding historical Naval Powers such as the United Kingdom and Japan. Indicatively, we note the fact that the once dominant Royal Navy is currently comprised of only 9 destroyers and 2 aircraft carriers, while the Chinese, respectively and exceeds those numbers.  It is the swiftest growing Navy in the world. Literally, since 2014, the Chinese Navy has launched more warships than the Royal Navy has on duty today.

This article will be focusing on the rapid development of the Chinese Navy, which incidentally is only one aspect of Beijing’s overall maritime strategy (another aspect refers to the construction of military bases on tiny islands within the entire Chinese Sea and abroad, as in Djibouti).  China aims to secure the homeland from a possible attack from the sea and to protect their vulnerable maritime supply lines. In the Chinese strategic culture, the Age of Humiliation is of paramount importance, because it had been the period when the Chinese were subservient to Westerners. Therefore, the Never Again of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is the legitimizing substance which keeps it in power but simultaneously a commitment that satisfies the nationalist Chinese instincts. China is keen to return to its former position, before its contact with the Western Powers, so its policy is towards this strategic target.

It was not until the 1990’s that the Chinese forces consisted of out-of-dated naval vessels with limited offensive and defensive capabilities. Furthermore, the Chinese fleet was limited to about 150 main units (destroyers, frigates, submarines) and no conventional aircraft carriers. Today, China has both fiscal and technological ability to build domestic projects at a rapid pace. In order to understand the class size of the Chinese naval armaments program we will note that in 2016 and 2017 the country’s Navy launched 18 and 14 units respectively, while the US Navy launched only 5 and 8.

 The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that in the forthcoming 15 years, the Chinese Navy will deploy 430 surface units and 100 submarines, while other valid US estimations set this number up to 530. The U.S. Pentagon estimates that this year alone (2020) the Chinese Navy will deploy 78 submarines; 60 stealth-guided-missile ships; 40 corvettes fit for the environment of the Chinese Sea (while 60 more are waiting to be delivered); 24 modern all purpose frigates; 20 state-of-the-art destroyers; 12 cruisers with a delivery horizon in the current decade; 4 fleet support ships; 3 helicopter carriers; 5 ships of amphibious assault missions; and 2 aircraft carriers with the third already under construction.

The informed reader may be concerned as this extensive construction of warships is inconsistent with the Silent Rise which was the official doctrine of the Chinese government until recently. According to it, the country should, at all costs, continue its uninterrupted economic growth, capitalizing on the globalization. This will happen only if the country manages not to provoke the United States as well as neighboring countries, many of which are close allies to Washington (like Japan and South Korea). However, it seems that the Chinese elite is increasingly abandoning this doctrine while adopting a more provocative stance through a peculiar nationalism, especially as economic growth decelerates. In this context, the extensive reinforcement of the Chinese Navy is deliberated and resulting in an increasing concern of neighbor states and the United States, which realizes that the balance of naval power is gradually turning at its expense. China, in order to become a great power again should secure its sovereignty, especially the homeland, from possible attacks. This is incidental to the expulsion of all the American forces which are based in the region and specifically from the China Sea. The Chinese high strategy can only be fruitful with the presence of a modern and powerful Navy (blue-water Navy) combined with an extensive network of military bases which Beijing is rapidly building on tiny, sometimes disputable, islands throughout the China Sea. With those facts and the Chinese demands, no state including the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Japan, feels safe, although the published Chinese military doctrine remains chiefly defensive.

Regarding the Chinese Navy, it’s noticeable that the modernization program is traced back only to 2012, when President Hu Jintao, during the 18th Congress of the CCP, ordered the country to be transformed into a sea power. More recently, President Xi Jinping declared that the current situation urges China to develop its naval forces promptly. This statement was followed by a 55% increase in defense spending between 2015 and 2020, making China the world’s second-largest spender behind the United States (China’s defense spending is estimated at $260.8 billion in 2019). The significance of the Navy for the country’s leadership is reflected in its budget, which increased by 82%, reaching $57 billion. As a result, six shipyards across the country have lifted the burden of building an advanced fleet capable of dealing with the dominant US Navy. The construction of advanced warships is the implementation of the Chinese Dream, the vision of the current President for a powerful China which is respected home and abroad.

The result of this policy is astonishing.  In 2018 China became the country with the most warships on order, surpassing South Korea with 43.9% share in global orders. In February 2020, at the peak of the Covid-19 crisis, China fell to 4th place with a 35% share in global orders, a testament to the country’s industry dynamics. Despite the impressive armament program, it should be noted that a capable naval force consists not only of modern warships, but also as a key component consists of  well-trained crews who have a deep knowledge of the maritime environment. This knowledge can largely be taught in naval schools, but actual engagement with the maritime environment is also required. Seamanship is exactly that, the long-term contact with the sea and the valuable experience that a nation acquires from this contact. For many centuries China has become a land power by turning its back on the sea. The current leadership seems to have understood this historical mistake and tries to change it by turning the Chinese people back to the sea from their school years.

Today, the US Navy is the most powerful in the world as it enables the United States to demonstrate its power globally. At the same time, it protects peace and free navigation on the high seas.  It is a key contribution to world trade which is essentially maritime, and eventually to the global economy. Chinese officials occasionally admit that despite the Chinese Navy’s numerical superiority, it still lags behind technologically from the US Navy. Even in terms of tactics and training, the US Navy is a highly professional force tested in real war conditions as distinct from the Chinese which has not yet demonstrated its true value and capabilities in realistic conditions. However, the situation across the China Sea seems to be tilting in favor of the Chinese side as its naval forces are dramatically strengthened due to the proximity of the area of operations to the Chinese coastline.

Beijing’s growing military network is making it increasingly difficult for U.S. ships to sail safely into the disputed area to effectively support their allies. One of China’s main targets now is Taiwan which is considered Chinese territory. As a result, Chinaωstrongly opposes any attempt towards Taiwanese independence and that is the main reason behind China’s amphibious force, a capable force ready to invade the island at any time.The Chinese leadership seems to have fully recognized the domains in which it lags behind its main rival and is trying to fill the gap by developing more and more contemporary navy ships and continuous crew training in order to be ready to cope with a realistic conflict. Similarly, the United States is closely monitoring the progress of its most important rival for the world’s hegemony.

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Who Exactly Fights For The UN-backed Sarraj Government?

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The latest turn of the tide in the Libyan conflict ended in the forces loyal to the Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj pushing back the Libyan National Army and establishing full control over the capital Tripoli and the surrounding areas. Coverage of these developments in Western media was shaped along the tune of justice being restored by legitimate forces. Is that narrative off-key, and what exactly are these ostensibly legitimate forces?

First and foremost, the recent successes achieved by the GNA were only made possible by military support provided by Turkey, who supplied Sarraj with drones, military advisors and Syrian fighters recruited among the Turkish proxies notorious for their criminal tendencies. Contrary to the narrative enforced by the West depicting the GNA militias as a legitimate regular army, in reality these forces are little more than a bunch of criminals and radical elements financed by the Turkish intelligence.

Knowing this, it makes sense that the GNA forces resort to any means, including those explicitly forbidden by the international humanitarian law. The GNA supporters, however, choose to ignore these crimes turning a blind eye to the violations of Geneva conventions committed both by the fighters and their backers.

Finding evidence of these crimes presents no difficulty, as the fighters make little effort to hide them. In fact, they often unknowingly document their own atrocities. Perhaps the most telling example is the video published on the official Facebook page of the militia named Tripoli Protection Force that features armed members of the group driving in a vehicle marked with Red Crescent symbols. The raid showed on video ended in capture of a number of people who were promptly declared agents of the LNA. The video is still online.

When the GNA militants are not busy driving medical vehicles, they engage in torture of civilians such as these Egyptian workers who were violently beaten and abused by the fighters. The Egyptian nationals had been working in Tarhuna before the town was captured by the militias loyal to the GNA.

UN expressed “deep concern” over the detention and torture of Egyptians in Tarhuna, urging the authorities in Tripoli to investigate the incident. In its turn, Egypt took offense and claimed that it will launch an independent investigation, emphasizing that it is ready to make a strong response to the GNA aggression.

These examples are but a small part of the violations committed by the GNA militias. Despite the support it receives from the UN and its foreign backers, the GNA will not be able to contribute to a safer, stable Libya, unless it gives up on the radicals who do not abide by the law. It has long been evident for everyone except the GNA allies abroad.

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Sino-American Rivalry: Impact on South Asian Security

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The US-China relationship is an extremely complex one; it is driven by many different dimensions each dimension has got its own logic. The United States of America, being a dominant power of the world, has engaged itself with many nations throughout the world. Mainly it has engaged itself in those regions of the world from where it considers any entity could pose a threat to its interests as well as its dominance. Washington has remained an influential state because of its active involvement in most parts of the world for its national interest, particularly economic benefits. However, China being a re-emerging power, wants to influence the world through its engagement with more nations employing initiatives such as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or via economic engagement with various nations. However, the nature of relations between Washington and Beijing has changed ever since Donald Trump’s presidency. Under the Trump Administration, the US has shifted from viewing China as a strategic partner to a strategic competitor. There are multiple areas where Trump Administration has challenged Beijing, such as trade and economy, Asia-Pacific region, technology, Chinese military modernization, South Asian region, and Beijing’s pursuit for alternative global markets.

In this regard, the South Asian region assumes much importance when it comes to great powers politics such as the US and China. Over the time, the occurrence of events, incidents and initiatives such as 9/11 and Chinese BRI have added more significance to the region for great powers politics. On one hand, the incident of 9/11 provided a reason for the US to engage itself in the region actively, particularly Afghanistan, under the pretext of the War on Terror or security issues. On the other hand, active Chinese involvement through BRI compelled the United States to increase its influence by engaging with more nations in South Asia for containing China and its initiative. When it comes to South Asian security, three countries, namely Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, hold much importance in determining the security of South Asia. The presence of American forces in Afghanistan after the incident of 9/11 has presented a dilemma for Beijing. Because it considers presence of the US troops at its backyard as a severe threat. In this regard, China wants the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan to fulfil its desires by engaging more actively with Kabul for its development and stability through BRI or other economic engagement.

Moreover, peace and stability in Kabul is Beijing’s fundamental interest because chaos in Afghanistan could trigger extremism, terrorism, and fundamentalism resultantly that will threaten not only the peace, security and stability of the region but can spill over into the adjacent Xinjiang region of China. However, Afghanistan is considered the “graveyard of empires” therefore, China does not want to risk its position by getting involved in Afghan affairs that are not in the interest of the people of the country. Similarly, China supported the “Peace Deal” between the US and Taliban representatives on February 29, 2020, in Doha, Qatar. After the US forces withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is highly likely that China is going to deepen its involvement in Afghanistan further because it fears the return of Uygur militants in Xinjiang after a withdrawal of US troops. While the United States wants to engage India in the region to counter China, in this regard, since long, the US has been supporting Delhi in defense and trade ties to minimize the influence of Beijing in South Asia. As the US former Secretary of State John Kerry said that America wants to see India in a more dominant role in South Asia. However, American support towards India and giving it special waivers not only generate serious threats for China but also for Pakistan. Similarly, China and Pakistan have been trying to further strengthen their relations by increasing cooperation in multiple fields via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

As far as the American history about problem-solving of this region is concerned, it portrays bad picture where the US has the most significant stake in spoiling the regional peace along with generating various problems such as the birth of terrorism, gun culture, deaths and destruction, economic instability and many other issues as well. The emergence of gun culture and terrorism within Pakistan started after its alliance with the US during Afghan War and in War against Terror. It is mostly believed that the growing Sino-American rivalry is one of the primary reasons behind the worsening security conditions in South Asia. However, the friction between both countries could trigger new conflicts resultantly it would push the region into turmoil. Any misadventure created because of American support and favour to India and its policies of sidelining Pakistan and China in Afghan issue at this stage could further escalate the tensions among regional states resultantly invoking threats for the peace and stability of the region. In this regard, there is a dire need that both the US and China review their policies concerning South Asia and try to avoid conflict or misadventure for the sake of peace, stability and development of the region.

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