Shanghaied Into Cooperation
What tensions emerged among Shanghai Cooperation Organization members over the Russia-Georgia conflict?
September 1, 2008
At its eighth summit meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) sent mixed signals about the Russo-Western face-off over the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Partly due to the ambiguity of the SCO’s declaration, sharply contrasting interpretations have arisen about the real position of this important regional institution on the conflict between Russia and Georgia.
Western media outlets are taking delight in highlighting what is being portrayed as a snub and a loss of face for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who failed to secure the SCO’s recognition of independence of the two separatist regions from Georgia.
The SCO’s unwillingness to explicitly condemn Georgian aggression on the disputed territories and its reaffirmation of the French-brokered “Six Principles” formula for stabilizing the situation are being projected in the West as defeats for Russian diplomacy and harbingers of Moscow’s international isolation.
The Russian media’s take on what exactly transpired the SCO summit is, in the propaganda war context of the “new Cold War,” quite distinct from what is appearing in The New York Times or the London Times.
Russian journalist Vladimir Radyuhin wrote in the The Hindu that the Dushanbe summit was notable for endorsing Russia’s “active role” in restoring peace in the Caucasus and that Moscow “won crucial support for its efforts in South Ossetia from China and other allies in the SCO.”
The truth lies in between these two competing versions of reality. Indeed, sovereignty and statehood are social facts that depend on wide international approval. The Russian Duma’s unanimous vote for the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has not yet found any takers among member states of the United Nations.
The SCO’s wishy-washy tone would not have brought much cheer to Medvedev, who was hasty in pursuing the option of carving out two new nation states.
With the lack of SCO recognition, South Ossetia and Abkhazia could continue to be in international legal limbo for a long time, joining the ranks of proto-states like Western Sahara, Palestine and Kurdistan.
If one were to name an international organization with strong anti-Western inclinations, the SCO would rank at the very top, alongside the ALBA in Latin America. Why then did the SCO not come out unequivocally in Russia’s favor and confirm its characteristic bias against NATO and Western domination of the world?
The answer leads to the doorsteps of China, which has not shown much enthusiasm for Russia’s occupation of parts of Georgia or for its advocacy of national self-determination for Ossetians and Abkhazians.
The Chinese reaction to the “Five Day War” that changed the landscape of the global power struggle in early August has been unexpectedly cagey. Unlike the NATO bombing campaign on Serbia in 1999 over Kosovo, which Beijing condemned in no uncertain terms as a threat to international peace, China has not taken an anti-Georgian — or anti-Western — stand in the case of the war in the Caucasus.
China’s sensitivity to self-determination claims in Tibet and Xinjiang were obvious factors that deterred it from backing Russia’s forthright military and diplomatic moves for shutting Georgia permanently out of the disputed land.
The other issue staying Beijing’s hand is fear that Moscow might earn too many plaudits from the whole affair — and end up becoming the dominant player at the SCO and in Eurasia.
Had the SCO unanimously stood behind Russia in the standoff with Georgia, the extraordinary military success of Moscow would have been tailed by a brilliant diplomatic victory for Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
China, for all its enthusiasm for a multilateral world, has insecurities vis-à-vis Russia — and this has played a role in rendering the SCO somewhat divided between two pillars.
What is interesting about the August 2008 SCO summit in Dushanbe is that smaller members like Kazakhstan individually said exactly what Medvedev was hoping to hear from the entire organization.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbaev pulled no punches on the sidelines of the summit and announced that his country “understands and supports the measures taken by Russia” in defense against “Georgian armed forces who attacked peaceful civilians.” The distance between this unalloyed stance and the gingerliness of the Chinese government cannot better illustrate the divisions within SCO.
Having acknowledged the less-than-unified nature of the SCO, it bears reminder that practically no international regional organization can be unanimous on big matters of war and peace.
The European Union was badly divided in the run up to and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, triggering American neologisms like “old Europe” versus “new Europe.”
The inability of the EU to come up with a single voice on foreign policy does not take away from the fact that it is the most successful instance of regional integration in the world.
The African Union has shown feet of clay in living up to its stated aims of promoting democracy on the continent and disallowing a free run for tyrants. Its soft spot for Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe has kept him in the saddle despite his flagrant violations of the principles of democracy.
In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) too, the dilemma of whether or not to press for democracy in Burma (Myanmar) has exposed heterogeneity of views among member states and left it prone to inaction.
The SCO’s diversity on the crisis in the Caucasus reveals that no regional organization can be totally single-minded on each and every topic on the table.
SCO’s dual power structure — with China and Russia as two heavyweights with a history of bad blood but also a recent past of close-knit partnership — means that there are opposing tugs inviting member states, depending on the issue at hand.
At the same time, Western commentators err in thinking that Sino-Russian tensions will eventually doom SCO and split it into two smaller sub-groups. The fact that China has resolved seemingly insoluble border disputes with Russia in the past few years and is involved in very close economic and military exchanges with Russia should put no one in doubt that the two are acting in concert on the world stage.
Not since the decade of the 1950s have Beijing and Moscow inched as close to each other as today.
The bonhomie of the two Communist giants vanished after the 1960s, as China veered into the Western camp through the machinations of Henry Kissinger and the opportunism of Mao Zedong.
In the contemporary era, the possibility of China swinging again into the Western embrace to checkmate Russia is less probable, but it is certainly a strategic option that Washington will attempt.
Cracks in the SCO might appear as opportunities for the United States to exploit and deepen — thereby invalidating a mighty regional institution that is in competition with NATO. But then, as mentioned above, no organization is immune from multiplicity of views and of its members.
If at all there is a regional alliance that looks jaded and shaky after the war in the Caucasus, it is NATO, not the SCO.
If there is a regional alliance that looks jaded and shaky after the war in the Caucasus, it is NATO, not the SCO.
Western commentators err in thinking that Sino-Russian tensions will eventually doom SCO and split it into two smaller sub-groups.
Practically no international regional organisation can be unanimous on big matters of war and peace.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia could continue to be in international legal limbo for a long time, joining the ranks of proto-states like Western Sahara, Palestine and Kurdistan.
Sovereignty and statehood are social facts that depend on wide international approval.