Chinese President Xi Jinping's summer tour of Eastern Europe and Central Asia culminated in his attendance at the annual Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which this year took place from June 23-24 in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
Among the plethora of international organizations which have tried to make sense of the international melting pot that followed the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union, the SCO has proved one of the most durable. Originally founded in 1996 (under the name the Shanghai Five) in the hope of ensuring that the changed situation in Central Asia would not lead to dissension between China and Russia, the SCO has expanded its scope to become a major multilateral regional forum with a focus on mutual security. As one of the few countries in the region which borders neither China nor Russia, Uzbekistan was not one of the original members but was clearly an appropriate participant in discussions pertaining to the region and thus joined the organization in 2001.
Since then, there have been no more accessions, but the prestige of the organization has been demonstrated by the number of adjoining countries who have applied for observer status. Now, the SCO is on the verge of a very significant expansion, with India and Pakistan about to become full members. Both countries sent high-level delegations to this year's summit (Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi) and signed the SCO Memorandum of Obligations in Tashkent, the last step toward full membership.
The general aim of keeping the peace within the region and basing that on solid, mutually beneficial economic cooperation remains the mainstay of Chinese economic and diplomatic policy, particularly in the context of China's Belt and Road Initiative, which involves all countries in the region.
In this respect, China places a great deal of reliance on Uzbekistan's support to push forward the SCO's economic and security cooperation. So far this year, the two countries have been working tightly together. Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov visited China in March, and his counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, was in Tashkent on a preparatory visit in May. Uzbekistan is seen as an essential partner for China within the organization.
At last year's summit in Ufa, Russia, China took the opportunity to blow the trumpet for the Belt and Road Initiative, offering large-scale funding from the $40-billion Silk Road Fund established in 2014 for projects in the Central Asian region and appealing to the member states to uphold the "Shanghai Spirit for common development." Now that arrangements for the funding of projects under the Belt and Road Initiative are that much further advanced, China hopes for increased engagement from SCO partners. After all, this is not a region where funding for infrastructure projects is easy to find.
And, the prospect of Chinese funding has helped concentrate attention on the coordination of infrastructure projects. Beijing has already invested billions of dollars in the natural gas pipeline network connecting Central Asian producers to China. Russia, the other major SCO partner, accepts that China is the economic locomotive of the region and that China's active participation will remain fundamental to achieving the collective aims of SCO partners.
There was also the security element of the SCO up for discussion in Tashkent. China is not particularly worried about the security of its land borders, but the nation is keen to ensure the support of its SCO partners for the general principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and, thus, is prepared to give full support to its neighbors' concerns. With the deleterious influence of the so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS) organization continuing to reach far beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq, ISIS terrorism presents a constant threat against which SCO partners are keen to coordinate their efforts.
China thus underlined once more its commitment to the joint aims of the SCO, both economic and political. It stressed that all partners are cooperating on an equal basis, but everyone is aware that China is the only nation with the economic clout to make things happen.
The author is a columnist with China.org.cn and a former British diplomat. The article was originally published on the website
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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