The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Japan: Moving Together to Reshape the Eurasian Community

Akihiro Iwashita
Akihiro Iwashita Professor - Slavic-Eurasian Research Center, Hokkaido University

January 28, 2008

Events surrounding the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are often interpreted negatively, particularly by U.S. analysts. The decision in the 2005 SCO summit at Astana to demand the withdrawal of a “foreign army” from the SCO sphere and the invitation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Shanghai summit in 2006 tend to be considered as the SCO’s common will, initiated by Russia and China, to end the U.S. presence in Central Asia. Some Western analysts believe that the current SCO tendencies have developed into an anti-U.S. coalition. While many doubt that, their analyses, nonetheless, should be tested against an informed and systematic study of how the SCO has evolved so far.

According to careful research, the possibility of the SCO developing toward an anti-U.S. coalition is overstated. Even if Vladimir Putin often trumpets the SCO’s role in balancing U.S. influence in the region, other member states basically do not share this view so much. Even China, a would-be best partner in balancing the U.S., has repeatedly emphasized the SCO’s utility in mostly economic terms while downplaying the military context. In Russia’s mind, out of fear of China making inroads into Central Asia, the establishment of such a strategic partnership within the SCO sounds far from the kind coalition against the U.S. that many analysts claim.

Factually, the SCO decision on limiting the U.S. presence in Central Asia was unexpectedly demanded by Uzbek President Islam Karimov, while Russia and China both sought to tone down the terms of the declaration. Even the invitation to the Iranian President to the Shanghai summit in 2006, as well as to other heads of the SCO observer states, was a procedural protocol. Ahmadinejad did attend the summit along with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar, though Ahmadinejad played up his commitment to the SCO in order to show a strong counteraction against U.S. pressure over his nuclear development program.

Groundless misunderstandings of the SCO are often repeated. One of the reasons for this is that the spirit and development of the SCO is too often ignored.

A catalyst for the SCO: regional cooperation on border issues

The SCO was conceived out of the “Shanghai process” on the basis of the “Four Plus One” framework (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, plus China) of the former Soviet-Sino border cooperation. The SCO’s predecessor, the so-called “Shanghai Five,” was born under a Russo-Chinese co-initiative as a forum to discuss confidence-building measures (CBMs) and the demarcation issue in the former Soviet-Chinese border region. The beginning was in the late 1980s, when both sides agreed to measures to prevent would-be military conflicts and resolve territorial issues in the border area. These were important and effective confidence-building measures: the military agreement led to a further agreement in April 1990on the leading principles of armed forces reduction and confidence-building in the military field on the border, and the territorial accord helped produce a 1991 agreement which resolved 98% of the eastern border between the Soviet Union and China. Two disputed islands, Heixiazi and Abagaitui, were untouched by this agreement.

After 1993, two regular committees—one for confidence-building and arms reduction and one for joint boundary demarcation—began to meet under the “Four Plus One” formula. Here we focus on the fruits borne by the committee for confidence-building and arms reduction.

The first important result was the Shanghai agreement on military confidence building in the border areas, signed in 1996. The five member nations agreed to stabilize their border areas by establishing non-military zones and promising to exchange military information. The overall effectiveness was dubious, but it did represent a symbolic step toward peace and cooperation on the former Sino-Soviet border, which had been historically plagued by severe military conflicts and a deep-rooted mutual distrust. Since then, “Shanghai” has acquired the special meaning of “stability and trust” among the five members.

In February 1997, when the leaders of the five met in Moscow and signed an agreement on the mutual reduction of armed forces along the border area, the level of “stability and trust” was upgraded. The Moscow agreement set limitations for arms and personnel within 100 kilometers of the former Sino-Soviet border, and allowed for mutual inspections. The name “Shanghai Five” became popular just following the second summit.

Over time, the “Shanghai process” developed. It brought about a cooperation organization and widened its membership to include Uzbekistan as a full-fledged member in 2001 and Mongolia, India, Pakistan, and Iran as observer members a few years later. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization reached other dimensions: security cooperation beyond the shared borders and economic regional cooperation, while maintaining and developing the original spirit of the “Shanghai process.” The catalyst for this spirit was undoubtedly the early cooperation on border issues.

Different motivations

As the SCO institution develops, it is often perceived to be developing in new areas. The “Shanghai process,” though it principally shed light on the border cooperation, was sometimes illustrated by Sino-Russian strategic cooperation in world affairs. In the 1990s this feature was neither particularly strong nor comprehensive, and seemed more like a series of ad hoc accommodations on individual events, though it sometimes served for balancing against the West and U.S. foreign policy. This orientation became more pronounced following the establishment of the SCO and when Uzbekistan, a Central Asian country and former Soviet republic that shares a border neither with Russia nor with China, joined as a full member. In a sense, Uzbekistan is free from the legacy of border successes accumulated by the “Shanghai process,” and the ethos that developed from them. Uzbekistan has a kind of “free hand” within the SCO policy, and how Uzbekistan acts in the SCO has been decisive for the SCO orientation. This became apparent following the SCO’s reaction just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which was enabled by Uzbekistan’s decision to permit the U.S. presence in Central Asia. But U.S.-Uzbek relations deteriorated after the Andijan incident in May 2005. At the SCO’s Astana Summit in July 2005, the organization released a declaration calling for members of the international anti-terrorism coalition to set a timeline for withdrawal of their forces from the territory of SCO member countries, on the basis that the phase of active military operations in Afghanistan had ended. Uzbekistan followed up on this later in the month by formally notifying the U.S. that its forces would be evicted. Uzbekistan appears to play the role of steering country for the SCO, particularly in its balancing politics.

India and Iran, though only observer states, approach the SCO in a way similar to Uzbekistan. India shares a border with China, but not with Central Asia while Iran’s neighboring countries include Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan – nations far removed from the “Shanghai spirit.” Therefore, they have less at stake with regard to the SCO, and use it differently than the original members. India hopes to be in a close coalition with the U.S. and places a relatively low priority on the SCO; its main interest in the forum is as an aid in balancing Pakistan. On the contrary, Iran has some reasons to need the SCO and is more aggressive than India. Iran is isolated even in the Persian Gulf and faces pressure from the U.S., particularly on the nuclear issue. For Iran, the SCO seems a good place for maneuvering and balancing against the U.S., and Tehran is eager to join as a full-fledged member. In short, it is the presence of Uzbekistan and Iran in the SCO that makes the organization appear to American analysts to be a “rouge states union.”

Mongolia and Pakistan do share the original interest in border issues, but they also perceive the utility of the organization in different ways. Mongolia lies between China and Russia and is integral to the solutions of Sino-Russian border issues. Therefore, Russia and China are said to have agreed that the first country to be invited to the SCO would be Mongolia. Though many Mongolian experts expressed their dissatisfaction with the SCO and refused to make a commitment to it, Mongolia eventually joined the SCO first as an observer state in 2004. Mongolia is involved in border issues, but it hopes to develop its relations with the U.S. and Japan as “third neighbor countries” beyond the border and it is not heavily invested in the “Shanghai spirit.” It simply could not refuse an invitation from its two giant neighbors to join the SCO. On the contrary, Pakistan has been eager to join the SCO since 2000. Pakistan was the first country to apply for membership but was refused on the basis of its deep commitment to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Some watchers may wonder about Islamabad’s commitment to the SCO but Pakistan has worked to stabilize its Central Asian border areas. It is not difficult for Pakistan to make its commitment to a “Shanghai process.”

Becoming more open and transparent

So, there are two dimensions to the SCO. The first is border politics and regional cooperation, following the “Shanghai spirit,” and the second is balancing in/around the SCO, an approach promoted particularly by Uzbekistan and Iran. The most important thing is to discern between these two dimensions. The balancing dimension may serve some member countries’ short-term interests but could cause huge damage to SCO unity and its legacy of constructive cooperation (including cooperation with nearby non-member states) in the long run.

Therefore, an urgent task is to prevent a collision between the SCO and others, particularly the U.S. In this sense, the SCO should reaffirm the original spirit of Shanghai more clearly. It should be more open and transparent, and follow its original goals of serving as a new model for the post-Cold War world and “never be against a third party.” At the same time, the U.S. and some western countries should stop pushing the SCO toward opposition to the West.

The SCO’s pursuit of a “multi-polar world” is understandable to a degree, but the SCO must not act as an exclusive forum against the U.S. and Europe. How can we bridge that gap? The answer will help avoid a collision and will help construct a partnership between the SCO and the U.S., Europe, Japan, and other countries that want to establish peaceful and stable regime over Central Eurasia.

The August 2007 summit in Bishkek apparently calmed down the anti-U.S. tendency within the SCO that some researchers had played up. The results likely suggest that there is a good opportunity for a dialogue between the SCO and the West. Japan has a role to play here: that of intermediary.

Japan’s commitment to the SCO

Some reasons to put Japan on the agenda are as follows.

  1. Japan’s “colorless” presence in Central Asia;
  2. Its “all-around good ties” with the observer member states;
  3. Its “strategic accommodation” both with Russia and China;
  4. Its “alliance” with the U.S.;
  5. Its role as a “gateway to Asia” vis-à-vis the West.

Japan’s considerable commitment to the political and economic development of the Central Asian countries is well-known. They appreciate Japan’s contributions to the region, while recognizing that Japan has little linkage to any specific religion or ideology. They also have little to fear about Japan wanting hegemony over the region. Even Uzbekistan would accept Japan’s presence in Central Asia. The “Central Asia plus Japan” format is also successfully strengthened.

“Colorless” positioning is also true for Japan’s relations with the observer states. Japan is a neutral but desirable partner to both India and Pakistan. Even Iran has stable relations with Japan thanks to Japan’s independent foreign policy toward the Middle East since the 1970s. Mongolia, both a Central Eurasian partner and a member of the Northeast Asian community, is open to Japan’s involvement in the region.

But problems may come from Russia, China, and the U.S. It is true that Russia responded negatively to the “Central Asia plus Japan” format and ex-Premier Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Tashkent and Almaty in 2006. China, sensitive about Japanese militarism in the 19th and 20th centuries, is also worried that Japan may develop ties with Central Asia, which China sees as its “backyard.” However, after Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s inauguration, strategic bilateral dialogue developed both with Russia and China. China clearly has restrained its criticism of Japan (i.e., “Japan-bashing”) recently and Russia appreciated Japan’s active commitment to the Russian market regardless of the existing territorial dispute in the north Pacific.

The U.S. also might as well have a chance to change its harsh attitude toward the SCO in consideration of the Bush administration’s recent policy shifts. Furthermore, after the presidential election this year, a mood for reconciliation with the Eurasian powers is not out of the question. Japan, as a trustworthy ally of the U.S., should persuade the U.S. to make a more positive commitment toward the SCO, to reshape the Eurasian security situation together. As a historic gateway to Asia, Japan has an incentive to invite other western countries to back up this mission. Then, how do we go forward toward a concrete procedure? I point out the procedure as follows, in the “Eurasian Interaction Initiative”:

  • the SCO should clarify and utilize the concept of the “Dialogue Partner” as allowed in Article 14 of its charter; this is a way to increase the organization’s interaction with powers from outside the region without compelling them to be categorized as “Observers”
  • similarly, the SCO should better utilize the “Guest” category in order to involve states or other actors on an ad-hoc basis, as in the case of Afghanistan’s President Karzai
  • pre-summit interactions: e.g. the Japanese Foreign Minister’s visit to Dushanbe on the eve of the 2008 Summit
  • establishing a “SCO plus alpha” format; from a “Guest” toward a “Partner”: the SCO plus 3 (EU, U.S., Japan), the SCO Regional Forum and so on
  • linking the SCO and other regional organizations as SAARC, ASEAN, the Six-Party Talks (a would-be future Northeast Asian security forum), and others toward reshaping a Eurasian security community

It is important not to hasten deep commitment to the SCO. The SCO has its own independent and proper history. It is enough, in the first phase, simply to establish an interface with others. “Guest” status is appropriate here. Then, we go to the second phase: a “dialogue partner.” Though the status is mentioned in the SCO Charter, its potential has yet to be realized. The next phase is to create a format for “SCO plus alpha,” for example, “SCO plus 3,” including Japan, EU and the U.S. If the U.S. has yet to commit to the process, “SCO plus EU and Japan” will suffice, for the time being. As dialogue proceeds and trust grows, multi-vectored cooperation will be on track. At the last phase, the institutionalization would be linked with other institutions, e.g. a future security forum on Northeast Asia, perhaps.

Conclusion: toward sharing a “Eurasian Interaction Initiative”

In conclusion, I wrap up a balance sheet on the “Eurasian Interaction Initiative.”

The benefits of wider interaction to the SCO are as follows:

  • more prestige
  • preventing potential conflicts with the West
  • role as a key component of a future all-around Eurasian forum
  • diminishment of the “balancing” dynamic in the SCO through a build-up of mutual confidence mechanisms with non-member states and groups
  • strengthening the positive aspects of constructive regional cooperation with global support

The benefits for Japan are as follows:

  • cost-benefit commitment to Central Asia (in a liaison with the “Central Asia plus Japan” format)
  • cost-effective commitment to the SCO as its “Partner”: neither deep nor heavy obligations toward the SCO (non-involvement in daily arrangements or meetings within the SCO)
  • prestige that follows the promotion of an emerging Eurasian security forum
  • redefining and developing Japan’s role in the U.S.-Japan security arrangement
  • multi-faceted channels for managing relations with Russia and China

There isn’t any reason to exclude the “SCO plus alpha” format or to reject Japan’s commitment to the SCO developing process. To realize the initiative, cooperation from the EU and the U.S.—or, at the very least, understanding—will be necessary. How these members of the “plus three” coordinate to make a more stabile Eurasia is the next key to be discussed.