EUROPE ASIA FOUNDATION - INSIGHT
Samarkand: Changing Landscape in Central Asia
Uzbekistan hosted the 22nd SCO Summit on the 16th of September. The meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation took place against the background of the continuing crisis in Ukraine, and tense relations between China and the USA. Samarkand provided a historic backdrop to the meeting. The city celebrates the legacy of Tamerlane, a national hero who conquered large parts of Asia and Eastern Europe in the 14th century. This was the region where the Great Game was played out in the 19th century. It was then an area of competition between the Russian and British empires. The emergence of Central Asian Republics as independent states after the collapse of the USSR opened up the region - rich in oil and gas resources, to outside presence. This may not be unwelcome to the countries of the region, who look for political space.
Indian Prime Minister Modi in a bilateral meeting with President Putin called for an end to the Ukraine war. He reiterated his call for early cessation of hostilities and the need for dialogue and diplomacy. He also said that Putin has to take the initiative in this regard. The Samarkand Declaration[i] adopted at the conclusion of the SCO Summit was silent on the ongoing Ukraine crisis. It did not mention the recent crisis in the Taiwan Strait either. Were these situations omitted because they are outside Central Asia, and hence beyond the remit of SCO? Unlikely. The Summit Declaration did touch upon a wide range of international political and economic issues. They covered the revival of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and Afghanistan. Neither of these countries is part of Central Asia. We can perhaps find a clue to this puzzle in the voting pattern of the regional countries on the UN General Assembly resolution on Ukraine. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan abstained on the vote, while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were absent.
French President Macron has referred to PM Modi’s principled statement – that ‘today’s era is not one for war’ - in his address at the UN General Assembly on 21st September[ii]. Macron underlined the common responsibility of the international community to help the most vulnerable, the most affected by the climate and food crisis. Though Europe is worst affected, the impact of the Ukraine war has global repercussions. There has been a steep increase in the price of fossil fuels, fertilizer, and food. The crude oil prices have come down from a high of $ 130 per barrel after the Ukraine crisis erupted to around $ 92 per barrel now. But they are still 23 % higher compared to prices a year ago. Brent crude price has gone up from $ 73.57 to $ 90.52 on 20th September during this period[iii]. Gas prices in Europe are still more than seven times above the average for this time of the year. [iv]As winter approaches, gas prices are likely to go up. This adds to the fiscal and current account deficits of many oil-importing countries at a time of economic slowdown in the US, EU, and China. The Samarkand Declaration [v]expressed support for sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference in internal affairs. This reflects the sensitivity of the newly independent CARs and is a normal feature of the SCO Declarations. It also emphasized that ‘unilateral application of economic sanctions other than those adopted by the UNSC is inconsistent with the principles of international law and adversely affects third countries and international economic relations ’. This represents the common position of Russia and China, two of the key SCO members. Both face US sanctions.
There was also a reference to the missile defense issue. The Declaration mentioned the ‘negative impact of unilateral and unrestricted build-ups of global missile defense systems by individual countries or groups of States on international security and stability ’. This reflects Russia’s opposition to the deployment of missile defense systems by the USA. Russia believes this is a breach of the ABM Treaty.
There is cooperation and competition between Russia and China in Central Asia. This is reflected in the structures for security and economic cooperation built by Russia outside SCO. This includes CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) and its economic counterpart - Eurasian Economic Union. Neither includes China. China began with trade and investment. It has made a heavy investment in the production and transport of oil and gas from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. This commenced even before the announcement of its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. China has also moved into the security area. China took part in the military drills in Tajikistan in 2017 as part of a counter-terrorism exercise. The Chinese President recently visited Kazakhstan on his way to SCO Summit in Samarkand. He expressed support for Kazakhstan’s “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity’. He also added China would “categorically oppose the interference of any force in the internal affairs of your country.’ China is assuming a protector’s role over a member of the Russian-led security organization (CSTO). In January, a Russian-led force was invited by the Kazakh government to put down disturbances.[vi]
The Samarkand Declaration called for ‘sustained implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear program ‘. It also called for effective implementation of their commitments under the nuclear accord by all parties ‘in accordance with the UN Security Council resolution 2231’. The resolution was adopted to approve the nuclear deal (JCPOA). This was a hint that the original deal remains in place despite the US’s withdrawal since the UN Security Council resolution was still valid. The EU is also supporting the revival of JCPOA.
Though the Samarkand declaration included extensive references to the Afghanistan situation, there was no mention of the Taliban regime. The leaders obviously did not want to accord any recognition to the Taliban. It expressed ‘support’ to ‘the establishment of Afghanistan as an independent, neutral, united, democratic and peaceful State, free of terrorism, war, and drugs ’. It added that it is ‘critical to have an inclusive Government in Afghanistan, with representatives from all ethnic, religious and political groups of Afghan society ’. There is still unease about the Taliban regime amongst the SCO members.
SCO’s foundation was laid with the adoption of the Declaration of the Shanghai 5 in 1996. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was set up 5 years later in 2001. It adopted its Charter in July 2002. Since then, its membership has grown to 8 countries: China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, India, and Pakistan. A memorandum has been signed approving Iran’s membership. Bahrain, Maldives, Kuwait, UAE, and Myanmar have been accepted as dialogue partners. There is also an agreement to grant similar status to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. SCO is expanding its footprints. India will assume Presidency next year.
D. P. Srivastava
(Author is a former Indian Ambassador to Iran)
[i] Samarkand Declaration of the Council of the Heads of States of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Ministry of External Affairs, https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral
[ii] General Debate of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, https://gadebate.un.org/en
[iii] Oil Price, 20.9.2022
[iv] Bloomberg, Europe Gas Prices Drop as Nations Ramp Up Efforts to Ease Crisis, 19 September 2022
[v] Samarkand Declaration of the Council of Heads of State of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-
[vi] Wall Street Journal, The SCO’s Clumsy Push to Disrupt the World Order by Walter Russell Mead, September 19 2022