The post-9/11 world has seen an unprecedented change in the nature and gravity of its problems. While countries and nations have been able to move away from the bitter antagonisms of the past to embrace peace, Asia’s major regions continue to be a global hotspot. The long-standing Asian issues include the Palestine question, Kashmir, the tensions on the Korean Peninsula and across the Strait of Taiwan and the triangular relations among Japan, the US and China, or in an expanded regional context, pentagonal relations among these three powers, plus Russia and India.
The post-Cold War unipolarity has also created a serious imbalance of global power. The concept of collective security and acceptance of moral and legal imperatives enshrined in the UN Charter are no longer the basis of the world order today. Historical grievances and outstanding disputes continue to be unaddressed. Economic adventurism of the 19th century is back. What aggravates this scenario is the growing inability of the international community to respond to these challenges with unity of purpose.
The ramifications of endless tensions and instability in some parts of Asia for global peace and security are immense. Some of the sources of these tensions and conflicts in Asia include America’s yet-to-end war in Afghanistan and its continuing power-play in Central Asia, the Indo-US military and nuclear nexus with its destabilising effect on the prospects of peace in South Asia, the continuing Iranian nuclear crisis, North Korea’s worrisome nuclear and ICBM capability, the deadlocked six-party talks on this issue, and other unresolved territorial disputes in the region, including those between Japan and Russia, China and South Korea.
In this murky scenario, China represents Asia’s only ray of hope. As a pillar of strength for the world community, China is already playing an important role not only for the maintenance of international peace and security but also in averting any major global economic crises. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a discernible change in China’s foreign policy which, based on the principle of peaceful coexistence, has had an important effect on modern international relations. Globally, China is today a major stabilising force in the world’s economic and fiscal system and also an effective, stabilising player in the UN Security Council.
Guided by its long-term politico-economic interests, China has been following pragmatic policies in seeking improvement of its relations with the US and other advanced countries, as well as with India. On its differences or disputes with some of its neighbours, China’s policy is that they should be “appropriately managed and resolved through dialogue and consultation based on realities and in accordance with the basic norms governing international relations.” It has peacefully addressed its border issues with Russia and is engaged in creating a friendly neighbourhood with other adjacent countries.
But China has its own regional and global concerns and is not oblivious of the challenges resulting from the US-led new unipolarity or its ascendency in Asian regions. No wonder, in recent years, there has been a conspicuous development of closeness between China and Russia in reaction to what they perceive as growing US strategic outreach in their backyard. They especially share an interest in curbing Washington’s influence in strategically important and resource-rich Central Asia.
This year’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Beijing earlier this month clearly flagged a mood swing in Asia’s heartlands referring to the growing number of hotbeds in different regions by calling for the intensification of the SCO efforts to strengthen regional security and to jointly counter the global challenges. Indeed, China and Russia are bound together in this organisation by their common geo-strategic and economic interests in the region, their mutual concern over the increasing US hegemony and their eagerness to promote a multipolar world.
One should not forget that their main common worry has been the growing fear of Islamic fundamentalism and radical influences seeping out of this region and inflaming their discontented populations. According to President Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, “the cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism is the instability in Afghanistan.” This threat is no less worrisome to China and Russia. Both have been concerned over the persistent instability in the region and the resultant trends of terrorism, separation and extremism.
It is therefore understandable that despite its members’ professed intention to address “a full range of international issues,” the SCO’s focus remains firmly on their immediate concerns, regional security issues in general and Islamic extremism in particular. It is also natural that as main powers of the region, Russia and China would have vital interest in the region’s energy resources and its potential as a market and investment outlet. In this context, they have given the SCO a typical regional security dimension focused essentially on intra-regional threats to their own territorial integrity.
Defence and security cooperation is already an important part of the SCO agenda. In April this year, Russia and China conducted a joint naval exercise Sea Cooperation 2012 in the Yellow Sea, following four bilateral military exercises since 2005. The armed forces of the SCO member states held a joint “Peace Mission Drill” in Tajikistan earlier this month involving more than 2,000 servicemen from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The scenario envisaged joining forces in an anti-terrorist operation in mountainous areas against the background of a regional crisis caused by terrorist activities.
During President Putin’s recent state visit to Beijing preceding the SCO summit, Russia and China found common language in foreign affairs and undertook to cooperate to ensure security in the Asia Pacific region. In this context both countries vowed to expand military cooperation in the form of closer relations between their defence ministries and joint military and naval exercises. Moscow is reported to be working on an ambitious plan for modernisation of its military capabilities by 2015. China is also building up its naval capabilities. Both countries are already increasing their mutual trade. In the coming years, China could become a major buyer of Russia’s military hardware and energy resources.
In the context of Afghanistan, both China and Russia, like us, want early restoration of peace in that war-ravaged country free of foreign influence or domination. But they are more concerned over what they see as forces of “extremism, terrorism and separatism” emanating from this region as a conduit of destabilisation in their own territories. In fact, the very rationale for the establishment of SCO in the 90s was to forestall these very forces. To an extent, this creates a convergence of interests in the long-terms objectives of the SCO and NATO countries. This part of Asia is certainly in transition, but any assumptions of the SCO emerging as a regional security bloc at this stage would be too far-fetched.
Against this backdrop, China and Pakistan will have to explore new avenues of reinforcing their strategic relationship through further expansion in their multi-dimensional bilateral collaboration, including in areas of defence equipment, high-tech heavy industry and the energy sector, as well as in developing communication and energy infrastructure. Pakistan, as a crucial player in the Afghan endgame, must focus on a new regional approach that secures Afghanistan’s independence and neutrality through a UN-led peace process.
With impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan could also play an important role in bringing ECO and SCO together in terms of closer inter-regional cooperation between the two organisations, which have a tremendous overlap in terms of common membership and huge combined economic potential which if exploited properly could transform this part of Asia into an economic powerhouse besides making it a major factor of regional and global stability.
The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email: shamshad1941@ yahoo.com