The jury is still out on Asia’s much vaunted counterweight to Nato

Fears that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will act as a Nato-counterweight are a little premature, writes Tom Hussain.

Russian president Vladimir Putin addresses the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Alexander Nemenov / AFP
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The series of major announcements associated with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit hosted by Russia this month are indicative of the emerging new “Great Game” in Eurasia and the Pacific Rim.

In particular, India and Pakistan’s induction into the SCO, along with Egypt’s application to join, has prompted some analysts to wonder whether the China-led counter-terrorism forum has begun to evolve into an Asian equivalent of the erstwhile Warsaw Pact.

There is no doubt that China is purposefully working towards becoming the 21st century’s alternative centre of global power. However, recent events point to a political economy-based strategy, rather than a military one.

The largely China-funded establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the founding of a similar institution by the Brics countries, has created powerful rivals to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, both of which are dominated by China’s geopolitical rivals, the United States and Japan.

They are as much a manifestation of Beijing’s long-term ambitions as its unilateral assertion of claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea.

The counterthrusts from Asia-Pacific countries allied with the US have been a direct response to China’s muscle flexing.

Japan is on the verge of amending its constitution to permit involvement in third-party regional conflicts it deems a threat to national security – a clear departure from its policy since 1945.

Faced with a discomforting choice between China and the US, the Vietnamese communist party chief called on the White House. And the US Congress gave its approval to a trans-Pacific free trade agreement with its regional allies – clearly designed to reduce their reliance on China’s economy, and deprive Beijing of its price advantage in the US market.

However, it is comforting to note that the strategic protagonists have been taking care not to indulge in the kind of spiralling rhetoric that could destabilise the region.

That maturity reflects the interdependent character of the globalised economy, with the economic strength of China and other Brics economies becoming leaders that will eventually supersede the G7. Thus any examination of the SCO as a rival power to Nato ought to be conducted in the context of the induction of India and Pakistan as new members. India is no friend of China’s, still rankling over Beijing grabbing Himalayan territory from it 50 years ago. It is also perturbed by China’s expansion of submarine activity in the Indian Ocean and its strategic infrastructure investments in the South Asian countries that form New Delhi’s backyard. India has responded with a mammoth expansion of its military as part of an enhanced defence cooperation with the East Asian nations who feel similarly threatened by Chinese expansionism.

Despite that, positive diplomatic engagement between them is at an all-time high. India is also the second-largest funder of the development bank and an equal partner in Brics and its associated bank.

It is not difficult to see why. India has no desire to allow Asia’s future to be manipulated exclusively by either China or the US, an attitude it shares with Brazil and South Africa.

It makes far more sense for India to be a vocal participant in the SCO, where it can look to its ally, Russia, to underwrite negotiations on its settlement of disputes with China and support its interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia.

The induction of Pakistan also apparently reflects such thinking, and establishes, for the first time, a forum where the South Asian foes can expect good-faith involvement in the long term resolution of their differences. Indeed, the two agreed to a series of steps to reduce cross-border skirmishing.

The SCO is not functioning as a collection of anti-Nato powers and there are no signs of it becoming a regional enforcer like the African Union. Nor is its primary objective – coordinating counterterrorism policy and actions – at odds with western policy.

Describing the SCO as a “minus America” forum is dubious because China and the West have coordinated well during the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, with Beijing dragging Moscow into line.

Similarly, China and the US have recently worked closely to reduce tensions between India and Pakistan, and helped arrange unprecedented direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Tom Hussain is a journalist and political analyst based in Islamabad

On Twitter: @tomthehack