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The ever-evolving geopolitical board game of Eurasia is facing its most defining moment to date. If one were to buy into the Western pathology of viewing the Asian Renaissance as a “Cold War 2.0,” then the new Berlin Wall would be the Line of Control (LoC), not the South China Sea or North Korea. But perhaps history will have a more tragic sense of humor, as the alliance system today more closely resembles the multipolar Concert of Europe than it does the false bipolarity of the Yalta Conference.
The problem with the Cold War analogy strikes at the core of a historiographical misunderstanding that continues to plague Western policymakers and military strategists. “Bipolarity” meant restraining the Global South, preventing it from choosing a development path independent of either the American or Soviet options. It is no coincidence that the 1979 Iranian Revolution chose neither and received condemnation from both sides. It is also no coincidence that China’s rise was strategically (and diplomatically) connected to distancing itself from the Soviet Union while balancing its flirtation with Western institutions against its own unique history, political structure, and economic potential.
The possibility of change is always restrained by our shadows of yesterday. And the shadows of yesterday force us all, one way or another, to become devils.
Maybe the world will see (or has already seen) the Chinese become the development masters. Maybe the promise of South-South integration, an Asia for Asian themselves, or a world freed from the ghosts of Western imperialism will amount to bitter disappointment. Disappointment traced back to Mao Zedong, filtered through Eurasianists, and now rebranded foolishly as “Cold War 2.0.”
Cocktails through Eurasian institutions
And now history presents a moment where all these promises will be tested. That moment lies in Kashmir.
The delicate situation in Kashmir poses one of the greatest risks of full-scale conflagration in the crisis nodes throughout the larger Eurasian continent. But Kashmir also poses a great opportunity for China to show diplomatic leadership through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the quintessential “Eurasian” institution.
Established in 2001, the SCO was the flagship Eurasian project long before the formal branding of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). It emerged from the Soviet Union’s dissolution in the early 1990s as a forum to resolve territorial disputes and security concerns in Central Asia. It has since expanded as a loose multilateral institution where member states can discuss common objectives and concerns ranging from security and counterterrorism to economic development and cultural promotion.
The original member states were all of the Central Asian republics except Turkmenistan plus Russia and China. The organization’s main success has been its ability to stabilize the Russia-China strategic relationship in the past two decades as well as provide a flexible and cooperative format to converge the power-balancing interests of its members.
Branded as a case of “open regionalism,” concrete outcomes of the SCO process include: the formation of an intelligence-sharing protocol (Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, or RATS); joint military drills and security coordination; economic assistance and infrastructure development; and a Eurasia-wide university network.
Strategic tension ahead
The inclusion of Pakistan and India as full members in 2017 raised questions over the future of the SCO. Most commentators focus on the fact that with Iran and Turkey as “observer states,” the SCO has become the irresistibly perfect counter to Western-led institutions like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations.
However, rarely mentioned is just how strongly China opposed India’s and Pakistan’s admission to the organization. China’s primary interest in the SCO is to use the institution as a tool for regional cooperation and coordination, not as a tool to demarcate Eurasian norms and customs from Western influence. Indeed, China has rejected several proposals to counter the West directly through the institution.
Another common pathology is oversimplifying Russia’s anxiety about its strategic relationship with China and the future of the Eurasian project. Differences between the two nations have always characterized their recent partnership – differences over liberalizing markets, the role of Russian security capacity in the region, oil politics, and currency.
Yet Russia’s push to expand the membership of the SCO reveals that it considers the institution a potential buffer against Western encroachment, whether that be in Ukraine, the Persian Gulf region or Afghanistan. And this security vision conflicts, at least facially, with Chinese statements about their intentions with the institution. It also signifies that geopolitical outcomes in Eurasia are not solely driven by complete cooperation (全面合作) or the growing financial power of the Chinese. Rather, trends in Eurasian integration are the result of a constant rebalancing of strategic interests and re-territorializing of economic activity and expansion. And institutions like the SCO crystalize these trends into concrete forms.
Limitations of the SCO
But against all the hype, the trend of the Kashmir dilemma looks grim through the lens of the SCO. Because of its open and flexible model, the SCO lacks the power to make robust legally binding agreements like other multilateral institutions. And while this is a real strength for aligning development strategies between countries, it does little to deter states from pursuing their own interests that are incompatible with the “Spirit of Shanghai.”
Although the organization directly concerns such areas as security and border disputes, any binding agreement must happen through consensus. So while China and Pakistan could leverage the SCO to open dialogue with the Indians, without any formal resolution power, these negotiations would be endless and serve as a mere formality.
And in raw geopolitical terms, India simply has no interest in pursuing a multilateral resolution to the problem in Kashmir. This means that any rebalancing of power in the region will occur through less predictable and often more volatile means – all at the expense of the larger Eurasian integration process.
All eyes will be on the 2020 SCO meeting planned for Chelyabinsk, Russia. There, we hope, members will address these larger geopolitical issues in a way that overcomes India’s unilateral interest. Cooperative resolution would count as a big win for China and Eurasianism at large – however unlikely it seems at the present moment.