The recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has triggered a debate among several Western circles claiming that Moscow and China are trying to create a new world order reflecting the interests of these two giant nuclear states.
Some believe the emergence of such order is impossible given the fact that member states have contradictory interests. Others assert that the perception of a common threat and the possibility of mutual economic dividends could unite the member states into a political bloc that might challenge the Western world order
It is true that the some of the SCO members have a diametrically opposite worldview and consider one another as a sworn enemy. For instance Pakistan and India, two important members of the organization, recently engaged in a deadly cold war that could have pushed the region towards a conflagration had the mighty American state not intervened and got the two states to return to status quo.
The US demonstrated its leadership in easing the tension that arose in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. The right-wing groups in India that are rabidly anti-Pakistan have been spewing venom against Muslims in general and Pakistan in particular. The legacy of General Zia and his myopic world view is also a hindrance in creating an environment in Pakistan that could enable Pakistanis to think of normalizing ties with their arch rival.
And it is not only these two states that have contradictory interests and policies. Afghanistan is also one of the factors creating friction between the states of the region. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, New Delhi and Moscow threw their support behind the socialist government of Afghanistan while Pakistan, Iran, China and America bankrolled the Afghan Mujahideen. Years after the Soviet Union’s withdrawal, the country plunged into a civil war with the states of the region supporting various belligerent groups. The rise of the Taliban once again led to the shifting of alliances.
Though China and Russia sorted out their differences years ago, many believe that the two giant powers are still competing in Central Asia. Moscow considers the region as its backyard. In the past it fiercely resisted any power that attempted to make in-road in this large land mass but it seems the Chinese capital has a gargantuan appetite to expand. Beijing is pumping billions of dollars into the crumbling infrastructure of these states in a bid to revive the economy, which was heavily dependent on Moscow during the Soviet times.
China has built three railroads connections in the region under the Belt and Road Initiative banner: Pop-Angren in Uzbekistan, Uzen-Bereket-Gorgan traversing Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran and the Khorgos dry port in Kazakhstan that connects China and Kazakhstan. A number of other projects are either being implemented or discussed between Beijing and the states of the region that have the potential to attract $170 billion in foreign direct investment. A large share of this investment is being offered by the China.
A number of Russian nationalists are wary of such investments by Beijing, asserting that the second largest economy is vying for influence in the backyard of Moscow. The Central Asian States find themselves in a fix. On the one hand, they border a giant nuclear irredentist state with the largest number of arsenal and on the other a rising economic power with the ambition to dominate the region. A large number of workers from Central Asia reside in Russia sending crucial remittances that are important for the economy of the region. But these states also badly need to modernize their infrastructure which has been in a shambles since the demise of the Soviet Union. So, this is where the two giant powers could witness a clash of interests. So far both China and Russia have avoided any conflict of interest with Beijing not only pumping billions of dollars into Central Asia but more than $400 billion into Russia as well that has been facing the brunt of economic sanctions slapped by the Western world.
China and India are also seeking influence not only in Central Asia and Iran but in the India Ocean as well. Like Turkey, India has also adopted a strange strategy. It wants to hobnob with the West but at the same time it desires to be an active member of the SCO that is partly dominated by its traditional rival China. The US is believed to be pampering India in its competition with Beijing. It wants to strengthen New Delhi against what some in Washington describe as the hegemonic power of the communist country in the region.
The two countries also have diverging interests in Afghanistan. While China more or less wants a role for Afghan Taliban in the war-torn country, New Delhi is still thought to be close to the incumbent Afghan government and especially elements in it that were the part of the Northern Alliance. New Delhi and Beijing also seem to be suspicious of each other’s development projects. The ruling Hindu right-wing party vehemently opposes CPEC while elements in Chinese government and their Pakistani friends in Islamabad are very sceptical towards Indian ambitions in Iran where it is operating the Chahbahar Port.
The position of Iran, still an observer at SCO, and India is also contradictory. Tehran considers the US an arch enemy that has been helping Israel and Arab states to destabilize Iran. Ironically, New Delhi not only wants to have good ties with Tehran and use it to have an access to Central Asia and Afghanistan but it also enjoys close ties with Washington and Tel Aviv. Such ties with the Zionist state and its backers in Washington irk Tehran which was deeply disappointed when New Delhi recently buckled under American pressure and reduced its trade with Iran.
But beyond these diverging interests, there are converging points as well. Central Asia, South East Asia and some other parts of the continent that are close to the BRI, face a yearly infrastructure financing shortfall of around $800 billion. Beijing with the $960 billion BRI, covering over 60 states and more than 1.5 billion population, has demonstrated by already spending over $200 on the project that it has the capacity to either completely meet the shortfall or create a consortium of various Chinese and non-Chinese companies to fill in the gap. Chinese investments and contracts in sub-Saharan Africa was $299 from 2005 to 2018 and Beijing has vowed to pump $60 billion more. According to a November 2018 report of the Financial Post, China has loaned roughly $150 billion to Latin American countries since 2005.
But many believe it is not only Chinese investment that could challenge the US-led world order. They argue that if Beijing and Russia have to show to the world that they really matter in world affairs then they would have to come up with a plan to counter American unilateralism which destroyed the economy of Yugoslavia, dislodged Saddam, carried out regime change in Ukraine, toppled the government of Colonel Qaddafi and unleash throat-slashing jihadis in Syria.
Now Trump and his tedious acolytes are plotting to trigger chaos in Iran and Venezuela – both of which are close to Moscow and Beijing. During the cold war, one of the purposes of the US that prompted it to jump into the Vietnam quagmire was to dispel the impression created by France that Washington would not come to the aid of its Western allies.
Can China and Russia assure their support to their allies by thwarting American unilateralism and preventing Washington from pursuing its reckless policy of regime change in the world? Only such assurance from Beijing and Moscow and practical actions would pave the way for a world order led by China and Russia.
The writer is a freelance journalist.