by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 5, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1427)
Even before the annual meeting of heads of member-states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) opened on June 15, officials in Washington were pulling their hair at what they perceived as a challenge to US hegemony in the vital Eurasian region. The six member-states of the SCO (Russia, China, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), which comprise a landmass of 30 million square kilometres with a combined population of 1.455 billion (about a quarter of humanity) met in Shanghai, China, for two days. It is neither their landmass nor their population, however, that gives American officials the jitters, but the fact that the region is rich in oil and gas, and that the two major regional powers, China and Russia, are beginning to flex their political and military muscles.
This year's meeting had an additional irritant for the US: Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, was invited as an observer. Given the West's shrill propaganda campaign against Iran's peaceful nuclear-power programme, this invitation was seen as a pointed snub to Washington. When US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld criticised the SCO for inviting President Ahmedinejad (New York Times, June 4), the SCO secretary, General Zhang Deguang, replied immediately: "We cannot abide by other countries calling our observer nations sponsors of terror. We would not have invited them if we believed they sponsored terror", according to the Associated Press story on June 7.
Both Russia and China regard US policies as inimical to their interests. Russia, the former Soviet Union, lost the struggle for superpower status in 1991; Moscow is now gradually reasserting itself regionally and on the international stage by standing up to the US. This is most clearly visible in Moscow's refusal to agree with the US that Iran and Hamas (the Palestinian Islamic movement) are sponsors of terrorism. Similarly, Moscow is flexing its energy muscles by telling countries in Eastern Europe that if they wish to serve American interests then they should not expect to get cheap gas from Russia. China, on the other hand, is anxious to secure a steady supply of energy for its rapidly expanding economy. America's intrusion in Central Asia is seen as unwarranted trespassing in a region considered vital to China's interests. China wants to fulfill its energy requirements without America interfering in oil and gas flows.
When Chinese president Hu Jintao met President Ahmedinejad of Iran on June 16, he praised his Iranian guest profusely. An energy deal worth US$100 billion is being negotiated between the two countries. As part of the initial memorandum of understanding, China's largest oil refiner, Sinopec, will buy 250 million tons of liquefied natural gas from Iran over 25 years. Although the deal has not yet been finalised, it shows Beijing's inclinations. No less a part in Chinese assertiveness is played by Washington's military humiliation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today the US is like a giant hampered by Lilliputians.
While SCO member-states naturally want to safeguard their own interests, they also seem to be conscious of the larger importance of their cooperation. For instance, they issued a communiqué to "comprehensively deepen cooperation in combating terrorism, separatism, extremism and drug trafficking". These are buzzwords that have more to do with their domestic problems, but there are also larger issues involved. At last year's summit at Almaty, the SCO demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the region. Uzbekistanpromptly shut down the US military base at Karshi-Khanabad. This was not exclusively at the prompting of the SCO, but that did help. Although Kyrgyzstan still maintains a US military base and Tajikistan allows its bases to be used for US operations inside Afghanistan, the SCO's demand is bound to increase pressure on the US to pack up and leave. Uncle Sam is not likely to oblige any time soon, but the fact that these states feel emboldened to make the demand reflects changing geopolitical realities in the region.
The SCO's communiqué made another point quite clear: its members "will not join any alliance or international organisation that undermines the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of SCO member states. They do not allow their territories to be used to undermine the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of other member states, and they prohibit activities by organisations or gangs in their territories that are detrimental to the interests of other member states." Iran is not a member of the SCO, but it has been given observer status along withPakistan, Afghanistan, India and Mongolia. These countries have shown a keen interest in joining.
Similarly, the SCO has entered into agreements with Pacific Rim countries as well as with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC). These are essentially economic agreements, but their political implications cannot be overlooked when viewed against the backdrop of other SCO pronouncements. Consider, for instance, this from the communiqué: "The SCO will make a constructive contribution to the establishment of a new global security architecture of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and mutual respect. Such architecture is based on the widely recognised principles of international law. It discards ‘double standards' and seeks to settle disputes through negotiation on the basis of mutual understanding. It respects the right of all countries to safeguard national unity and their national interests, pursue particular models of development and formulate domestic and foreign policies independently and participate in international affairs on an equal basis."
The call to establish "a new global security architecture of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and mutual respect" as well as to discard "double standards" is a direct criticism of US policies and methods. Washington has pursued a policy of unilateralism and arrogated to itself the right to launch pre-emptive strikes against any country it decides is a threat to its security or interests. It was this unilateralism and the doctrine of pre-emptive strike that landed the US in the quagmire of Iraq. The SCO member-states neither subscribe to such policies nor are willing to accept them any longer. They have spelled out their position thus: "Threats and challenges can be effectively met only when there is broad cooperation among all countries and international organisations concerned. What specific means and mechanism should be adopted to safeguard security of the region is the right and responsibility of countries in the region." The US is being told in no uncertain terms to go away and mind its own business.
However, the SCO, seems to repose much confidence in the UN, describing it as "the universal and the most representative and authoritative international organization" that is "entrusted with primary responsibility in international affairs and is at the core of formulating and implementing the basic norms of international law." Since two of its members—Russia and China—are on the Security Council and have veto-wielding powers, their emphasis on UN primacy may be understandable, although the Security Council has been used by the US to advance its own agenda. Whenever Washington has not got its way through the UN, as in Iraq, it has simply bypassed it. Recently, the US attempted to use the Security Council to exert pressure on Iranby threatening sanctions, but both Russia and China refused to cooperate, forcing Uncle Sam to retreat. Washington's changed tone vis-à-vis Iran is the direct result of Tehran's bold stand and of resistance from China and Russia in the Security Council. Even the Europeans are not prepared to go along with Washington's belligerent policies, although in public America andEurope try to maintain a united front.
America's cultural imperialism, which has irked even France, also came under criticism at the summit. The SCO declared cultural diversity to be something to be applauded, not lamented. It called for respect for diversity by challenging the US's attempts to interfere in other countries' affairs using differences in cultural traditions, and in political and social systems. Instead it emphasized: "Models of social development should not be ‘exported'. Differences in civilizations should be respected, and exchanges among civilizations should be conducted on an equal basis to draw on each other's strengths and enhance harmonious development."
The US's political unilateralism and cultural imperialism were bound to come up against other countries' and peoples' preference for autonomy sooner or later, but it is interesting to note that the challenge has come from Russia, a former superpower, and China, an emerging one, and not from the Muslims who have brought the US giant to its knees. Therein lies the Muslims' weakness: they are capable of achieving remarkable feats against great odds, but at present are unable to offer to the world a model that can be emulated. With the demise of the shortlived US-dominated unipolar world, the alternative for the future should have come from the Muslims. It is not too late even now to think in terms of a world free from the exploitation of the weak by the powerful, in which the rights of the weak and vulnerable are upheld. This cannot be achieved by the present leaderships of the Muslim world, nor by their governments; only Islamic movements with energy, courage and imagination can bring the current nightmare to an end for a better future for all of humanity.