|June 23, 2001||atimes.com|
Shanghai spirit may yet haunt Asia
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - For Chinese newspapers, it is already a model for the new world order. The People's Daily reported on June 15 that "the Shanghai Five mechanism, started in 1996, has produced a series of important achievements over the last five years and has gradually evolved into a new model of regional cooperation [italics added]".
This mechanism is the new Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), formerly the Shanghai Five, following the admission of Uzbekistan to join China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The newspaper reported the grouping "advocates the principle of equality and mutual benefits for win-win results and mutual development". The paper then implicitly contrasted this with Western alliances that it usually refers to as "American-led".
"The Shanghai Spirit speaks for mutual respect and seeks common points while reserving differences. This has been proven to be the only realistic choice for countries of different civilizations, backgrounds, and cultural traditions to attain a peaceful co-existence," wrote the newspaper. "The new model of regional cooperation represented by the Shanghai Spirit is a partnership, but not an alliance. It is an open mechanism not targeted at any third party. In dealing with state-to-state relations, it demands due respect to the interests of the other side while seeking one's own strategic interests," it continued.
The six countries attending launched signals to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and underscored their willingness to receive new members, which could include Pakistan, Iran or even Turkey, thus bringing the reach of the partnership right to the Mediterranean coasts. The economic goal is to increase trade relations, while, in terms of security, the six aim to maintain stability in the region without political preconditions.
They therefore concentrate on cooperation against "terrorism, extremism, and separatism". There are no indications that this cooperation will consider ideological issues, such as what is today's democracy, or what yesterday might have been socialism. There is nothing here that compares to the old, "third-world" view of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. An international anti-terrorism and separatism coordination command will be set up in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, to fight against local guerrilla forces, which might be Uzbeki fundamentalists or Xinjiang's pro-independence militants.
This is in fact an interference, commonly agreed, into another's internal affairs but it is aimed at the maintenance of the status quo, not at its subversion. Humanitarian reasons, real or presumed, are no justification for intervention in internal politics. It is a "real politik" in which governments agree to avoid political maneuvers in each other's territory that could destabilize the internal political order of other states. In other words, Kazakhstan commits itself to refusing shelter to Xinjiang separatists, while China agrees to clamp down on the criminal groups trying to penetrate into the Russian Far East. All of this should be coordinated from Bishkek, although it is not yet clear to what degree.
It is an agreement useful to all the three parties involved: China, Russia and the former Soviet central Asian republics. China wants assurance that central Asia will not become a base used to destabilize its territory. Russia wants an economic commitment from a relatively reliable country, such as China, in order to balance the growing American influence in the region. The central Asian republics want to gain a higher degree of independence by playing off Chinese and Russian influence against each other.
It is a game that concerns about 1.5 billion people and 60 percent of the Eurasian continent, and which could soon stretch over the geographic boundaries of the region. It is also a model that sets aside the favorite game of the 20th Century, the one where governments, either capitalist or communist, pretend to interpret people's needs and then act for them. Now these governments appear to believe that stability and steady economic development is the main asset they can provide for their people. For this reason, democracies, more or less accomplished, and authoritarian states have joined hands, ignoring their political differences to increase internal security and increase their GDPs - often considered a panacea.
All of this is based on a delicate equilibrium of power between the participants in which no body can assume hegemony. Russia and China balance off each other and the Central Asian states will make sure this continues. This balance could be tipped off by the sudden collapse of one of the three participants, an occurrence that the partnership means to prevent. It is a structure that, again, is meant to contrast with America's alliance policy, in which there is ideological support in defense of liberal democratic values and where the United States keeps the upper hand - considered the best guarantee for those liberal democratic values.
Is the Shanghai conference an isolated instance? Will the six beef up their program in the near future? Will other countries join in? Can't the scales be tipped off slowly by the growth of one of the participants, say China for instance? Will such an occurrence remain an isolated incident or become a real historical turning point? It is surely a new concept that will keep on surfacing in the next months, and perhaps in the years to come, when the world will have to come to terms with the economic and political growth of demographic giants such as China and India.
The Shanghai conference, moreover, tries to cope with the new political vacuum in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union by, for the first time, not discounting Russia, as Turkey, Iran and the United States have tried to do so far. Instead, it includes and ultimately limits Moscow's influence in the region. The past century, besides being a time of strong ideological differences, was a time when Central Asia was "closed". Communism obstructed direct links between the two tips of the Eurasian continent, which remained anticommunist, and thus forfeited the main purpose of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which the Czar wanted to serve as a new fast route between Asia and Europe.
A decade after the fall of communism that route has not yet been restored because of lack of security. The question is: Can this conference bring about this security and develop a road south or north of the Caspian Sea reaching the Black Sea or the Mediterranean?
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