SCO Hopping On New Silk Road?

Heads of government of the SCO states pose in St. Petersburg

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization held a prime minister-level meeting on Monday in St. Petersburg, and from the outcome it appears the group is continuing its trajectory away from being a security group -- as it appeared to be in the mid-oughts -- toward being a more economically oriented body.

Most intriguingly, the proposals that came out of the meeting seem to dovetail remarkably with those of the U.S. and its New Silk Road -- i.e., building infrastructure in Central Asia to help the region become a hub of commerce between Europe and Asia, along the way building prosperity and stability. Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that Moscow would contribute $500 million to the CASA-1000 electricity project, by which hydropower from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would be transmitted to India and Pakistan. And he endorsed the idea of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. Both of those projects, you'll recall, are also centerpieces of the U.S.'s new New Silk Road initiative. Putin's speech at the SCO meeting echoed some of Washington's rhetoric of the New Silk Road:

I believe that we need to form a strong infrastructural outline of the Shanghai Organisation. Primarily, we need this in order to further expand our respective national economies, and to create new points of growth and additional opportunities for the people of our nations. Secondly, this will help realise the huge transit potential of the region and secure its role as a link between Europe and the Asian-Pacific Region.

We support close cooperation for the establishment of international transport corridors, major logistical centres (our colleagues have already mentioned this) and, certainly, for building a modern regulatory base for our cooperation. An agreement for facilitating international road transport plays a very important role here. We expect that this document will be signed in the near future. There seem to be good prospects for railway and air transport as well.

The group also endorsed the idea of a new China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway which, while not explicitly part of the U.S.'s strategy, certainly fits into that framework. And possibly relatedly, though not apparently mentioned at the SCO meeting, is a Chinese plan to develop the northwestern province of Xinjiang as a hub of trade with Pakistan.

At the same time, though, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement that implicitly criticized the U.S.'s efforts to build the New Silk Road. Referring to the meeting last week in which the U.S. promoted the strategy, an MFA spokesman said:

The Istanbul forum has shown the regional states’ growing desire to shape the political landscape of the region on their own, without outside interference. The next stage of the process will be a further ministerial regional conference to be held in Kabul in June 2012.

"Outside interference," in Kremlin-speak, obviously means the U.S. And if you ask the U.S. (and Afghanistan, for that matter), the next step in this process is not the Kabul conference, but the Bonn meeting next month.

I speculated last week that Moscow would probably perceive the New Silk Road -- if anything -- as a sort of geopolitical maneuver to wrest control of Central Asia away from Russia. More likely, I guessed, they would consider it just a bunch of lofty talk about an unworkable plan not worth getting upset about. But now I wonder.

SCO Hopping On New Silk Road?

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