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China boosts role in regional security bloc

Publication Date : 08-06-2012


The Chinese have a saying, si hai zhi nei jie xiong di, which translates literally as "within the four seas, all men are brothers".

But when ties with maritime friends are less than chummy, one alternative is to move closer to continental friends.

Observers say China's leading role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a regional security bloc that also comprises Russia and four Central Asian states, has taken on added significance in the light of recent developments.

The South China Sea dispute, most recently over the Scarborough Shoal, has heightened tensions between China and Southeast Asian claimants, particularly the Philippines.

The United States' so-called 'pivot' to Asia will see more American warships deployed to the region by 2020, and closer defence cooperation between Washington and its Asian allies and partners, such as South Korea to the east of China and the Philippines to the south.

Given the strained relations, Beijing might find merit in bolstering ties with the other members of the SCO, according to analysts.

This could explain China's decision to extend massive loans and pledge its commitment to developing the four Central Asian members - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

On day two of the SCO annual summit in Beijing yesterday, President Hu Jintao said China would offer US$10 billion in loans to group members, although he did not elaborate on how the funds would be used.

The latest pledge mirrored an earlier US$10 billion loan offer, made at the June 2009 summit, to help the Central Asian states tackle the global financial crisis.

While it is not known how much money from the 2009 offer has been disbursed, China has said on previous occasions that it would "continue providing member states with concessional loans".

At a press conference yesterday, Vice-Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping did not respond directly when asked by The Straits Times whether the South China Sea row had led Beijing to place greater emphasis on the SCO this year.

However, in what appears to be a veiled swipe at the US role in Afghanistan, among others, he said all SCO members had noted and objected to the rise of "interventionism" by certain countries in the domestic affairs of others.

"You can't say that just because you dislike a country's system, you can then think of ways to overturn its government," he added.

Russia is the only other global heavyweight in the SCO, which was formed on June 15, 2001 in Shanghai to foster collaboration in areas such as military cooperation, intelligence-sharing and counter-terrorism.

Being the economic juggernaut of the region, China is well-poised to increase its influence over the group's poorer Central Asian members.

Notably, the SCO is the only international grouping with no US participation.

The group thus provides an ideal stage for China to boost its international stature and advocate its preferred world order, which could attract states weary of a West-centric power structure.

Beijing's growing focus on the SCO might also make its maritime neighbours think twice about standing up against China or throwing their support behind the US.

While the SCO appears to be an excellent vehicle for China to make more friends, there are obstacles that could trip it up, according to foreign policy expert Yang Cheng from the East China Normal University.

For one thing, China must avoid giving the impression that its involvement is motivated by self- interest, he said.

It must act as "a service provider", which he described as a role that rallies members to a common vision, institutionalises the group's procedures and reaches out to outsiders, including even the US.

"Western countries are already present in Central Asia. It is impossible to remove or ignore them," Dr Yang said.

"By reaching out to the West, it could quash criticism that the SCO is anti-West. It might even attract more countries to the group."


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