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The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

October 27, 2009


Unless you’re involved in some way with national security, you may never have heard of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It’s worth knowing about because it could develop into an organization of great international significance. The Organization’s charter claims it was established to recognize “historically established ties” and that its main purpose is to enhance “comprehensive cooperation” including cooperation in the areas of “strengthening peace and ensuring of security and stability in the region.” SCO members include: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Some analysts have concluded that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is an attempt by its members to create a security structure that counters NATO. Other analysts don’t believe the SCO is a particular threat. One such expert who takes the latter position is Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate with the Russian & Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. In testimony given before the U.S. Helsinki Commission on September 26, 2006, she argued “that it [the SCO] does not, as of yet, threaten US interests in the region. The organization lacks the capacity to effectively combat Central Asia’s security threats or to serve as a counter balance to NATO. Furthermore, the economic mission of the SCO remains ill-defined as the two major powers in the region, Russia and China, continue to jockey for position in Central Asia’s energy market.” She partly bases her conclusion that the SCO can’t really challenge NATO on the assumption that Central Asian suspicions about China run too deep for those countries to commit to a full military partnership.


Quentin Peel calls the SCO “a dog that does not bark” [“Shanghai club is a good place for Nato to make friends,” Financial Times, 16 October 2009]. Peel asserts that “SCO masks very different ambitions between Russia and China.”

“Moscow is clearly keen to use it to provide a counterweight to US influence in the region and assert Russian leadership in questions of energy supply – not least to China. Beijing sees it as a way of extending its own influence in former Soviet central Asia. It is an alliance of convenience, not trust. America matters far more to China than Russia does.”

Peel believes that NATO should make friends with the SCO before the organization grows large enough to become a challenger. Although, he admits, no one seems to want to make the first move. Peter Crisell provides a good overview of the history and issues surrounding the SCO [“The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: The NATO of the East?New Nations]. He writes:

“The organization owes its origins to the creation of the Shanghai Five group in 1996 whose main purpose was to resolve border disputes between its members: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. A year later these countries signed a treaty to reduce military forces in border areas. The Shanghai Five became six in 2001 when Uzbekistan was admitted. Renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a formal charter was signed in St Petersburg in 2002 setting out the organization’s purposes, principles, structures and form of operation. The SCO comprises a Council of Heads of State, the top decision making body, as well as a Council of Heads of Government ie prime ministers and a Council of Foreign Ministers. Both hold annual summits in the different capitals of the member states. There is also a Council of National Coordinators whose function is to coordinate multilateral cooperation of member states. The SCO Secretariat is the main executive body of the organization.”

The fact that the SCO was formed originally to help resolve border disputes undermines the claim that it is based on “historically established ties” — a phrase that implies member nations have been long and cherished friends. Crisell continues:

“A number of non-member states have observer status. India and Mongolia are observers but show no interest in becoming full members, unlike Iran and Pakistan who do. Iran’s application for membership has so far been resisted. In 2005 the US was refused observer status, ostensibly because it has no geographical contiguity with any of the member states. Recently the status of ‘dialogue partner’ has been developed to apply to states or organizations that share the goals and principles of the SCO and wish to establish relations of equal mutually beneficial partnership. Sri Lanka and Belarus this year became dialogue partners – the latter having been turned down as an observer.”

Olcott notes that China “has privately resisted any proposals to increase any of the observer nations to full member status.” She claims that “Chinese authorities have sent strong signals to suggest that the organization cannot be expanded until its final mission is clarified, and then made operational.” Although it may seem unlikely that China, Russia, and a handful of Central Asian “-stans” could pose a serious threat to the West, Crisell asserts that the SCO is simply the starting point of strategic political maneuvering.

“In the larger context of international power politics in Central Asia (the New Great Game, as it is now called) there is a widespread belief that Russia and China, whatever their differences, are using the SCO to argue for a multi-polar world based on regional security blocs that would counterbalance American global ascendancy. At the ninth annual summit of the SCO in Yekaterinburg in June ‘09, the final declaration emphasized multipolarity and the growing importance of regional mechanisms in settling global problems.”

I’ve insisted for some time that regionalization is going to play a larger role within the next wave of globalization. I believe, however, that regional arrangements are going to be driven more by economic than security concerns. Crisell is correct in believing that Russia and China are interested in promoting a multipolar world; but the same can be said of India and Brazil as well. Crisell also notes that the United States isn’t conceding Central Asia to either Russia or China.

“The US believes it has good strategic, economic and political reasons to be involved in Central Asia and has joined Russia and China in the struggle for influence in the area. All three powers are competing to control Central Asia’s rich supplies of oil and gas reserves. SCO members Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have astutely played off one power against the other. For example, Kyrgyzstan is host to both Russian and US military bases. The USA also needed a military base in the region to support the NATO mission in Afghanistan, now that supply routes through Pakistan are uncertain and dangerous. Kyrgyzstan stated in February that it was closing down the US air base after receiving a promise of $2 billion in crisis aid from Russia. Washington responded with a payment of $180 million to keep the base open and agreed to rename its base a ‘transit center’ to meet Kyrgyz sensitivities. The base is the refueling point for coalition military operations in Afghanistan. Russia regards its former territory as its back yard and its base serves as a symbol of that. Kyrgyzstan has now allowed the Russians to open a second military base in the south of the country. This second base is clearly meant to project Russian power and to check US influence in the area but as our recent update on the country shows, Uzbekistan is unhappy at the prospect of another Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan which would be located near its border.”

Crisell concludes his article by examining current thinking about how the SCO will develop and whether it will become a threat to the West.

“So how is the SCO regarded in the West? The SCO professes to advance cooperation between its members in various social, cultural, security, and economic matters and stresses combating the ‘three evils’ of terrorism, extremism, and separatism. It declares it is not aligned against any nation or grouping such as the US and NATO. But are these its real intentions? Unsurprisingly, opinions differ between relaxed and wary. Some derive comfort from the strategic and energy rivalry between the group’s two big rivals, China and Russia. Historic mistrust will always cause tensions between them, it is said, and this means the SCO will always be divided. Russia wants to continue dominating the Central Asian Republics as it did in Soviet times, whereas China wants markets and energy supplies, and the strategic influence that accompanies its growing economic power. Furthermore, there are rivalries and struggles for primacy between the Central Asian republics themselves – especially the two largest, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Nonetheless, all members, sometimes for different reasons, need to have good relations with the U.S. and the West. The SCO is surely no different from other alliances where all the members have a complex mix of parallel and competing interests.”

China, Russia, and the United States will continue to bump up against each other in Central Asia and in the Pacific. As the dollar continues to lose favor and emerging market countries gain ground economically, America’s influence will inevitably wane. That doesn’t mean it won’t continue to have significant influence in the world — it will. It simply means that other voices will insist on being heard as well. Some people are concerned about America’s diminishing influence [“Is the U.S. Losing the Pacific?” by Mary Kissel, Wall Street Journal, 21 September 2009]. Kissel insists “the trend isn’t America’s friend.” The focus of her article is U.S. military influence in the Pacific (specifically naval influence). The issue she explores is how the U.S. is trying to assure friends while not antagonizing China. She calls it the “Pacific Command conundrum.” The trends she is talking about are the growing Chinese naval presence and the shrinking American presence.

“The Obama administration has curbed the Navy’s expansion plans and sent signals that it doesn’t believe in expanding missile defense. Beijing has meanwhile poured money into access denial capabilities, including antiship ballistic missiles, cyberwarfare and antisatellite weapons. The American Enterprise Institute’s Dan Blumenthal estimates that China has added around three submarines to its fleet every year since 1995. The U.S. submarine fleet, by contrast, is shrinking. It’s the same story for fighter jets: China is ramping up its fifth-generation technology, while the U.S. has capped the production of stealth F-22 fighters. The Iraq and Afghanistan engagements are also sapping personnel normally assigned to PaCom. Little wonder that in its defense white paper projecting out to 2030, Australia predicted ‘the rise of China, the emergence of India and the beginning of the end of the so-called unipolar moment; the almost two-decade-long period in which the pre-eminence of our principal ally, the United States, was without question.’ Andrew Shearer, national security advisor to former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, says no one in Asia wants a ‘fractious’ U.S.-China relationship, but equally, ‘nor do U.S. allies want the U.S. to be a pushover.’ ‘When someone is kicking sand in your face and you continue to lie back on your beach towel, that’s a risk,’ he quips.”

The Navy’s answer to the PACOM conundrum is to engage the Chinese rather than confront them. The Chinese see it differently.

“The Chinese are aggressively defending their ever-more muscular naval stance: ‘The way to resolve China-U.S. maritime incidents is for the U.S. to change its surveillance and survey operations policies against China, decrease and eventually stop such operations,’ China’s Defense Ministry declared last month. No nuanced talk of ‘engagement’ there.”

The recently retired former head of the Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, “disputes the contention that American power in this region is declining” [“Pacific Command remains a force, Keating maintains,” Honolulu Adverstiser, 18 October 2009].

“Keating said: ‘I don’t worry about China but I think about them a fair amount. There’s a difference.’ Staff officers estimate that the admiral and the staff spend about 30 percent of their time on issues dealing with China, including incidents such as Chinese interference with U.S. ships patrolling outside Chinese territorial waters. Pacific Command has 36 other countries in its area of responsibility. The admiral, like his predecessors for the past 15 years, has cautioned the Chinese not to miscalculate U.S. capabilities and intentions. Staff officers recounted an episode in which a Chinese admiral suggested to Keating that China and the U.S. split the Pacific Ocean, China controlling the western portion and the U.S. the eastern waters. Keating firmly rejected the proposal.”

China recognizes that having a strong military is essential for a world leader. Whether China will use it military power for good or ill remains to be seen. I suspect that once it is accepted as a military peer with Western militaries, it may find cooperation a much better path than confrontation. The SCO is one indication of that cooperation, especially when it comes to Russia. Economically, China has followed a much more cooperative road in dealing with potential adversaries. For example, it just concluded a major natural gas deal with Russia [“China, Russia bolster ties with gas, trade deals,” by Darya Korsunskaya and Chris Buckley, Washington Post, 13 October 2009].

“Russia and China bolstered their close but increasingly imbalanced relationship … when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ushered through a tentative gas supply agreement and deals worth $3.5 billion. Putin’s talks with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also covered the international hotspots on which the countries share many views, but with China’s economy steaming ahead while Russia has lagged during the global downturn, they focused on nurturing ties in trade and energy. The centerpiece of the day was a preliminary agreement on Russian state-run gas giant Gazprom supplying China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC).”

The deal will likely make China the biggest buyer of Russia’s natural gas (overtaking Germany). Russian and Chinese leaders, however, see this as more than a gas deal.

“Beijing … has its reasons for courting Putin, who remains his country’s most powerful figure after leaving the presidency. ‘Both China and Russia have very peaceful foreign policies. We are not fighting wars anywhere. We don’t have troops deployed overseas,’ Putin said. ‘The joint position of Russia and China on some issues restrains some of our hot-headed colleagues.’ China sees Russia as a strategic counterweight to U.S. influence and believes Russian resources and markets will be important in decades to come, said Zhao Huasheng, an expert on the countries’ relations at Fudan University in Shanghai.”

Putin must have forgotten Russia’s little excursion into Georgia when he talks about “very peaceful foreign policies” and “hot-headed colleagues” — primarily meaning the U.S. Nevertheless, both Russian and Chinese leaders believe that it’s a good thing to have a counter-balance to U.S. influence in the world. Not everything is sweetness and light between Russia and China, but SCO membership, closer economic ties, and common foreign policy positions are likely to keep old suspicions at bay — at least for a while. There is no reason for the U.S. to panic over the thawing relations between Russia and China or over their increasing global influence. If foreign policy relations are managed correctly, the future will be one of heated competition but not enflamed confrontation.

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