Shanghai Cooperation Council After a Decade

By Nima Khorrami Assl

The six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the only major international association that has neither the US nor any US ally among its members, marked its 10th anniversary on 15 June with a lavish summit in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana with leaders from Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Mongolia attending as observers. According to many Eurasian analysts, the gathering was a "sober, introspective occasion" which charted out "a course" for the future evolution of the organisation. There are signs that it is becoming increasingly influential with its multi-tiered consultative mechanisms becoming operational. This is evident, for example, in the case of the Tashkent-based regional anti-terrorism centre which has succeeded in foiling over 500 terrorist plots. 

From its early, more limited, beginnings 1996, the key strategic purpose of the group, according to Yan Xuetong, Director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, is to challenge the US strategic intention of extending its military bases to Central Asia. Since 2005, when SCO called for Washington to set a timeline for withdrawing from military bases in Central Asia, organization's activities have expanded to include increased military cooperation – i.e. Peace Mission 2007 – intelligence sharing, and counterterrorism drills.

Led by China and Russia, SCO's coordination on strategic issues is now entering a "qualitatively new level". Moscow and Beijing have been deeply alarmed by the NATO war on Libya, the threat of an intervention in Syria, where Russia has a naval base in Tartus, the absolutely free pass for repression in Bahrain, and Washington's desire to remain in Iraq. More importantly, they are concerned with the possible spill-over effects of the "Arab Spring" in Central Asia. In a sense, SCO's worst nightmare at the moment is an implosion in Uzbekistan, where former Communist Party chief Islam Karimov still maintains total personal control and brutally suppresses any sign of political dissent.

However, Astana summit was special for it gave a clear indication of the SCO's geopolitical ambition of becoming the leading security organisation in the entire Eurasian landmass; "the world's heartland" according to Halford Mackinder. This is where the SCO concept for a stable Afghanistan fits in. Afghanistan is the ''hub'' that could bring Central Asia and South Asia together, and that SCO, according to Kazakh President, is keen to "assume responsibility for many issues in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014". At a time when the US is actively discussing a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghani government, SCO has called for a "neutral" Afghanistan and thus it is a point of interest that Karzai himself was at Astana when the SCO declaration was formally approved.

What is more, the summit paved the way for an effective integration of Central Asian and South Asian countries by finalising Indian and Pakistani membership norms and negotiations, while accepting Belarus and Sri Lanka as dialogue partners. This is of paramount strategic importance not least because both India and Pakistan, which have traditionally had strong strategic ties with the US, are aware that they are about joining an organisation that implicitly aims at keeping the US and NATO from establishing a permanent military presence in the region.

A stable Afghanistan requires an increased sense of strategic autonomy in Islamabad if it is to be persuaded to fine-tune its stance towards Afghanistan. And getting Pakistan into the SCO is a sterling means for achieving that end especially that Pakistan's renewed sense of helplessness to safeguard its sovereignty will prompt Islamabad to willingly join forces with China and Russia.

The anticipated US-led shifts in Asia Pacific, on the other hand, have given impetus to Beijing to improve its ties with India. Beijing knows all too well that US will not hesitate to manipulate historical patterns of enmity between China and India in its attempt to contain China's growing influence. Hence, it has, rather unexpectedly, sought to normalise relations with India and the SCO – and indeed BRICS – provides a useful framework to cooperate with New Delhi on regional security issues. From the Indian perspective, too, working with China on shared concerns, such as the stabilisation of Afghanistan or the struggle against terrorist activities emanating from Pakistani soil, are desirable objectives. New Delhi has desisted from identifying with the US's ''Great Central Asia'' strategy and in fact is sceptical about the prospect of a long-term NATO military presence in Afghanistan. This is not to mention that joining a resource-rich organisation would be of great benefit to the Indian economy.

In 2005, Frederick Starr, Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the John Hopkins University, proposed a matrix for a "Great Central Asia cooperative partnership for development" with the US taking the lead, the five Central Asian states and Afghanistan entering as the main members, and India and Pakistan participating. Distracted by the Iraq war, however, US allowed Russian and Chinese strategists to modify the idea and implement it through the SCO.

Obviously, SCO is still mired with internal divisions and that it is not as cohesive an organisation as its member states claim it to be. Any eventual SCO expansion needs to be based on "commonality of interests" between Russia and China which cannot be taken for granted, while the troubled history between Russia and Central Asian states will ensure that Caucasian nations will continue to welcome the US presence as a balancing force against Russian dominance. Nor is it clear whether the Chinese and Russian publics have the appetite for a kind of expansionist foreign policies that their leaders are so eagerly and energetically pursuing. What is clear though is that with the induction of India and Pakistan SCO could gradually make a poorly-financed NATO irrelevant to Eurasia. 


29 June 2011


This article was first published by UK Defence Forum/Defence Viewpoints. Reproduced with permission.