Created for the purely practical purpose of settling border disputes between China and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has evolved into a major regional and global political player since its founding 10 years ago.
The leaders of its member states met in Astana this week to mark the group’s anniversary, and also to discuss problems and sign a range of agreements.
Comprising Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the SCO is one of the few international organizations to have grown stronger in the past decade and there are three reasons for this.
First, the importance of regional organizations has been growing around the world, and the area of Eurasia where the SCO operates has become a focus of international attention.
Second, SCO member countries are aware of the need to coordinate on their many overlapping interests in the region.
And lastly, the SCO is finely balanced by two great regional powers, China and Russia, which prevents any one member from dominating. Kazakhstan, a confident and rapidly developing country, is yet another pillar reinforcing the organization’s balance.
Initially, the West saw the SCO as another Russian attempt to establish an anti-U.S. bloc and to prove its influence. However, the SCO’s only anti-U.S. move to date was a 2005 statement calling for a timetable on the removal of U.S. military bases from Central Asia. The issue has not been raised again since.
The SCO’s refusal to admit Iran, which has filed for membership twice, can be explained by its unwillingness to be seen as an anti-Western organization.
The SCO has the chance to become the main stabilizing force in Central and South Asia, which is why its leaders are considering lifting the tacit moratorium on expansion.
During Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to Moscow in May, President Medvedev publicly spoke in favor of admitting Pakistan to the SCO. Russia would also like to see India as a full member, but China is not enthusiastic about the prospect. A compromise may be to admit both India and Pakistan.
The biggest regional problem is the future of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops or a change in how they are deployed in the country. Afghanistan is a question mark because the U.S. strategy regarding the country is unclear. It fact, Washington may have no Afghan strategy, judging by the varying opinions on U.S. interests in Afghanistan and how to best defend them.
In other words, the SCO member countries should prepare for any scenario.
If they grant membership to India and Pakistan, the organization will comprise nearly all the countries that can influence developments in Afghanistan, excluding the Untied States and Iran, which has observer status in the SCO. This may not ensure a viable solution to the Afghan problem, but it will certainly put the SCO in the best position to facilitate one.
However, there are complicating factors in SCO relations, first among them being Moscow and Beijing’s differing views of the SCO’s primary mission. Russia believes that it should become a strategic political player focused on regional and – given the region’s importance – global security. As is often the case, China has avoided discussions of this issue, opting to focus on trade and economic cooperation instead.
In other words, Russia would like to use the SCO to strengthen its strategic presence in Central Asia, while China sees it as an instrument of economic expansion.
For now, there is balance between the organization’s two largest members. China is stronger economically, while Russia has greater political resources, including the Central Asian countries’ wariness of China’s economic might.
This mutual deterrence, so to speak, holds the SCO back while at the same time providing stability. Had either of the two players taken the upper hand, the SCO would have most likely become ineffective. The loser would have become obstructionist or tried to regain its standing through intrigue, thereby depriving the organization of its main advantage – the ability for progressive development.
There is still a risk of this outcome, as the growing imbalance between Russia and China may deprive Moscow of its political advantage. But Beijing tries to avoid demonstrating its advantages whenever possible. Moreover, it wants the SCO to grow stronger as a regional organization, as China will always be the first among equals in the region.
Global instability will most likely continue to grow, which means that the SCO’s second decade will be packed full of even more interesting events.