Special Reports



The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: the NATO of the East?

When faced with a significant external threat, states either go into alliance with the source of the danger or ally themselves with other states similarly threatened. An example of the latter is the NATO military alliance. The treaty, signed in 1949 by the USA, Canada and ten West European states was a response to the perceived threat from the USSR and its allies. It provided that an attack on one member state would be regarded as an attack on them all. However, one military alliance can beget another when the original threat perceives itself to be threatened. Thus, the Warsaw Pact was formed in 1955 comprising the USSR and its seven east European allies which bound its signatories to come to the aid of the others, should any one of them be the victim of foreign aggression. As the power of the Soviet Union diminished and Communism fell, the treaty became redundant and was officially dissolved in 1991, after successive governments withdrew their support of the treaty. Thus the USA became the sole superpower and NATO survives, albeit with a changing and uncertain role. Inevitably, some states feel threatened by US hegemony and seek alliances to act as a countervailing force on the international scene, preferring a multipolar to a unipolar world.

Some observers believe the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is one such alliance. What exactly is the SCO? The organisation 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 Organisation, a formal charter was signed in St Petersburg in 2002 setting out the organisation's purposes, principles, structures and form of operation. www.sectsco.org

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 organisation.

The main goals and tasks of the SCO are set out in the charter. www.google.com

These include strengthening mutual trust, friendship and good neighbourliness between the members, cooperation in the maintenance and strengthening of peace, security and stability in the region and promotion of a new democratic, fair and rational political and economic international order. Another major goal is to jointly counteract terrorism, separatism and extremism in all their manifestations. There is also provision for regional cooperation in politics, trade and economy, defence, law enforcement, environment protection, culture, science and technology, education, energy, transport, credit and finance, and other spheres of common interest.

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 organisations 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.

The SCO has declared that it is not an alliance directed against other states and regions. Its goals of regional security, economic links and cultural exchange appear much the same as those of the OSCE and EU. However, 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 emphasised multipolarity and the growing importance of regional mechanisms in settling global problems.

However, 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 refuelling 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. www.newnations.com

Kazakhstan, the largest of the Central Asian republics is rich in petroleum, natural gas and mineral resources and has also been playing the balancing game between the competing powers. It supplies Russia with petroleum and natural gas at artificially low prices and assists the U.S. in security and counter-terrorism. Meanwhile China’s National Petroleum Company has become majority shareholder in Kazakhstan’s fourth biggest oil company in exchange for a $10 billion loan to help the faltering Kazakh economy, weakened by the global financial crisis.

China’s booming economy makes the energy wealth and developing markets of Central Asia very attractive, the more so as the Russian economy contracts, thanks to the fall in energy prices. China also has stakes in the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline and is exploring energy assets in Uzbekistan. Chinese entrepreneurs are setting up in the region and Chinese goods flood into the region’s markets.
The governments of the Central Asian member states, whatever their reservations at growing Chinese power, welcome Beijing’s supply of huge amounts of credit and loans. These unsavoury, autocratic regimes do not have to impress Beijing with their democratic or human rights credentials, as they do when the West offers financial assistance. They also prefer two regional powers competing for their oil and gas rather than the old Soviet monopoly. As energy growth slows in Europe, Russia also welcomes China as a customer for its oil.

Apart from Kazakhstan, the Central Asian republics do not have strong military forces and have concerns about security. Russia’s military support in the region is not new, but China has recently become more involved in supplying training, equipment and financial support to these republics and this gives them welcome reassurance. Russia and China in turn fear the resurgence of Islamist movements within their borders and in Central Asia, fed by the chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The SCO is the only forum in which all these states can come together and cooperate on security issues and related concerns. The point was made in the Yekaterinburg Declaration at the SCO heads of state summit in June:

“The SCO member states express grave concern over the complicated situation in Afghanistan related to illicit drug trafficking, terrorism and transnational organised crime which pose a threat to the whole international community.

In this regard the parties acknowledged the need to increase interaction with the SCO observer states, Afghanistan and other states concerned, as well as with regional and international organisations, first and foremost, the UN and its specialised institutions.

The SCO member states in close interaction with other states and international organisations concerned intend to establish anti-narcotic and financial security belts in the region”.

The SCO’s wish to interact more with observer states is fully reciprocated by India. To emphasise the point the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, rather than a ministerial subordinate, attended this year’s Yekaterinburg summit. India has many reasons to engage with SCO: its close relations with Russia, its military presence in Central Asia (it has a base in Tajikistan), its interest in the region’s energy resources, the security problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the need to keep an eye on the growing influence of China in the organisation. At the summit the Prime Minister also identified terrorism, extremist ideologies and illicit drug trafficking as matters for common concern and cooperation. He also stressed the importance of interaction between India and the SCO on matters of trade and investment, science and technology and for greater economic cooperation.

India’s enthusiasm for engaging with the SCO does not extend to the desire for the constraints of full membership. Pakistan does want to join. It has long had close relations with China, a major trading partner and supplier of arms and technology. However, there is a wariness among other members of Pakistan’s political instability and its connections with the Taliban and other extremist Islamic groups www.eurasianet.org

Iran’s membership is also regarded as a liability. Its application to join has not so far been accepted because of its continuing dispute with the international community over its nuclear programme. The US opposes Iranian membership and objects to Iran’s observer status at the SCO being used as a platform for anti-US rhetoric. Its current political upheavals are no doubt an additional obstacle.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the region’s stability is the Afghanistan/Pakistan problem. Religious extremism, terrorism, and drug trafficking give SCO member nations a vested interest in the stability of the area. Involvement in the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan has been minimal but President Hamid Karzai has backed greater SCO participation in rebuilding efforts. China is a big investor in Afghanistan. It has invested $3 billion in a contract to develop the Aynak copper mine, hitherto one of the largest foreign investments in the country to date. Kazakhstan has made significant investments there as well.


In March the SCO invited the US to attend a summit in Moscow to discuss the Taleban insurgency in Afghanistan.

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. An example of a relaxed view attitude towards the SCO was the testimony given by Martha Brill Olcott to the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. She commented:

“Today, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization does not pose any direct threat to U.S. interests in Central Asia or in the region more generally, although its annual meetings have, most particularly in 2005, become an opportunity for member states of that organization to vent their frustration with the U.S. in general and U.S. critiques of their non-democratic political systems in particular”.


Whatever its future the SCO at the very least, is an indicator of the gradual shift eastwards in global economic power. This is something that the West, preoccupied with other concerns seems slow to realize, and to which it will have to come to terms in the very near future.

Peter Crisell
New Nations

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