Today I gave a lecture and a Q & A about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for the World Affairs Council of San Diego-North County Chapter. Here is the Powerpoint for those of you interested.
My talk was centered on three questions: 1. What is the SCO? 2. What are its objectives? (Does it seek to balance the US or is just a talking/cooperative forum for its members) and…3. What are its capabilities?
1. The SCO is a multilateral group featuring Russia, China and the four Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The SCO started in 2001 and has grown from an organization that at first helped settle border disputes to a group that now runs joint military exercises, is considering creating a gas cartel, and has India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan as Observers.
2. The group’s professed purpose is to further cooperation between its members in various social, cultural, security, and economic venues and stresses the goal of combating the ‘Three Evils’ of Terrorism, Extremism, and Separatism. The SCO pledges that it is not aligned against any nation or grouping (aka US/NATO). Scholars are a bit split on the group’s real intentions, with Martha Brill Olcott, Yu Bin, etc. believing the group is basically harmless and Stephen Blank, Ariel Cohen…arguing that it is a mechanism to oust US influence in Central Asia and beyond.
The SCO has been used by its members, and its observers (Iran), as a forum to criticize US foreign policy, especially regarding democracy promotion and missile defense systems in eastern Europe. Even more serious, during an SCO summit in 2005 Russia and China helped nudge Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to demand that the Americans close their Afghan-supplying bases in each country. Uzbekistan followed through, kicking the US out of K2 base, but Kyrgyzstan let the US stay at Manas (though maybe not anymore!) as long as they upped their rent payments. The SCO’s joint military exercises, which have involved up to 10,000 troops and some major armaments, also pose a substantial threat to a US presence in the region, as well as to Taiwan. Even with these moves and gestures, the US government does not seem to feel too threatened by the group, stating that they are just being ‘watchful’ of its future actions.
3. A big reason why the US is not overly concerned about the SCO’s intentions is because the group lacks cohesion and therefore the capabilities to do it much harm. Though the group has done much to bring China and Russia to greater and greater heights of cooperation, the two neighboring great powers are strategic and energy rivals in Central Asia and this will continue to provide friction. Russia desires to dominate its former vessels and China wants them as markets, energy supplies, and as a jump off for strategic endeavors. These two goals will inevitably clash and they already do.
The SCO also lacks institutional strength and this includes an ability to bring in the observer states as official members. Lastly, the hard presence of NATO and the US in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, along with its diplomatic and financial footprint, are not only out of the control of the SCO, but a sign that the ‘security’ grouping cannot even police its own backyard. Good relations with the United States are also crucial for all the SCO’s individual members and this means that will not likely take any actions to disrupt it.
I’ve studied the SCO closely for the past 2-3 years and will continue to do so for this site. It includes two great powers for gosh sakes!