Tenth anniversaries are usually marked by an important event or development, so it’s not surprising that analysts were waiting eagerly to see what the 10th annual summit of the heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) would produce. They needn’t have held their breath – as with so many previous SCO meetings, attendees at the June 15 summit in Astana did little more than issue vacuous declarations.
Like previous SCO communiqués, the one issued in Astana called for a multipolar world order (i.e. one not dominated by the United States) in which the United Nations (not NATO) made all important international security decisions. And, in contrast to Western government statements describing Western-style political and civil liberties as universal values, the Astana Declaration called on all governments to respect the sovereignty and independence of countries.
This time, the Astana Declaration also contained some specific criticisms of various Western policies. For example, it called for an end to the NATO military operation in Libya. But the comments are likely to have as much impact as past SCO declarations. After all, the organization rarely follows up its collective statements with joint actions, especially on issues outside the organization’s geographic heartland of Central Asia.
One thing that has always been a little surprising is the lack of progress the SCO has made in developing its collective economic potential and promoting multinational economic cooperation among its members. By world standards, none of the SCO economic mechanisms could be considered ‘serious’ instruments, and so far at least, SCO members have allocated limited resources to them, further constraining their potential. Instead, SCO governments have preferred to offer financial and development assistance on a bilateral basis, which gives them greater influence.
More broadly, though, the SCO remains stuck in a dilemma over expansion. For the sixth year in a row, the SCO hasn’t admitted new full members or formal observers. The current roster of full SCO members includes only those six states that joined the organization at its founding in 2001: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The four observer states (India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan) have remained constant since 2004. Instead, the organization has resorted to proliferating new categories of external association, producing a confusing mixture of members, observers, guests, and dialogue partners.
Why? The SCO governments argue that they need more time to establish the rules and procedures needed to govern new members. In reality, the existing SCO members have proved unable to overcome their differences over which countries should receive membership or observer status. The SCO’s consensus rule gives any member the right to veto decisions (although Russia and China are clearly the most influential members in shaping the organization’s policies). At this week’s summit, Beijing vetoed India’s application to become a full SCO member, which effectively denied Pakistan’s right to also advance to that status. Both Moscow and Beijing also opposed Iran’s application or full membership. Chinese opposition may also have derailed Afghanistan’s application, supported by the Russian government, to become a SCO observer.
One of the problems with expansion is that it would further deepen the mutual tensions and rivalries that already prevail among member governments. For example, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are perennial competitors for regional primacy. In addition, Russia has repeatedly opposed Chinese efforts to establish an SCO free-trade zone or to acquire control over Eurasian energy resources. While some of the existing members and observers such as Kyrgyzstan and India seem most interested in the SCO’s economic potential, others, such as Iran, mainly value its regional security role.
Indeed, it’s these rivalries that also explain why SCO members don’t seem to care that it never does anything important, even at last week’s 10th anniversary summit. Through its activities, and indeed its mere existence, the SCO provides mutual security assurance to its members, especially Russia and China, about their actions in Central Asia. Since its establishment in 2001, the SCO has provided an institutional arena in which Russia and China can promote their joint interests in Central Asia while managing their differences within a structured framework. The Central Asian states also prefer working through the SCO since it isn’t Russian-dominated to the same degree as competing institutions like the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
SCO documents and statements repeatedly affirm their commitment to avoid taking actions that harm other members’ security, and members pledge not to join alliances or otherwise take actions that would ‘allow their territories to be used to undermine the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of the other member states.’
But perhaps the most revealing SCO document, at least in terms of the organization’s security priorities, is the ‘Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism, and Extremism,’ signed at the organization’s founding summit in June 2001. In stressing the importance of cooperating against regional ‘terrorism’ (broadly defined to include two other ‘evil forces’ of ethno-separatism and political extremism), the text aptly highlights the SCO’s collective priorities.
SCO members subsequently decided to institutionalize their counterterrorist cooperation by creating a Regional Antiterrorism Structure (RATS) in Tashkent. Since its official opening in June 2004, the RATS has promoted studies of Eurasian terrorist movements, facilitated information sharing about terrorist threats, and provided advice on counterterrorism policies. It has also coordinated exercises among SCO security forces and organized efforts to disrupt terrorist financing and money laundering.
The SCO isn’t wholly a talking shop – in addition to issuing joint declarations, SCO governments engage in a number of collective security activities, including holding regular meetings among the defence ministers, armed forces chiefs, general staffs, and border commanders of the SCO governments. Military experts from SCO countries also engage in regular direct discussions related to their functional expertise such as communications, engineering, and mapping.
The security activities that tend to grab headlines, though, are the joint military exercises. Since 2003, the SCO has organized a number of ‘anti-terrorist’ exercises that have involved their armed forces and paramilitary units as well as intelligence and law enforcement personnel. These drills serve multiple purposes, including reassuring the organization’s Central Asian members about their security by demonstrating the intent and capacity of China and Russia to help them manage their security challenges. By reassuring the Central Asian governments that they can depend on Russia and China to protect them, the drills also weaken Western influence in the region by helping persuade their SCO allies that they need not rely on NATO and the United States for their defence.
In addition, the exercises help the SCO militaries learn more about each other’s evolving capabilities. This contribution may be especially important for China and Russia, whose militaries are undergoing major transformations.
Who has benefitted the most from the SCO? This could arguably be China, with the organization having provided an excellent mechanism for Beijing to expand its influence in Central Asia without alarming Moscow. By characterizing its activities as multilateral SCO projects rather than Chinese-only initiatives, Beijing manages to dampen fears of Chinese domination in Eurasia.
The Central Asian governments for their part also prefer dealing with both Russia and China together rather than one-on-one with either colossus. Despite the possible emergence of a Sino-Russian condominium, China’s balancing presence presumably reduces fears of external subordination and gives them more room to manoeuvre. Conversely, another reason for the SCO’s popularity among Central Asian governments is that the organization allows them to manage Beijing’s growing presence in their region multilaterally, backstopped by Moscow, rather than deal with the China behemoth on a bilateral basis.
Ultimately, though, this state of benign mutual assurance within the SCO persists primarily because Beijing still assigns less strategic importance to the region than does Moscow, while Russia pursues many policies favourable to Chinese interests, such as curbing regional terrorism, countering the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and promoting the growth of Central Asian energy production.
Of course, China’s growing interest in securing Central Asian oil and gas as well as pursuing other commercial opportunities—areas still dominated by Russian entities, sometimes through local proxies—could lead Beijing to reconsider its policy of regional deference at some point. If this happened, the Central Asian countries would then become a more explicit target of China-Russia rivalry.
Until then, though, the SCO is a creature of its members, lacking independent authority or resources. And if Moscow and Beijing resume their historical rivalry for Eurasia, it will almost certainly be doomed to irrelevance.