Turkey’s recent upgrade to ‘dialogue partner’ (not full membership) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has once again brought to the fore two questions: How important is the SCO? Would the SCO benefit from expanded membership?
First, to the question of the value, if any, of the SCO. According to skeptics, the SCO security cooperation is nothing more than window dressing. Despite this, there is no other organization in Central Asia that has both the potential and willingness to be responsible for the region’s security. NATO is unwilling to do so. Without NATO, Russia must take the lead – it has bases in three of the five Central Asian states – and has consistently expressed a desire to be the security guarantor for the region.
Given that the security issues in Central Asia are generally transnational in nature, a multilateral approach seems natural. Russia has recognized this (as has China) by involving itself in two multilateral security organizations in Central Asia; the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Both organizations have four common members: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The remaining CSTO members are Armenia and Belarus, while China and Uzbekistan are the SCO's remaining members. The security capabilities that China and Uzbekistan offer (as opposed to Armenia and Belarus) could be useful for Russia. Similarly the geographical proximity of all SCO member states intractably links their security interests.
Strategic competition between Russia and China has admittedly been a hindrance to SCO security development. Russia has focused as much if not more on CSTO. For its part, Beijing is willing to play a non-primary security role in the region – it has little choice due to its policy of non-intervention – but China doubts Russia’s ability to take charge. As one former Chinese official noted “we understand (Central Asia is Russia’s ‘backyard’). But you’re (Russia) supposed after all to look after your own yard, water the flowers.”
Economically, any Central Asian organization that doesn’t include China is not credible. The rise of Kazakhstan, booming cross-border trade and mining booms have been a result in part of China’s economic growth. Under SCO agreements (in Chinese), improved transport links have been built. This has facilitated trade, helping contribute to sustained GDP growth among smaller SCO states.
Legitimate claims have been made that the SCO is merely China’s multilateral cover for its bilateral engagement in Central Asia. Many of China’s energy and transport deals in the region have been made bilaterally, but they are sometimes negotiated on the sidelines of SCO summits. For example, Tajikistan secured road and mining projects bilaterally the day before the 2012 SCO Heads of State Summit in Beijing. Annual heads of state and heads of government meetings provide smaller SCO countries with regular high-level access to both Moscow and Beijing that very few countries enjoy. It is unlikely that Beijing, in particular, would have the time or willingness to individually hold regular dialogues at prime ministerial level with each SCO state. The summits are the backbone for good governmental relations between China and Central Asian states.
In short, the value of the SCO is that its membership has enough clout to make a difference while also being proximal enough to maintain a commonality of interests.
Finally, to the second question of whether an expanded membership would benefit the SCO: Any new member would need to add to the organization’s clout without diffusing its interests. It is difficult to imagine any country outside of Central Asia offering this.
The six SCO countries have a very clear set of issues that need addressing: cross-border resource disputes, drug trafficking from Afghanistan, poverty (including Western China and Southern Russia), instability (in China's Xinjiang Autonomous region, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) and transnational crime/terrorism.
Commentary that the SCO has not tried to earnestly tackle these concerns probably has some basis. There have been some gains: demarcation of the border between China and its neighbors, establishment of a permanent anti-terrorist structure (however nascent), regular military exercises (however shallow) as well the aforementioned economic successes. The remaining issues are tough and will not be solved quickly. However, the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan (which borders Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China) may sharpen the focus of the organization. Once the U.S. security veil is lifted in Afghanistan, Russia and China will likely have to more seriously address sources of instability on their doorstep. But at least in the SCO, every Central Asian issue impacts on the national interest of all current members.
In aiming for a more prosperous, secure Central Asia, a ‘mini’ SCO is far from perfect but it may be the best there is. An expanded SCO might look more prestigious. Turkey would be the first NATO member, while Afghanistan (currently an ‘observer state’) would also attract a lot of attention. But new members could further weaken the organization's potential to work constructively. The SCO would benefit from keeping its membership limited and focusing on the issues at hand.
Dirk van der Kley is a research associate for the Lowy Institute for International Policy.