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How Kazakhstan’s SCO Chairmanship Has Navigated East-West Tensions

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Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia

How Kazakhstan’s SCO Chairmanship Has Navigated East-West Tensions

Expanding membership risks a loss of focus for the organization, but Kazakhstan has pursued a vision that could be more enduring.

How Kazakhstan’s SCO Chairmanship Has Navigated East-West Tensions
Credit: Facebook/Aqorda

Last week, leaders of Eurasian nations gathered at the Independence Palace in Astana, Kazakhstan, for the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In attendance were the heads of state and government of Kazakhstan, China, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. The SCO represents more than 3 billion people, with the organization covering more than 60 percent of Eurasia. 

Unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the SCO is not a security pact. The organization seeks to enhance mutual-trust, good neighborliness, and to fight what it calls the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. 

Established in 2001, the SCO emerged from what was known as the “Shanghai Five” consisting of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan which was an effort to delineate and stabilize the post-Soviet borders of Central Asia. The SCO has expanded its membership from five to ten, with this year’s summit welcoming Belarus as a full member. 

With decision-making requiring unanimity among its members, the SCO has been evaluated by observers as a Eurasian “talk shop.” Expecting total alignment of interests between all SCO member states would be unrealistic. Nevertheless, the organization remains a significant platform for the Eurasian continent in managing the region’s security concerns.

Kazakhstan’s Chairmanship

Kazakhstan has chaired the SCO over the past year, championing an initiative titled “On World Unity for Just Peace, Harmony, and Development,” which was unanimously adopted at last week’s summit. Around 25 documents and agreements were signed in total, including one addressing illicit drug trafficking, resulting in a five-year “Anti-Drug Strategy” and the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the SCO Secretariat and the Central Asian Regional Information Coordination Center. Despite the Taliban’s ban on poppy cultivation a year after returning to power in 2021, Central Asian authorities have reported the continuation of drug production in underground laboratories in Afghanistan. 

Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the SCO reflects the country’s “middle power” status, pursuing a pragmatic foreign policy, balancing its relations with major powers. This role has provided Kazakhstan the opportunity to raise new priorities for the organization. At the summit, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev outlined strategic areas for the “Shanghai 10.” He emphasized strengthening mutual trust and security cooperation by addressing the global crisis in international affairs, and combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism. 

The Kazakh leader highlighted the importance of enhancing cybersecurity through information exchange and infrastructure protection. Tokayev also focused on expanding trade and economic ties, proposing an integrated platform for investment projects and a financial support mechanism via the Astana International Financial Center. Lastly, he stressed the need for stronger transport connectivity by building efficient corridors, aligning China’s Belt and Road Initiative with regional routes, and establishing a network of strategic ports and logistics centers within the SCO.

Located between China and Russia, the Central Asian states have developed pragmatic relations with both since gaining independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These efforts have been reinforced by geopolitical realities. 

“While China is the primary trade partner for almost all Eurasian states, they are well below the investment and interest that China has in other global subregions,” said Dr. Roger Kangas, academic dean and professor of Central Asian Studies at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. “This allows for some flexibility in the region as the Central Asian states have created numerous ‘C5 plus one’ dialogues.”

Kazakhstan’s growing role in international institutions and initiatives is an observable development. This year, in addition to the SCO, the country is chairing five other international organizations, including the CSTO, the Organization of Turkic States, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, the Islamic Organization for Food Security, and International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. It will also serve as the chair for the second session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2026 Review Conference of the Parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in Geneva.

In line with its expanding international influence, Kazakhstan is also focusing on alternative connectivity routes that bypass Russia. Greater attention has been given to the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, also known as the Middle Corridor, which Kazakhstan has leveraged. Earlier this year, the European Union announced a $10.75 billion investment for the project, greatly benefiting infrastructure development in Kazakhstan and across Central Asia. On July 3, a day before the SCO summit, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Tokayev attended the opening ceremony of the “Trans-Caspian international transportation route.”  

Institutionalized Competition Between Moscow and Beijing? 

Despite the convergence of interests between Moscow and Beijing and the much-referred-to “no-limits partnership,” the greater Eurasian region remains an arena for Russia-China competition. Prior to the war in Ukraine, the phrase “Moscow holds the gun and China holds the wallet” characterized the symbiotic relationship between the two great powers. New geopolitical realities have undoubtedly changed this dynamic, but a division of labor still remains. “China needs Russia for raw materials and commercial access to other, more lucrative markets. This dynamic is ultimately unequal,” Kangas said.

Xi complemented his attendance at the SCO summit with state visits to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan while Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Kazakhstan. Although largely symbolic, the fanfare surrounding Xi’s visits signifies a growing mutual interest between China and the Central Asian region that is independent of Russia’s concerns. 

The SCO presents itself as an “alternative” multilateral institution to Western institutions. In seeking international legitimacy for a multipolar vision, Xi and Putin are incentivized to set aside differences in a show of strength and resolve against the so-called “Collective West.” Amidst these dynamics, Kazakhstan wants to serve as a stabilizing force between the major powers. While China and Russia may adopt a confrontational stance towards the West, Kazakhstan is keen to promote dialogue and cooperation between all sides, including through increased trade between Asia and Europe. As Tokayev noted recently, this approach is grounded in the country’s commitment to multilateral cooperation and adherence to the principles of United Nations Charter.

The Future of the SCO: Into the Dustbin of History or a Pillar for Multipolarity?

The broader effectiveness of the SCO is a subject of intense debate among Eurasian watchers. However, there is some consensus on the organization’s positive contributions through its Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), which has created mechanisms for information sharing and coordination of military exercises. The Crocus City Hall attack in Moscow and the recent attacks in the Russian region of Dagestan resurrect concerns about the threat of terrorism in Eurasia. Can the SCO’s RATS function effectively if Russia, a major sponsor, is facing significant challenges in its own anti-terrorism efforts?

“When a major terrorist attack takes place in a member state,” wrote Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, “all that can be found on the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure’s website are press releases expressing condolences.”

“The main differentiating factor of the SCO is inclusivity,” said Dr. Asif Shuja, founding director of Geopoconsult, a geopolitics research and management consultancy. “Western security alliances are premised on force projection, which has proven unable to solve current geopolitical challenges, from the Russia-Ukraine War to threats emerging from Afghanistan.”

Perhaps less focus should be given to Russia’s Greater Eurasian vision, and more attention should be directed toward how other members of the SCO, such as Kazakhstan and India, see opportunities for reshaping and redirecting the trajectory of the organization. What is considered as institutional bloat could, in fact, serve Beijing’s interest in pursuing regional development and solidarity alongside members of the Global South. 

“Countries like India see the SCO as a development-oriented organization rather than an anti-West alliance,” Shuja noted. “The organization provides India an opportunity to plan its policy to deal with bilateral conflicts with its primary rivals such as Pakistan and China.”

Still, for all its institutional issues, the SCO remains a core institution in Eurasia with a wide-ranging agenda aimed at addressing the region’s chronic challenges. 

“How the SCO addresses these will determine whether it can be a real force in the international community. It would behoove the U.S. to engage with the SCO and better understand the motivations of each participating nation,” Kangas said.

Kazakhstan’s chairmanship over the past year and its attempts to reinvigorate the SCO at a time of East-West confrontation are commendable efforts considering the institutional limitations that exist. Expanding membership risks a loss of focus for the organization, but Kazakhstan has left a vision worth revisiting for fellow Central Asian governments to continue. China has taken the rotating chairmanship of the SCO for the next year, which could herald a grander agenda integrating Beijing’s “Global Security Initiative” and the consolidation of a multipolar world order.