THE COUNTRY’S engagement in Central Asia naturally pulls attention to the SCO. As the only regional organization set up and led by China, it is a symbol of the importance Beijing places on the region to its west. The SCO’s makeup of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan poses a natural rivalry with Russia’s regional organizations: the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Community and the largely dormant Commonwealth of Independent States. There is also intense bilateral competition among member states: Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, China and Russia. It is notable, however, that of all of the multilateral organizations in the region, the SCO is the one that Tashkent, for example, seems to take most seriously, participating at high levels at summits and contributing forces to military exercises. Uzbekistan’s 2012 withdrawal from the CSTO reflected not only dissatisfaction with Moscow but also a willingness to draw closer to China as a strategic partner. This does not necessarily imply the perception of a reduced threat from China. It may be that states in the region are adjusting to the inevitable: China will dominate the region economically, even as Russia remains the most pugnacious outside power there.
The SCO’s official statements would suggest it is an anti-Western and in particular an anti-American organization. In 2006, the United States sought to become an observer country but was rejected. The 2005 SCO summit issued a statement calling for NATO and the United States to set a timetable for withdrawing their military presence from SCO -member territory. Official Chinese coverage of the event interpreted the statement as calling on the United States to cease security cooperation in Central Asia so the SCO could “safeguard” the region. But these statements square neither with the broader foreign policies of the member states nor with the actions and capabilities of the SCO as an institution. They reflect the wariness toward the West of the organization’s two heavyweights, China and Russia, but not the studiously multivector foreign policy of Kazakhstan or the intensely flexible foreign policy of Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan has maintained a U.S. military presence since 2005, while Tajikistan is increasing its cooperation with the United States as the combat-troop withdrawal in Afghanistan draws nearer. Uzbekistan recently reengaged with Washington after six years of keeping its distance. But not even Beijing and Moscow have lived up to the SCO’s confrontational rhetoric. Russia helps significantly in the resupply of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and China has aided U.S. efforts there in more quiet ways.
That poses two questions: How will the SCO grapple with the changed security environment in Central Asia after the U.S. combat-troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014? And will its anti-Western pronouncements lead to concrete actions? Currently, the SCO is ill equipped to live up to aspirations of regional collaboration, much less lofty goals of safeguarding Central Asia. The SCO has held regular “peace missions,” military exercises that combine the armed forces of some or all member states, although the vast majority of forces are from China and Russia. These have been notable as the first opportunities in decades for Chinese forces to practice operations outside China’s borders. The exercises also allow China and Russia to showcase military equipment that they hope other member states will procure. But until recently such joint training exercises have been beset by troublesome language barriers. The language problem reportedly now has been remedied, so it will be worth observing future exercises to evaluate the extent to which they serve as effective joint training to combat what the SCO terms the “three evils”: terrorism, separatism and extremism.
Even so, it’s an open question whether the training will be used in reality. The SCO did nothing in response to recent bouts of political unrest—including violent ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 that spilled over into Uzbekistan and intense combat in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region in 2012, which seems to have crossed the border with Afghanistan. These incidents certainly seem to be examples of terrorism, separatism or extremism and were not solely internal problems of member states. Even when Kyrgyzstan’s government was toppled in 2010, the SCO declined to respond on the grounds that the events were an internal political matter.
The one concrete manifestation of SCO collaboration to combat the three evils is the unfortunately acronymed Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in Tashkent, whose mission is to serve as an information-sharing hub coordinating joint actions by member states. During a visit to the center, officials explained that this consists of maintaining a database on undesirables submitted by member states and translating information between Chinese and Russian. Should one such undesirable from China, for example, be spotted in Kyrgyzstan, RATS would coordinate apprehension and extradition. It is not clear if RATS played a part in the bilateral understandings that reportedly exist between China and its Central Asian neighbors on transferring suspect Uighurs to Chinese custody.