Engaging the Anti-NATO

The SCO is more than just an old autocrat's club. Washington should rethink its stance on the organization.

This month, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is celebrating its tenth anniversary. The United States has looked to various regional organizations as partners on transnational issues and to help promote stability worldwide, but what about the SCO? At one time reviled by some as the “anti-NATO,” where does the SCO stand now? And where does the United States stand on the SCO?

Following are some conventional arguments against US engagement with the SCO and rebuttals that Washington officials might consider if they’re looking for some help in Eurasia.

The SCO is just a club for autocratic regimes.

They are there, but that’s not all who’s there. SCO members China, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan long ago established their authoritarian credentials. But other members—Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—represent the best hopes in years for more representative governments in the region. Kazakhstan just held an election where its Soviet-legacy ruler achieved an unchallenged 95 percent of the vote, but even the US State Department lauded it for “learn[ing] from mistakes of those governments in the Middle East, and try[ing] to get out in front of change and the need for change.” Kyrgyzstan has ousted its last two presidents unceremoniously, but now its caretaker government, headed by a former ambassador to the US, has led the nation through a referendum, adopted a parliamentary system of government and held free parliamentary elections.

The SCO’s observer states—India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan—represent the range of political systems. India this year joined Pakistan and Iran in applying to be a full member, and Afghanistan has asked for observer status, according to Russia’s foreign minister.

The US already has bilateral relationships with SCO states (although Iran is a special case), so Washington’s association with human-rights-challenged nations already exists. The difficulty is getting the balance right—cooperating on shared interests without endorsing unjust methods, and using opportunities to encourage change without spooking existing regimes.

The U.S. can achieve what it wants in the region using bilateral relationships alone.

Good luck with that. Bilateral relationships are irreplaceable, but whether it is the EU, NATO, Arab League or the African Union, the realities of global reach, influence, and strained resources mean Washington (and everyone else) must work with regional institutions.

The US has realized this and begun to act. Last year, it attended the East Asia Summit for the first time, established unprecedented high-level bilateral meetings with the African Union, worked with Kazakhstan to host the first OSCE summit since 1999 and has reinvigorated its participation in ASEAN.

The US, for the first time, sent a representative to a SCO-sponsored international conference on Afghanistan in 2009, which resulted in an action plan that encouraged member states to work with international and other parties, including NATO, to counter the drug trade through enforcement and economic development of Afghanistan. And last year, also for the first time, Russian counternarcotics officials participated in a successful NATO and Afghan raid on drug labs in Afghanistan. Whether that action was a direct outcome from American participation in the conference is difficult to tell, but it probably didn’t hurt.

The SCO is anti-West and anti-NATO.

Not necessarily. The SCO in 2005 asked for Coalition forces to establish an end date for their use of Central Asian bases to support the fight in Afghanistan. But, in context, it was not surprising. Military action then seemed on the verge of completion and purported US support of color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan—as well as US criticism of Uzbekistan’s violent suppression of domestic unrest—had unnerved SCO leaders fearful of additional regime change. For the SCO, the US had worn out its welcome and later that year Uzbekistan ordered US forces to leave its Karshi-Khanabad air base.

But since then, SCO participants have seen how they might use the US presence in the region to their own benefit. Kyrgyzstan has been able to leverage Washington’s needs as it raises the rent for use of the Manas transit facility, and Russia has been able to reassert itself in Afghanistan by partnering with NATO on counternarcotics raids, for example. Even Beijing likely appreciates the West’s contribution to regional security as Chinese businesses pursue trade and investment in Afghanistan. Moreover, all of the SCO members except China are to some degree involved in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.

The White House might think that the SCO would not be receptive to improving relations, but if the United States is rebuffed, it’s more likely the SCO would suffer from a loss in prestige than Washington.

The SCO is only a talk shop.

Not so fast. A review of the SCO’s past decade shows it’s doing well considering its consensus operating style, diverse membership, and historical regional animosities.

Security accomplishments are easiest to cite: compilation and sharing of terrorism information, assistance to high-profile international events, regular joint exercises involving border, law enforcement, and military forces.

The SCO’s bureaucratic development and concerted outreach to external groups like the UN, ASEAN, EU, and OSCE are important, too, because they underscore the organization’s drawing and staying power and provide increased legitimacy to the SCO as a regional player.