Little by little, Russia and China are breaking down the barriers of mutual distrust that marked their past relationship, with the Shangai Cooperation Organization (SCO) serving as the catalyst.
Various views of the SCO's relevance have emergined since 2005, but its importance is undeniably growing. As an alliance whose membership could expand to include some of the world's largest resource holders-Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan-and four of the world's nuclear states-China, India, Pakistan and Russia-it certainly bears watching. Iran has applied for membership in the SCO and its status is likely to be discussed at the August 16 summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
The SCO's meeting in Bishkek will be held against the backdrop of the six member countries' first ever joint anti-terrorism military drills conducted from August 9-17 in Chelyabinsk, Russia and Urumchi in Xinjiang, China. China's army and air force are contributing 1,600 soldiers, along with 2,000 Russian troops. A total of about 6,500 SCO member troops are participating. This show of military unity to advance regional security goals is meant to signal to the United States that preparations are underway for the SCO to be more self-sufficient while increasing the clout of both Russia and China.
When China brought together its new Central Asian neighbors-Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan-along with Russia in the Shanghai Five in April 1996, its goal was to settle border disputes and build trust in the post-Soviet space. For China, the Shanghai Five was a tool to break down historical animosities with both Central Asia and Russia, as well as counter Uighur separatism in Xinjiang.
The mission of the Shanghai Five changed in 2001. In June of that year, Uzbekistan was admitted as a sixth member, and the group was renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to be headquartered in Beijing. In September 2001, the United States began taking a closer look at the region and by December was relying on military bases in SCO member countries Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to help evict the Taliban from Afghanistan. While the SCO's terrorism-separatism-extremism agenda partially coincided with purported U.S. goals after 9/11, Russia and China watched warily as the United States made increasing military, security and commercial inroads in Central Asia.
By 2005, both Russian and China viewed the United States's open-ended regional military presence with growing apprehension. In May 2005, after the Andijan killings in Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov endured harsh U.S. criticism, to which he responded by revoking U.S. basing rights at Khanabad. Russia and China moved in to fill the vacuum. That same year, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan received observer status in the SCO. U.S. efforts to get observer status were rebuffed.
Russia and China have continued to build momentum. They are in the process of solidifying closer military and security cooperation under the auspices of the SCO. Russian interest in finding new security arrangements has been accelerated by U.S. determination to install missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. This could spur Russia and China to develop a Eurasian military grouping through the auspices of the SCO as a counterweight to NATO.
Kyrgyzstan holds the current chairmanship of the SCO and will therefore serve as the host of the August gathering. Turkmenistan's new President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov will attend the summit as an honorary guest, the first time Turkmenistan has agreed to attend an SCO gathering. Turkmenistan is being considered for membership in the SCO, a development which would bring all the Central Asian countries into the group.
The presidents of China, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will join Berdymukhammedov. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon are also invited. India and Pakistan have agreed to send their foreign ministers.
This year, Kyrgyzstan is also in line for the chairmanship of the seven-member Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), comprised of all the SCO members minus China, but also including Armenia and Belarus. At the Bishkek summit, a cooperation agreement between the SCO and the CSTO is expected to be signed. An SCO-CSTO tie-up would come just a month after Russia suspended its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). The SCO-CSTO linkage may be seen as an attempt by Russia and China to begin to forge a new security architecture for the region.
The SCO's importance for Russia and China now extends well beyond the organization's underlying security agenda. It has provided Russia and China a platform to broaden their relationship beyond security cooperation and military exchanges.
Julia Nanay is Senior Director at PFC Energy.