The Latest from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Central Asia's cabal weighs in on terrorism, Syria and sovereignty.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) recently held a high-profile meeting in the capital of Kyrgyzstan. With so much at stake in the region, how are Russia, China, the other SCO member states (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) coordinating their efforts to combat “terrorism, separatism, and extremism” while simultaneously resisting perceived Western intrusion into Asian geopolitical affairs?

Counterterrorism with Chinese characteristics

When China founded the Shanghai Five in 1996 (which was renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization once Uzbekistan joined in 2001), promoting regional security emerged as a top priority. The Chinese side even promulgated a doctrine of combating “three evil forces,” namely terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Given the large-scale ethnic and religious unrest along China’s so-called “western frontier” throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, this type of government response was unsurprising. As Uyghurs and Tibetans demonstrated against Chinese rule, Beijing undoubtedly looked for ways to secure its borders and prevent “separatist forces” from gaining support from neighboring countries. The SCO has emerged as one such mechanism through which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can pressure various foreign governments to restrict “anti-China activities” on their soil, which include restricting the activities of Uyghurs and Tibetans who attempt to mobilize support for political protests or organizations. In return for their support on key policy issues, China provides SCO members with lucrative investment deals, particularly in the burgeoning Central Asian energy sector.

The Bishkek Declaration, issued at the close of the summit, reinforced the goals of combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism as well as halting transnational organized crime and similar illegal activities. In a television interview with Chinese state media, former SCO Secretary-General Muratbek Imanaliyev stated: “I deeply believe it’s time to boost efforts to fight terrorism. We need to expand regional anti-terrorism work and strengthen cooperation with other international peace-keeping organizations.”

President Hamid Karzai similarly articulated that Afghanistan remains a haven for international terrorist groups, even as the international community attempts to rid the country of extremists. He singled out such groups as Al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Beijing has long blamed domestic terrorist attacks on radical separatist groups in Xinjiang (“East Turkestan”), but scholars and experts remain divided on whether many of these groups even exist, let alone whether they are as well-developed and organized as the Chinese government claims.

Moreover, as China’s crackdown on Internet dissident continues, it appears unsurprising that the Bishkek Declaration linked the “three evil forces” with the role the Internet plays in terrorist recruitment and the dissemination of extremist ideology. SCO Regional Anti-Terrorism Agency Executive Committee Director Zhang Xinfeng pledged that the organization would strengthen the capabilities of member cyber security agencies to combat these forces. International observers will undoubtedly wonder whether the Chinese government will use this announcement to extend its Internet censorship policies and monitoring technology to neighboring states.

Human Rights in China, an INGO with offices in New York and Hong Kong, published a 2011 white paper entitled, “Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights: The Impact of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.” The organization accused the SCO of creating an antiterrorist platform that actually “contributes to supporting repressive regimes at the expense of national, regional, and global human rights.” It furthermore argued that the “failure of the international community to demand accountability from regional frameworks such as the SCO will only compromise the effectiveness and integrity of the international system in countering terrorism and advancing rule of law, peace, and security.” In short, the problem is that China and its partners actually use international antiterrorist rhetoric to target ethnic minorities seeking greater autonomy.

The SCO on Syria and Iran