NATO's New Rival

NATO's New Rival

There is a new counterweight to NATO. The crisis in Georgia has brought balancing back.

The Russian intervention in Georgia has "called into question the entire premise" of the West's hitherto engagement with Russia, warned Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week. He also said the war between Moscow and Tbilisi would have "profound implications for our security relationship going forward, both bilaterally and with NATO." Earlier Republican presidential candidate John McCain reiterated his call to reexamine the alliance's relationship with Russia, as well as Moscow's continuing participation in the G8 and WTO application. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who is advising Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, suggested in a Time column that Russia needed to be "ostracized internationally." Undoubtedly Russia's relations with Western democracies in general-and the United States in particular-have deteriorated due to the conflict. What's more, it's becoming apparent that the clubs of the West are no longer the only game in town: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), due to hold its annual summit in Tajikistan next week, is steadily developing into a full-blown security organization.

Established in 2001, the SCO is composed of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Mongolia joined as an observer in 2004, while India, Iran and Pakistan were accorded the same status in 2005. Iran and Pakistan are currently petitioning for full membership, although the status of the latter's interest is unclear in the wake President Pervez Musharraf's resignation. As a bloc, the SCO has formidable potential. The combined populations of its member states alone account for about one-fourth of the global total. The six countries possess 8 percent of the world's proven petroleum reserves and 31 percent of known natural-gas reserves (the figures will jump to 18 percent and 37 percent if Iran gains full membership). The Chinese and Russian armed forces are the largest and fourth-largest active-duty militaries in the world, with combined defense budgets estimated to equal at least 10 percent of total global military expenditures.

Despite occasional denials by senior officials, political and military coordination is becoming a hallmark of the organization. Although originally founded with the modest goal of facilitating confidence-building measures along the members' shared borders, the SCO's activities increased significantly in 2004 with the establishment of a permanent secretariat in Beijing and a regional antiterrorism center in Uzbekistan, which serves as a liaison between the security services of member states. The 2007 summit of heads of state in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, last August coincided with a joint military exercise of units from all six SCO members. The maneuvers began in Urumqi, the capital of the China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region, and ended in Chelyabinsk, in the Russian Urals. In October of last year, the SCO signed a memorandum of understanding with the Russian-led military alliance of former-Soviet states, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Both groups pledged to work closely together, leveraging the latter's rapid-reaction forces and other military assets with the former's mandate to promote regional coordination.

The condition sine qua non for any effective multilateral institution is that its members have a minimal consensus on basic principles and share common interests. At best, the internal governance structure of SCO member states could be described as authoritarian. The convention establishing the organization committed its signatories to combating "terrorism, separatism, and extremism," which it called a menace to international peace and security as well as "a serious threat to the territorial integrity and security" of the member states. Subsequently the SCO has cast itself as an alternative to what its members portray as the efforts-presumably by the United States, whose 2005 bid to get observer status was unceremoniously rejected-to achieve global hegemony. A communiqué released after the 2005 summit declared that "a rational and just world order must be based upon consolidation of mutual trust and good-neighborly relations, upon the establishment of true partnership with no pretence to monopoly and domination in international affairs." While reaffirming "the supremacy of principles and standards of international law, before all, the UN Charter," the Astana Declaration added the caveat that "in the area of human rights it is necessary to respect strictly and consecutively historical traditions and national features of every people, sovereign equality of all states."

While concerted measures against terrorism, separatism and extremism-as well as the repudiation of outside "interference"-might make the SCO seem a conservative bloc committed to the status quo, recent developments point to a more ambitious agenda. Last year, acting on an initiative by then-Russian President Vladimir Putin, a group of national ministers met in Moscow. Their aim was to lay the foundations of a body within the SCO charged with articulating a common energy policy, with a view toward heading off a potential Sino-Russian clash over central-Asian resources and positioning the bloc to dominate global markets. The momentum toward a cartel to control prices and output may receive a boost if Iran joins the SCO, since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been an enthusiastic proponent of a "gas OPEC."

As it evolves, the SCO, which has obtained UN observer status and established a formal liaison with ASEAN, may make a more credible claim to be a legitimate competitor to Western-led security initiatives in Eurasia-like NATO's Partnership for Peace-than the vehicles which Russia has used to date, including the Commonwealth of Independent States and the CTSO. The signing last year of the Treaty on Long-term Good Neighborliness, Friendship, and Cooperation between SCO members creates the framework for closer cooperation on a variety of legislative, legal and cultural issues, which Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi recently hailed as signaling "that collaborative efforts have increased and reached a higher level."

On Monday, Russia withdrew its request for an emergency meeting of the NATO-Russia Council. Whether that consultative body survives the current crisis remains to be seen, as will the extent to which the alliance actually penalizes Moscow for what NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has called "the excessive disproportionate use of force by the Russians." The real question, however, is whether these diplomatic sanctions matter anymore. In just seven years, the SCO has transformed itself from a glorified border-security framework into a regional counterterrorism entity into an alternative international bloc, with an important security component and significant economic and political potential. While it still lacks many of the elements that would make a true rival to NATO, the SCO is already a factor altering the Eurasian geopolitical calculus.


J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.