The big takeaway from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit held earlier this month here in Beijing is that the group is going to become more involved in Afghanistan. Western optimists seem to have concluded that this means the SCO—which includes China, Russia and all of the post-Soviet Central Asian states except for Turkmenistan—might take on the burden as the West tries to extricate itself from the war-torn country. But this expectation, while popular in Washington and Brussels, is vastly overblown.
The SCO was born out of the ashes of the Cold War and the Shanghai Five, a grouping aimed at delineating China’s border with the newly independent Central Asian states. By 2001, it had successfully resolved these questions and decided to formalize the structure into a regional organization that expanded to bring in Uzbekistan (which does not border China). Of course, that was also the year that everything changed in the world, when Osama Bin Laden finally managed to launch an attack from his Afghan base that got America’s attention. From then on, the seeming orientation of the group shifted from building greater regional coordination to a counterterrorism-oriented but still anti-Western club. When Iran tried to join in 2006–07, this narrative was somewhat confirmed in the public mind, though little attention was paid when the body rejected Iran’s application.
The SCO has potential, but its members currently treat it as an institutional tool to advance their often-competing interests. Many outsiders mistakenly conclude that it is a body capable of implementing its pronouncements.
The SCO has two centers. There is a secretariat in Beijing, while Uzbekistan's Tashkent hosts the rather unfortunately acronymed Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure: RATS. Each of these is staffed by thirty diplomats from the member states. RATS has a database of individuals wanted in member states and is looking into coordination to shut down extremist websites. But there is no police-training component or active force ready for deployment. Even counternarcotics, an issue of great regional concern, has not been addressed in any concrete way. There is no unified military command, and unlike the Russian-led Collective Security Trade Organization (CSTO), there is little serious discussion of establishing a rapid-reaction force.
China has tried to transform the SCO into an economic body, eyeing the idea of a regional free-trade zone. This meshes with Beijing’s approach to Afghanistan: to develop the country and link its infrastructure into the broader region as a means to guarantee stability. This also concords with U.S. ambitions of a “New Silk Road.” But Afghanistan’s development, advanced through the SCO, would be stymied by the preference of the Central Asian states to work with Kabul bilaterally as well as by Russia’s very different economic imperatives in the region.
So what exactly can we expect from the SCO summit and the previous week’s agreements with Afghanistan? The answer is best summarized by quoting an SCO official one of us spoke to on the fringes of the summit: “It is a first concrete step.” This is a political gesture of recognition that the organization should be doing more, and China’s decision to in parallel sign a “strategic agreement” with Afghanistan is reinforcement of the ambition that whatever happens with the SCO, it will make a point of being engaged in Afghanistan. This will probably mean increased training efforts by Chinese police, increased Chinese investment in natural resources and a push for regional links, such as recently announced plans for a pipeline from Turkmenistan to China through Afghanistan.
While China’s interests in developing Afghanistan to make it stable, prosperous and peaceful concord broadly with Western objectives, they do not completely align. China’s central aim in Afghanistan and broader Central Asia is to stabilize and strengthen Xinjiang, its poor and underdeveloped western province. The SCO will be helpful for Beijing as long as it contributes to this objective.
The SCO is a frequently misunderstood organization. During its decade-long history, it has been ignored, considered cause for alarm and characterized as an authoritarian club. Now, its decisions have been met with an outsized sense of optimism as the West frantically seeks an exit from Afghanistan, hoping that others might take on responsibility there. Pouring cold water on these expectations is important unless the United States and NATO want to find themselves leaving responsibility to a regional body that has none of the capacities necessary to stabilize a country as troubled as Afghanistan.
Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Alexandros Petersen is author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. Their joint research is available at www.chinaincentralasia.com.