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.
The SCO’s own election-observer cadre, which has monitored voting in members’ parliamentary and presidential contests since 2005, has often disagreed with other international observers about whether elections were “free and fair.” It may be annoying to the West, but it does illustrate a tangible political accomplishment that SCO members appreciate.
The economic sphere has lagged, though, with China predictably picking up the slack. Beijing has proposed that it provide $8 billion of the expected $10 billion price tag to help finance joint SCO projects. It has also granted billions of dollars worth of loan credits for members under the SCO umbrella, to help them weather the global economic crisis. The group also has worked with the Asian Development Bank and the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific to prepare and implement a regional agreement to promote transit, trade, and tourism.
Once America leaves Afghanistan, no one will care about the SCO.
Washington will. SCO states, as Afghanistan’s neighbors in the region, will remain after the US exits. Establishing a better connection to, and possible partnership with, the SCO could help the US keep an eye on al-Qaeda and other extremist organizations in Eurasia. The Wall Street Journal in April outlined al-Qaeda activity “setting up training camps, hideouts, and operations bases” over the last several months in Afghanistan’s northeast border region with Pakistan once Afghan forces took over security. The US could benefit from established and proposed SCO activities, such as tracking extremist organizations, improving regional law enforcement training, and establishing better border and customs controls.
The drug trade in this region is part of the larger instability story, especially as it provides profit and transit routes to the Taliban and extremist groups. To help dampen the drug trade’s appeal and success, SCO members have agreed to further their economic cooperation with Afghanistan to help in its recovery, implement Afghan law-enforcement training, as well as enhance drug-abuse prevention and treatment. Partnership on these efforts could make it easier for Washington to receive updates about them and possibly increase their effectiveness.
The US also will be interested in further SCO attempts to form an energy “club,” driven by Chinese needs and Russian and Central Asian supplies. The effort has been halting thus far, but engagement could help provide insights on future plans and possibly avoid the negative impact such an organization could have on the commercial development of diverse gas, oil and hydropower pathways across this region.
Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake met with SCO officials in mid-March to get their “perception of the situation in Central Asia and how SCO as an organization but also individual members are working to address some of the challenges that the region faces.” No word yet publicly on how those discussions went.
Blake told reporters before his meeting that the US had not made a decision yet about whether to seek some kind of membership status in the group. But outgoing Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg noted last year that “it’s important that we continue to interact with the SCO...there are ways in which nonmembers can engage with them.” If, as Blake has said, the US thinks “the SCO is a good platform for discussions on how to improve stability and prosperity” then the time for a decision on engagement may be now.
Image from www.kremlin.ru