The SCO and the Future of Central Asia

The SCO and the Future of Central Asia

What does the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's recent military exercise mean for the United States?

Are U.S. interests in Central Asia in danger?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held a joint military exercise last week including troops from all six member states, raising concerns in the United States. To address the topic of the alliance between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, The Nixon Center hosted a luncheon discussion on Thursday, September 6, featuring Evan Feigenbaum, the deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia. Drew Thompson, director of China studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center, moderated the talk and Ambassador H.E. Chan Heng Chee of Singapore attended as a noted guest.

"There's a debate in the United States about what the SCO is, whether its members can cooperate, and what their cooperation might mean for us", Feigenbaum summarized. He also proposed that "there's a broader, parallel debate about how to promote cooperation at all in [Central Asia]."

Feigenbaum observed that the SCO is "a subject that seems to make a lot of Americans' blood boil." Because the SCO is a formal relationship between significant world powers-China and Russia-Americans worry that it could develop into a force opposing American interests in Central Asia.

But do the SCO's actions reflect its stated objective to promote cooperation in the region? Feigenbaum confessed that what the SCO does is not fully understood by the United States. Although the SCO has a defined purpose and has outlined ambitious goals, its achievements have primarily been on the bilateral level-not between all six members. He stressed the importance of distinguishing statements from actions when assessing the ramifications of the SCO.

Along this same line of reasoning, Feigenbaum observes of the recent SCO military exercise that "merely holding an exercise, however large and impressive, does not in itself produce enduring security cooperation." Furthermore, any parallel to the Warsaw Pact or "NATO counterweight" is erroneous, since SCO members assert their independence and are free to make decisions and alliances without consulting each other.

Many even have individual partnerships with the United States. For example, the United States provided Tajikistan with $40 million to strengthen its border control and gave significant military aid to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Additionally, all of the five Central Asian nations are also members of the NATO Partnership for Peace, which promotes cooperation and security worldwide. The United States and NATO also have a large military presence in Central Asia, which significantly aids the Western role in Afghanistan.

Overall, the Central Asian nations have choices and freedom of action, including pursuing their individual goals via the SCO. As Feigenbaum observed, "[The Central Asian states] are not the passive receptacles of the wily strategies of outside powers. Their interests, goals and motives are their own." The inclination to be wary of Russian or Chinese control is reminiscent of Cold War thinking and not representative of modern complexities. As the speaker pointed out, Russia and China have their own rivalry, just as they each have their own relationship with the United States and can gain from collaborating with the United States in the region. Furthermore, one should keep in mind that the Central Asian states have "demonstrated remarkable skill at turning great-power rivalry into an asset that maximizes their independence", Feigenbaum reminded the audience.

However, Feigenbaum pointedly stated: "We are not naive." He indicated four primary reasons to be concerned about the SCO-beginning with the Astana Declaration of 2005, which gave the United States a timeline to decrease its military presence in the region. The Astana Declaration also led to the forcible closure of a U.S. military base in Uzbekistan. Second, the SCO granted Iran observer status in 2005, even though the nation was under sanctions from the international community for pursuing a nuclear program.  Third, Feigenbaum warned of the general lack of enthusiasm for democracy and reform in Central Asia, which creates an unsteady foundation for private enterprise and foreign investment. Finally, Feigenbaum noted the historical propensity of states to "balance out" power and influence-in this case the United States. 

Concluding his remarks, Feigenbaum made it clear that the SCO will remain under close observation: "We will watch with interest what the SCO says. But we will especially watch what it does, and what it becomes."

Following Evan Feigenbaum's observations on the SCO, Norman Bailey of the Potomac Foundation asked Feigenbaum to specify what American companies are investing in throughout Central Asia, referring specifically to Kazakhstan. Although the bulk of American economic involvement in Kazakhstan is in hydrocarbons, U.S. economic involvement is becoming more diverse. Feigenbaum noted three significant involvements: Federal Express is opening a regional office; General Electric is building a locomotive factory; and the AES Corporation is involved in power generation.

Andrew Kuchins, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, questioned whether engaging SCO members in stabilizing Afghanistan was feasible. Feigenbaum described American cooperation with SCO members on Afghanistan as "robust" and emphasized that the SCO and the United States have a shared interest in a safe and stable Afghanistan.

Ambassador H.E. Chan Heng Chee, of Singapore, began a discussion on whether the competition in Central Asia is primarily about power, energy, economics or something else entirely. More importantly, she asked, is this another "great game"? Feigenbaum replied that there's always competition in international relations and the great-game metaphor implies that the larger powers are not consulting Central Asian countries, which is not the case. He emphasized that any sort of "chessboard" analogy was insulting to the states and does not represent how the United States perceives the situation.

David Sands of The Washington Times, asked Feigenbaum, "Are you seeking to be a member of the SCO?" Feigenbaum replied, "We are not seeking to be a member of the SCO."

John Tkacik of the Heritage Foundation, brought up the important issue of Iran's participation in the SCO and asked Feigenbaum to expand upon the official position. Feigenbaum warned that including Iran in the SCO could give its leader a platform for its nuclear program.

Caitlin B. Doherty is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.