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
According to the Chinese People’s Daily, leaders also agreed that “international and regional disputes should be peacefully resolved through political and diplomatic means under the principles of equality, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, noninterference into others' internal affairs and no use or threat of use of force.” Stung by “one hundred years of humiliation” at the hands of foreign imperialists, Chinese leaders have long seized upon the principle of mutual noninterference in the sovereign affairs of nation-states to reject criticism of its human-rights policies. Thus, when like-minded SCO member states expressed their concern regarding the ongoing situation in Syria, they “advocated that the region should achieve peace, stability, prosperity and progress without external interference,” especially the use of force without United Nations Security Council (UNSC) authorization.
The Moscow Times added that member states backed the Russia-led initiative to place Syrian chemical weapons under UN control, and also supported holding a peace conference to end the conflict. Similarly, some SCO members expressed concern about Iran’s nuclear program but spoke out against “the threat of military force and one-sided sanctions of individual governments." China and Russia, both of which are UNSC members, are highly unlikely to authorize force under any circumstances in Syria or Iran. When they raised fears of a Western intervention and the “loosening of internal and regional stability in the Middle East,” one wonders whether certain SCO members are hoping to forestall any attempts at Western meddling in their own countries. Granting Western powers permission to collectively use force against abusive authoritarian regimes sets the type of precedent that China and Russia would like to avoid.
The geostrategic importance of Central Asia makes it imperative for Western powers to encourage these states to adopt democratic norms and embrace human rights. The United States and its allies should consequently adapt a more vigorous policy of engagement with and investment in the region. The twenty-first century incarnation of the Great Game has already begun, and the West should play a productive and positive role in shaping Central Asia.
Julia Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.