The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in 1949 as an alliance against the Soviet Union and maintained that role for more than four decades. With the end of the Cold War NATO’s future appeared uncertain and a focus emerged in building relations with Moscow. However, the expansion of the Atlantic alliance throughout the 90's was an unwelcome development for Russia, viewing itself as increasingly surrounded by a potentially hostile force. This acted as the driving contributor towards Russia’s decision to join China in the establishment of the Shanghai Five. What later became the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the SCO is rapidly emerging as a strategic competitor to the United States and its allies throughout Asia.
The SCO is led by Russia and China and includes the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. While the alliance was established under the guise of “fighting terrorism, separatism, and extremism,” these stated objectives seem incomplete when compared with reality. The frequent explanation for the organization is that it promotes peace, stability, and cooperation in the region and that it is not aimed at any outside actor. Zhang Deguang, Secretary General of the SCO, told China’s official news outlet Xinhua on January 16 that “[a]s an organization that advocates peace and cooperation, SCO will absolutely never become a Euro-Asian military alliance.”
The above statement should hold little weight with any serious observer. The August 2005 joint-military exercise on the Shandong Peninsula of Chinese and Russian forces illustrated that the SCO is indeed a developing Euro-Asian military alliance. Defense ministers, ambassadors, and military attaches from all member nations of the SCO were invited to observe the operations, as were representatives from India, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Iran. The latter currently hold observer status in the alliance.
Due to fears of increasing military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow, a “high-ranking military and diplomatic source in Moscow” reportedly told Russia’s Interfax News Agency that those concerns are unwarranted as Russia and China will work within the framework of the SCO. The source added: “Despite the fact that the SCO is a purely political organization, it has a military component whose role will continuously grow.” Yury Baluyevskiy, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, provided further insight onto the organization’s growing military component with his statement: “I do not rule out that if a decision is taken by the SCO, of which Russia and China are members, the armed forces of our countries may be involved in performing certain tasks.”
Rather than reassuring, these pronouncements should serve as a warning bell to those in the West that believe this organization to be strictly benevolent. If recent events – and the past – are any indication, a little muscle behind this organization can be a very dangerous thing.
Far overlooked in the aftermath of the May 2005 government massacre in Andijon, Uzbekistan was the role of the SCO. The Uzbek handling of protests – both by the gunning down of civilians and the subsequent persecutions – resulted in harsh criticism from the West. This led President Islam Karimov to the conclusion that his future lies not in the West, but with the East. A July meeting of SCO leaders produced a demand that the United States develop a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces from Central Asia – transparently an attempt from Moscow and Beijing to establish military preeminence in the region.
As the Russian publication Kommersant noted: “While the US and EU were demanding [an] international investigation of the Andijan events, Moscow increased its influence in Central Asia and is trying to pump up its military presence in the region.” One way to reach these ends has been the revival of the Cold War method of using one’s vote in the United Nations as a geopolitical tool. A textbook example would be November 2005’s UN General Assembly Resolution 3843 condemning the Karimov government for human rights violations. Every single member and observer nation of the SCO on hand voted in opposition to the resolution – Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia happened to be absent. The dissenters’ stated reasoning was that the measure was brought before the United Nations due to political motivations.
Coinciding with the UN vote was Uzbekistan’s announcement that it was closing its airspace to NATO flights for operations in Afghanistan. With the cessation of NATO involvement in Uzbekistan and the subsequent strengthening of ties with Russia and China, the Karimov regime solidified its county’s near term future with its associates in the SCO. As Peter Zeihan wrote for Strategic Forecasting, “Uzbekistan is the most powerful Central Asian state, and whoever has the most influence there can shape events throughout the region.” With the SCO in firm control of Tashkent, the ability to shape the future of Central Asia is slipping out of the West’s hands.
Perhaps even more dangerous for NATO is the potential for growth possessed by its new strategic competitor. Earlier this month, the SCO’s Secretary General added to the volumes explaining the organization’s supposed benevolence when he stated that there are no plans for expansion. In a disingenuous attempt – typical of Chinese government officials – at reassuring those concerned about an expanding alliance against the West, Zhang Deguang pointed out that adding “new member nations requires a legal basis; as of now, SCO still has not made available the legal documents for recruiting new member nations; therefore, the West need not worry about India, Iran, and other countries becoming SCO members.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to disagree. Or, perhaps, he is just a little more forthcoming than his Chinese friend. “This is an open organization, which is always ready to admit new members,” Putin told Itar-Tass in December while referring to a possible expansion of the SCO to include the upstanding nation of Belarus. A top Russian official also told the Delhi daily The Asian Age that as Moscow “focuses on new organizations like the SCO, we will be happy to see India as a full partner.” This is not exactly the rhetoric of an exclusive organization. Nor does the possible inclusion of “Europe’s last dictatorship,” in Belarus, reflect well on the intentions of the alliance.
Realistically, the dynamics of the SCO make sense. The Central Asian states attain regime security by cooperating with Moscow and improved trade relations in their expanded dealings with Beijing. If the international community pressures for reform and transparency – as was the case in Uzbekistan – these small states will have powerful allies in institutions such as the United Nations. From the perspectives of Russia and China the mantra is: “We defend you against human rights activists, and you join our alliances to counterbalance NATO and the European Union,” as was articulated by Alexander Kabakov in Russia’s Kommersant.
China additionally gains influence in Central Asia while procuring weapons, technology, and energy sources from Russia. The positives of the alliance, however, seem most ambiguous for Russia. The military industrial complex of the Soviet era has survived in large part due to massive purchases from China. In the unlikely scenario of an eruption of a major powers war, the 1.3 billion Chinese would certainly be an asset. Nonetheless, those same 1.3 billion Chinese share a 4,300 kilometer border with Russia’s sparsely populated Far East, and the Chinese incursion into Central Asia – an inevitable result of the alliance – is a doubtless cause for concern in many circles in Moscow.
Still, it is clear that Russia has made it a security priority to contain the United States and its most threatening alliance, NATO. The above noted commentary by Kabakov offers a conclusion that should give pause to SCO apologists when it asserts: “Russia, after floundering a little, has returned to its old habits, taking under its wing anyone who will come” and relations with developing countries “are being built according to the old model, the way the Soviet bosses treated pro-Communist African kinglet, Palestinian fighters against Zionism and leftist Latin American opportunists.” Beijing is more than happy to play along in this game of realpolitik as it too considers the United States the greatest threat to its interests.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is less a force for stability and cooperation than it is an expanding alliance determined to counter the interests of the West. American and NATO efforts in Central Asia have been damaged by the SCO in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. NATO has found its new nemesis, and where the SCO has gained influence at the expense of the United States and its allies, the human rights situation has deteriorated. The development of the SCO bears watching. A continuous growth of the alliance could spark a return to the block politics that defined the Cold War, and that is a future the West would be wise to avoid.
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