In July, permanent members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/topics/sco/t57970.htm, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, met in the Kazakh capital of Astana to discuss matters of mutual importance which included trade, energy, security and technology cooperation.
A growing number of Western observers, however, fear that the SCO is less a cooperative arrangement and more a modern day “Warsaw Pact,” determined to reduce U.S. global influence and confront what is perceived as growing Western expansionism in Central Asia and the Middle East. The addition of India, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia as “observers” to the SCO, coupled with the abrupt rejection of U.S. requests for observer status, raise important questions concerning the organization’s long-term strategic goals and vision.
In short, is the SCO merely a union of independent member countries with mutual interests, or a military confederacy designed to eventually confront the U.S.?
A Timetable for U.S. Troop Withdraw
In July, the SCO urged the U.S. to set a deadline for the withdrawal of troops from its member countries in light of what the organization viewed as a decline in fighting in Afghanistan. U.S. bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have been in existence since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan and have proved to be valuable assets in the war on terror.
However, the conciliatory relationship that signified the early days of the U.S. presence in Central Asia is quickly changing. Chinese President Hu Jintao noted in July, “The fate of Central Asian countries is in their own hands and they are wise and capable enough to sort out their domestic problems on their own.”
Some U.S. leaders view the recent SCO request for the withdraw U.S. troops as the result of China and Russia bullying its smaller, less-experienced members. In July, a high ranking Russian official flatly rejected accusations made by U.S. General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Russia and China were behind such requests, “As is well known, all decisions made within the framework of the SCO are consensus based and reflect the collective opinion of all the member countries,” the official said.
A Disturbing Triad - China, Russia and Iran
In the past, Iran, Russia and China have made numerous independent statements regarding their displeasure with what they perceive as U.S. encroachment in Central Asia and the Middle East. But recently, their actions and rhetoric have become more coordinated and targeted. At a June meeting in Moscow, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a bilateral statement entitled, “World Order in the 21st Century,” that warned against attempts by “outside forces” to dominate global affairs and opposition to attempts to “impose models of social and political development from outside.”
Both leaders renewed their call for the development of a “multipolar world” calling on countries to “renounce striving for monopoly and domination in international affairs and attempts to divide nations into leaders and those being led.” Many observers view the joint statements as a clear warning to Washington that perceived American unilateralism has become increasingly unacceptable.
Adding to Western suspicions surrounding the SCO, its two key members, Russia and China, continue to foster close military ties. China has accelerated its purchase of advanced Russian fighters, unmanned aircraft, long and short-range missiles, sophisticated submarines and guided-missile destroyers as part of their ongoing military modernization program.
In addition, Russia recently tested a new anti-ship weapon, a modified Raduga Kh-59 launched from an SU-30MK2 aircraft, which they hope to sell to China. The new missile is specifically designed to attack large naval targets such as U.S. carriers. “The Raduga Kh-59 is a serious story that is just beginning,” stated Robert Fisher, vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Later this month, the first ever combined China-Russia bilateral military maneuvers dubbed “Peace Mission 2005” are scheduled to take place in the coastal Chinese province of Shandong and in the Russian Far East. In an unexpected move that seems to support assertions of greater military cooperation, China and Russia invited the defense ministers of the SCO observer countries to watch the joint military exercises. The exercises will include over 10,000 army, navy marine, airborne and logistics units.
The most blatant expression of anti-American sentiment and overt hostility by an SCO member came in July when Chinese General Zhu Chenghu, a professor at China’s National Defense University, threatened nuclear war if the U.S. attacked China over Taiwan. “If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons. If the Americans are determined to interfere, we will have to respond.” Regrettably, condemnation of the General’s outrageous comments from SCO member and observer countries never materialized.
Realizing the importance of a strong Middle East ally in the SCO, Moscow, with the blessing of Beijing, has made Iran a high organizational priority. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Ambassador to Russia Gholam-Reza Ansari met in July to discuss the importance of Iran’s membership in the SCO. The Iranian ambassador indicated that he hoped the SCO would manage to play an active role in “settling” regional issues. This, in addition to Moscow’s continued assistance in the construction of the controversial Bushehr nuclear reactor and its promise to build an additional six reactors, present a national security threat to the U.S. and its allies.
A Military Showdown with the U.S.?
Could the SCO mount a coordinated military assault on U.S. armed forces based in Central Asia and Middle East?
In Moscow, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Sergei Razov denied allegations that military cooperation among SCO members is a top priority, “Our priorities are economic and security. The SCO is a self-sufficient organization whose members have parallel, harmonious interests. It wasn’t formed as an alternative to, or an instrument of opposing anyone,” he said.
The release of the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Jul2005/d20050719china.pdf in July, however, highlights China’s development of a military capability that reaches well beyond Taiwan. According to the report, “While China’s current ability to project conventional military power beyond its periphery remains limited, if current trends persist, China’s capabilities could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region.” The report also noted, “Some of China’s military planners are surveying the strategic landscape beyond Taiwan. Air and naval force improvements appear geared for operations beyond the geography around Taiwan.”
If an attack by the SCO on U.S. forces stationed in Central Asia and the Middle East did occur, the combined armies of China, Russia, and Iran would provide a formidable adversary. Add India, Pakistan and several smaller Central Asian states into the fray and you have all the necessary ingredients of an unparalleled military conflict. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev recently boasted, “The organization [SCO] now represents half of all humankind.” This was not merely a factual statement; rather, it was meant as a direct challenge to U.S. superiority.
The military threat from the SCO becomes increasingly legitimate when we consider that even after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) completes its current downsizing of 200,000 men; it will still have a standing army of approximately 2.3 million men with another 10 million men available from its organized militia.
Could the PLA be streamlining its ground forces to prepare for a unified land-based attack against U.S. forces using the threat of a Taiwan invasion as a diversion? Having closely studied the U.S. armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Chinese now believe that to engage a technologically dominant U.S. force, they too will need a well-trained and well-equipped army.
In addition to being grossly outnumbered in terms of manpower by the SCO member countries, a U.S. army report released in July noted that U.S. troop morale in Iraq and Afghanistan is extremely low and psychological stress is weighing heavily on National Guard and Reserve troops – a key component of the U.S. force.
Does a powerful China-Russia-Iran triad now believe an opportunity to move against the U.S. has surfaced?
Without question, the SCO is being carefully crafted as a geopolitical counterweight to the U.S.
To address this imminent challenge, Washington should focus more of its attention on the SCO by monitoring its actions and rhetoric for signs of aggression. The U.S. cannot allow a China-Russia-Iran triad to monopolize Central Asia and the Middle East. If the SCO does mature as a competing body to the European Union and NATO, it could signify a dramatic shift in the current geostrategic balance of power that currently favors Washington.
In this regard, U.S. troops in Central Asia and the Middle East should be immediately reinforced, not reduced, as a deterrent to any unified military action by the SCO. Given America’s extended global responsibilities and growing vulnerabilities, particularly in the area of overall troop strength, the possibility of an SCO military assault is plausible. Consequently, the U.S. must not remove its troops from Central Asia or the Middle East. The absence of U.S. troops would create an enormous power vacuum, enticing the SCO to act in unison, possibly to secure the vast energy assets of the Middle East.
The simple truth is that the SCO is a mechanism for China, Russia and Iran to increase their collective power under the guise of “friendship, peace and security.” If successful, such an organization will not only become a regional threat, but also a threat to world peace.