BACKGROUND: The Shanghai Five grouping was created in 1996 with the signing of the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions by the heads of states of Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. In 1997 the same countries signed the Treaty on Reduction of Military Forces in Border Regions at a meeting in Moscow. Finally, in June 2001 the Shanghai five (along with Uzbekistan) signed the Declaration of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, praising the role played thus far by the Shanghai Five mechanism and aiming to transform it to a higher level of cooperation.
SCO member states cover more than three-fifths of Eurasia with a quarter of the world's population. The addition of India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia will add another 1.6 billion people to the SCO’s membership. Tajikistan currently holds the SCO’s rotating presidency. Decisions on SCO membership and observer status are made with the consensus of all member countries.
Iran first submitted an official application for SCO observer status on 25 February 2005. Iran’s interest in upgrading its SCO observer status to full membership dates back to March 2008, when it first applied for upgrading its status. Not surprisingly, beset by rhetoric about a possible Israeli attack against its nuclear facilities and the ongoing disintegration of neighboring Iraq, Iran’s quest for SCO full membership can be seen as an additional layer of international diplomatic “life insurance.” On Nov. 12, 2011, Iranian Supreme National Security Council's Secretary Assistant Ali Bageri reiterated that Iran was again seeking full SCO membership, telling journalists in Moscow, “We have already submitted a relevant application.”
Security agenda is a top SCO priority, with many of its policy documents delineating joint approaches to terrorism, separatism, and extremism threats. The main coordinating bodies for security cooperation are the Secretariat of the SCO in Beijing and the Regional Counterterrorist Structure based in Tashkent. Russia and China share a commonality with their fellow SCO members about rising Islamic militancy in Eurasia, but after that their security concerns diverge, with Russia primarily looking westward toward NATO’s eastward expansion, while beyond Xinjiang, China’s security concerns are largely to the east, in the South China Sea and most notably, over U.S. policy toward Taiwan and possible disruptions of Chinese maritime energy imports from the Middle East by U.S. Navy ships based in the western Pacific.
The world will get a chance to see the SCO’s military capacities during its Peace Mission 2014 exercise, to be held August 24-29 in China’s Inner Mongolia region. Peace Mission 2014, the SCO’s largest joint military operation in a decade, will involve about 7,000 troops, with China providing the majority of the forces.
IMPLICATIONS: The SCO expansion comes at a time of rising tension between NATO, the U.S. and EU with Russia over its policies towards Ukraine.
Alexei Maslov, the head of the Department for Oriental Studies of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow observed, “At present, the SCO has started to counterbalance NATO’s role in Asia. Consequently, these countries want to take part in the SCO in the capacity of safeguard of their interests. At present, the SCO is strengthening because the American policy towards Asia has been excessively tough and is aimed at suppressing their interests. The American policy contradicts the interests of Asian countries.”
Acknowledging regional instability, the SCO foreign ministers at their August 1 meeting discussed the situation in Afghanistan.
One point on which dominant SCO members China and Russia concur is to limit or end U.S. military influence in Central Asian since it first appeared in late 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The SCO scored a notable triumph towards that end when on July 5, 2005, when the presidents of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan at a SCO summit signed a joint declaration requesting the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition forces to set a date for leaving Central Asia. Three weeks later, following Washington’s ambivalent response to the May 13, 2005, tragic events in Andijan, the Uzbek government on July 29 told the Pentagon to evacuate its airbase facilities in Karshi-Khanabad within six months, which it did in November 2005.
In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, then Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Roza Otunbayeva held a news conference on July 6, 2005, to rehash the SCO declaration’s arguments for setting a deadline on the U.S.-led military presence. Otunbayeva reiterated the SCO contention that Afghanistan had essentially been stabilized and that consequently, active military operations were no longer necessary, implying that the U.S. Manas airbase had lost its reason for being. Citing the 2001 U.S.-Kyrgyzstan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), Otunbayeva stated, “We intend to act in line with this and discuss the matter. We want to know how long the base is going to stay.” The U.S. would not leave Manas until nine years later, in 2014.
Another indication of the SCO’s ideological slant against U.S. is that, while the U.S. has sought observer status at the SCO, its requests have been denied.
In light of worsening relations between the West and Russia over Ukraine, China’s increasing assertions of sovereignty in the South China Sea, sanctions on Iran over its civilian nuclear energy program and rising Eurasian nervousness about the unsettled state of Afghanistan after the International Security Assistance Force completes its drawdown in December and the subsequent security vacuum there, the value of the SCO to member states as a bloc against Western interference, terrorism and economic integration will only increase.
CONCLUSIONS: What the organization currently lacks however, is a broad consensus beyond a few vaguely worded declarations about how these issues are to be tackled. An example of this is how none of the other SCO members have signed onboard to Russia’s sanctions policies against Western nations over its Ukrainian policies. Economic issues also divide the alliance, given China’s predominant fiscal power. For the foreseeable future then, the SCO, with its nebulous declarations and member states’ nationalist agendas, will likely limit itself to activities that all can agree upon, such as multinational counter-terrorist exercises rather than evolving into something resembling an Asian counterweight to NATO, however attractive such an option might seem to SCO superpowers Russia and China.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. John C.K. Daly is an international correspondent for UPI and Central Asia-Caucasus Institute non-resident Fellow.
(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons/www.kremlin.ru)