The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a major vehicle for a Chinese-Russian strategic cooperation, is exerting increasing pressure on US strategic interests in Central Asia. Robust engagement with the SCO by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would offer Washington the best way of containing the group's rising influence.
The SCO, now comprising China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, formally came into being in 2001. Since then, the organization has admitted India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan as observers. The SCO in recent years has promoted economic integration. At a meeting of SCO prime ministers, held September 15 in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, member states expressed an interest in expanding the region's trading infrastructure and engaging in joint efforts to develop energy export routes.
However, the SCO is mainly focused on security issues, namely the Chinese tri-fecta of "terrorism, separatism and extremism." The SCO's security agenda is vast. The organization has been compared to the Warsaw Pact, and referred to as the "NATO of the East." Its agenda is infused with Chinese and Russian suspicion of US designs in Eurasia, and, more specifically, a desire to reduce US influence in Central Asia. This is evident in numerous SCO statements, including a declaration issued June 15 during the organization's fifth-anniversary summit. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Given that the SCO primarily serves as a geopolitical counterweight to the United States, Washington stands little chance of ever receiving full membership in the group. Indeed, the United States' 2005 application to join the SCO was rejected. But US officials do not necessarily need full membership in the organization in order to work closely with Central Asian states. It would serve Washington's best interests to remain in close contact with the SCO. To do so, it could resubmit an application seeking observer status.
To boost the chances for success, the United States should engage Central Asian states by balancing democracy promotion and democratization with its other national interests, including security and energy. With the exception of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, most of the Central Asian states continue to maintain strong links with the United States as a way of balancing Russian and Chinese power. Washington should use what remaining contacts and leverage it has and continue to improve relations with friendly Central Asian states by providing economic, governance and legislative reform assistance, as well as enhancing military-to-military relationships.
At the very least, the United States needs to stay in touch with the SCO in order to frustrate Iran's intention to join as a full member. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Iran's inclusion in the SCO would constitute a disaster for efforts to contain nuclear proliferation, and it would also endanger US economic security. With Iran as a full member, the SCO might be in position to pursue Russian President Vladimir Putin's vision of forming a "natural gas OPEC."
NATO should also explore expanding relations with the SCO. Options for cooperative efforts may go beyond the existing NATO-Russia Council and Partnership for Peace, in which most Central Asian states are members. NATO members have a degree of cohesion and unity of values not yet present amongst SCO members and observer states. Equally important, the SCO is a relatively small organization, still in its infancy, with an operating budget less than $30 million and a staff of a few dozen people. NATO, being larger, stronger, and more experienced in transnational security issues, can engage the SCO in discussions of strategic issues facing the region and develop paths for cooperation along the lines of Partnership for Peace.
The cost to Washington of not actively addressing the issue of the SCO's expanding influence could be high. The Chinese-Russian strategic partnership poses a serious threat to the US geopolitical position in Central Asia. Indications of the Chinese-Russian partnership wanting to systematically reduce US influence in the region are evident in Uzbekistan's demand that American military forces leave the Karshi-Khanabad base in July 2005. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Efforts by Moscow and Beijing to increase their influence in Kyrgyzstan also appear to have taken a toll in US interests. After prolonged negotiations, Washington and Bishkek finally managed to extend an agreement on the US military's use of an air base at Manas, outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. To seal the deal, Washington had to agree to a massive rent hike: from an annual $2.7 million payment to $150-200 million per year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A Russian base in Kyrgyzstan operates rent-free. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Peter Rodman, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, remarked recently; "The SCO is trying to ask us to leave the area in a hurry."
China has been perhaps the most active country in using the SCO to remake Central Asia's order. Beijing is eager to expand its own regional military influence in Central Asia, going so far as to contact Kyrgyz officials to explore the possibility of Chinese military bases in Kyrgyzstan. The increasing militarization of the region raises the possibility of the use of militarily means to address regional issues, especially religious radicalism, terrorism, separatism and narcotics trafficking.
An area of particular concern to China is Xinjiang Province, the center of Uighur separatist activity. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Beijing secured the agreement of Central Asian states not to support, protect or train Xinjiang separatists. Since then, China and Central Asian states have signed agreements on combating separatism and terrorism, launching military and security cooperation in the border regions and beyond.
The People's Liberation Army has been involved in several joint exercises with troops from other SCO states, including the first-ever bilateral joint exercise with Russian forces in the summer of 2005. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The interoperability of Russian and Chinese forces would constitute a great force multiplier in the event of a major military confrontation, and the possibility of coordinated action is viewed by the Pentagon with great suspicion. Such interoperable forces do not threaten the US presence in the Far East -- yet. However, American forces deployed in Central Asia are outnumbered by the Russian units. Military cooperation between Russia and China, under the guise of counter-terrorism in Central Asia, has the potential to set off alarms in the planning rooms of NATO and the Pentagon.
Oil and gas constitute the most essential economic and strategic reasons for China to engage with the Central Asian states. China's increasing domestic demand for energy is compelling Chinese leaders to aggressively search for new energy suppliers. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Ensuring control of Eurasian oil is a logical path, as some of these oil and gas resources can be piped into China, obviating the need for more expensive and less secure transportation by tanker. The money pumped into Central Asia by Beijing over the past year or so, via corporate takeovers, joint ventures and direct economic assistance, begs the question of whether Chinese leaders are attempting to create a "traditional
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. This article has been adapted from the testimony The Dragon Looks West: China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization before the U.S.-China Commission of the U.S. Congress on August 3, 2006. Tom Chou, the Heritage Foundation intern assisted in preparation of this testimony.