The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has played a variety of roles in the ten years of its existence -- a proto-military alliance, a counterbalance to U.S. presence in Central Asia, an instrument for cracking down on dissidents across borders. The organization, it seems, is still finding its identity, and is still the subject of a lot of curiosity and suspicion. The Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted an event today discussing where it's headed. Some takeaways:
-- While the focus of the SCO so far has been on security, it is trending toward a more economic orientation or, as one of the speakers, Alexander Cooley, put it, "a regional goods provider." Cooley suggested that could include using the SCO as a mechanism for providing Russian and Chinese technical aid, in a model comparable to the US Agency for International Development, to poorer SCO members like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; using the organization as a clearinghouse for large-scale investments in strategic infrastructure projects in Central Asia; or to use it to manage the various oil and natural gas pipelines from Central Asia to China on issues from security to pricing.
-- While the SCO is interested in expanding, there are no obvious candidates. The other speaker, Zhao Huasheng, enumerated what he saw as the likely candidates for future membership. Mongolia and Turkmenistan would be the least controversial new members, but neither has expressed interest in that. (Mongolia, though, is an observer.) Afghanistan would be another natural, but now it's under the influence of the U.S. so is unlikely to join. Iran would be a problem, given Russia's avowed opposition. Pakistan wants to be a member but is unlikely to be admitted without India. And India is so big that it could cause unease, especially among the Central Asian states that might fear being overwhelmed by yet another huge country getting involved in their affairs.
-- Afghanistan is likely to be the most volatile area for future SCO activity. The U.S. has made some overtures to the SCO, most likely for some sort of economic cooperation in Afghanistan, though what form that might take is still unclear. And when the U.S. and NATO do eventually leave, SCO involvement will likely increase due to the member states' proximity to Afghanistan. So, in other words, expect some handwringing down the road from Western capitals about "losing Afghanistan" to Russia and China...