China’s primary forum for security cooperation in Central Asia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, held its annual summit last week in Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek. The heads of state of nine countries attended, but behind all the grand pronouncements and lofty rhetoric a question stubbornly persisted: what is the organization for?
The SCO’s origins were in the Shanghai Five, a forum in which the former Soviet states delineated their borders with China upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. The SCO officially was founded in 2001 and counts as members China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. And while its more enthusiastic backers have touted it as a sort of “NATO of the East” (and its critics as an “anti-American club”) its mission has never been well defined.
It is nominally a security bloc, and has held a number of joint military exercises. But the military focus of the organization has waned in recent years, and Russia appears to now be emphasizing a different regional security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (consisting solely of ex-Soviet republics) for its hard security goals in Central Asia. China, meanwhile, has less ambitious military aims in Central Asia, and it has increasingly used the SCO as a vehicle for its bilateral economic investments in Central Asia.
In the security sphere, China’s aims seem to be focused on using the SCO as a tool for countering Uyghur separatism. The group’s charter defines the region’s security threats as “terrorism, separatism, and extremism,” a direct echo of the Chinese government’s formulation of the “Three Evils” associated with minority ethnic group political activism. The Uyghurs, whose home province of Xinjiang borders Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, have historical, cultural, and linguistic links with the people of Central Asia, and some Uyghur activists have used the relatively permissive environments of Central Asia to operate away from China’s repressive atmosphere. But China takes an expansive view of what it considers to be “terrorism, separatism, and extremism,” and human rights groups have detailed how the Chinese government uses the SCO to get the Central Asian states to extradite even peaceful Uyghur activists operating in the region back to China.
Meanwhile, as Central Asia faces what regional governments claim is a serious security threat – the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan and the instability that is expected to follow – the SCO seems unsure about what it should be doing. The Bishkek summit rhetoric focused heavily on Afghanistan, but details about what the organization could do were scarce. This was evident even before the summit took place, when several analyses previewing the event made the case that the organization lacks a clear mission. “The problem for the SCO is that it remains an organization lacking a clear sense of its role in the world,” wrote Raffaello Pantucci and Li Lifan, calling the organization “a half-baked multilateral vehicle that focuses on arcane discussions about membership with no conclusion, and holds military exercises aimed at unspecified enemies.” Added Alexey Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center: “The SCO has so far demonstrated no tangible achievements. Its decisions on economic cooperation, anti-terrorist efforts, and situation in Afghanistan have remained on paper.”
Nevertheless, the group seems to offer something attractive, because a number of countries are knocking on the door, trying to gain membership. India, Pakistan, and Iran are among the major countries that have been avidly seeking membership. Turkey raised eyebrows when it sought, and gained, status as a “dialogue partner” of the organization, its prime minister even suggesting that the SCO had brighter prospects than the European Union. Afghanistan, in spite of its heavy American presence, became an official observer state last year. In a time of geopolitical reorientation, the SCO seems to represent a means toward creating a less Western-dominated world order. But what the SCO can do, in practical terms, toward that end has yet to be seen.