The Shanghai Cooperation Organization by Stephen Blank

Shop the Entire Current Issue- The Integration of Regions  ||  Return to The Integration of Regions index

Stephen Blank is Professor of Russian National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, where he has been a professor since 1989. An expert on Soviet/ Russian military and foreign policy and international security in Eurasia, he has published over 800 articles and monographs, published or edited fifteen books, and testified frequently before Congress. Dr. Blank is also a consultant for the Gerson Lehrmann Group.The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.

"In practice the SCO has refrained from defense activities and followed an idiosyncratic, even elusive, path..."
"If membership confers presence and real status, it allows states like Turkey and India to upgrade their effective influence in Central Asia..."
"While Russia aspires to be the principal security provider in Central Asia, it is quite unlikely that it can play a hegemonic role there..."

Analysts have difficulty in determining exactly what the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is, what it does, and how it functions. Founded as a collective security organization, in practice it has operated as a regulatory framework for Central Asian security. Understanding the SCO’s role is a task of considerable political urgency because the United States and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 will decisively reshape Central Asia’s political dynamics and SCO members’ policies.

The SCO grew out of a Chinese initiative (hence its name) from the late 1990s that brought together all the states that had emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991 and signed bilateral border-delimiting treaties with China: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In 2001, these states and Uzbekistan formally created the SCO. Since then it has added observer states—Mongolia, Afghanistan, India, Iran, and Pakistan—and dialogue partners—Turkey, Belarus, and Sri Lanka.

The SCO’s original mandate seemingly formulated it as a collective security organization pledged to the defense of any member threatened by secession, terrorism, or extremism—for example, from Islamic militancy. This pre-9/11 threat listing reflected the fact that each member confronted restive Muslim minorities within its own borders. That threat may indeed be what brought them together since China’s concern for its territorial integrity in Xinjiang drives its overall Central Asian policy. Thus, the SCO’s original charter and mandate formally debarred Central Asian states from helping Uyghur Muslim citizens fight the repression of their Uyghur kinsmen in China. Likewise, the charter formally precludes Russian or Chinese assistance to disaffected minorities in one or more Central Asian states should they launch an insurgency.

In practice the SCO has refrained from defense activities and followed an idiosyncratic, even elusive, path; it is an organization that is supposed to be promoting its members’ security, yet it is difficult to see what, if anything, it actually does. Officially published accounts are of little help in assessing the SCO since they confine themselves to high-flown, vague language and are short on specifics. We see from members’ actual behavior that they primarily rely on bilateral ties with Washington, Beijing, or Moscow, or on other multilateral formations like the Russian-organized Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), itself an organization of questionable effectiveness. Therefore, this essay argues that the SCO is not primarily a security organization. Rather, it provides a platform and regulatory framework for Central Asian nations to engage and cope with China’s rise and with Sino-Russian efforts to dominate the area. As such, it is attractive to small nations and neighboring powers but problematic for Russia and the United States. Analyzing the SCO’s lack of genuine security provision, its membership expansion considerations, and Russia’s decline in power will help clarify the organization’s current and future roles... (purchase article...)