One issue the next political leaders in Washington and Beijing will need to address is how to secure a greater role for regional stakeholders in managing the Afghanistan conflict now that NATO combat forces are withdrawing from the war. An obvious candidate for such a role could be the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which has emerged newly fortified from its recent PRC chairmanship.
Beijing has been the driving force behind the SCO’s creation and modest success. For Chinese leaders, the country has a real sense of stakeholdership in the SCO. Unlike other longstanding international organizations, which the PRC had little role in creating and had to join on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, Chinese officials have been able to shape the design and evolution of the SCO more than any other country. In this case, Beijing has been a “rule-shaper” rather than merely a “rule-taker”—allowing the Chinese government to construct the SCO as an institution that reflects its preferred values.
Indeed, Chinese officials rhapsodically describe the “Shanghai Spirit” (Shanghai jingshen) that permeates the organization’s work. These tenets include “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diversified civilizations and pursuit of common development” (Xinhua, June 11, 2012). More pragmatically, PRC officials have pushed the organization to concentrate on countering regional terrorist threats since its creation in mid-2001. In addition, the Chinese have found the SCO a convenient instrument with which to expand their political and commercial influence in Central Asia without giving the impression that Beijing is eager to displace Moscow’s predominance in Central Asia, a region strategically vital to Russia. Furthermore, by characterizing its activities as SCO rather than PRC projects, Beijing manages to reduce worries in some Central Asian countries of PRC domination.
Chinese officials sought to use their one-year chairmanship to impart renewed momentum to the SCO as it entered its second decade. In his main speech at the 2011 leadership summit in Astana, when Kazakhstan transferred the rotating annual SCO chairmanship to the PRC, President Hu Jintao advocated four priorities for the SCO’s development, which can be used as benchmarks to assess the PRC chairmanship. The first was to expand general consultation, cooperation, and trust among them members. Hu’s second priority was to improve SCO security cooperation and capabilities against the “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism as well as narcotics trafficking and other transnational crime. President Hu described the SCO’s third priority as expanding mutual trade, investment, and other economic cooperation. Hu’s fourth priority was enhancing cultural, education, and other “people-to-people exchanges.”
The member governments have increased their mutual consultations in the last year due to rising concerns over the situation in Afghanistan, elevated Islamist terrorist activities in some countries, and unease over how the Arab Spring might affect their own Muslim populations. But the trust problem remains visible in the public feuding between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and the low-key competition between Beijing and Moscow for mutual primacy. Hu’s efforts to promote a more harmonious community in Eurasia made some headway, and the last year did not see renewed civil strife in the Kyrgyz Republic or other SCO members, but serious challenges remain.
Russia-China tensions have been most evident in the economic domain. For several years, China has sought to strengthen the SCO’s economic institutions and provide greater economic assistance to the Central Asian governments struggling from the global financial crisis. Initially fearful of receiving a Trojan Horse, several Central Asian governments have now endorsed these Chinese initiatives. But Moscow, fearful that reducing trade and investment barriers between China and Central Asia will further weaken Russian economic influence in the region, has been delaying their implementation by calling for more impact studies and other measures.
Like previous SCO chairs, the 2011-2012 period had little effect in changing the top-down structure of the SCO or endowing it with greater popular support. Strengthening such ties would have helped China enhance its soft power assets in the region, which have been weakened by decades of Soviet-imposed isolationism. Western governments and NGOs continue to express alarm at SCO-wide efforts to restrict internet access, religious freedoms, and other civil liberties.
The most significant development under the SCO chairmanship was the decision to make Afghanistan a formal SCO observer and Turkey a dialogue partner at the June 2012 summit in Beijing. The SCO now has a more comprehensive set of members and affiliates to address Afghanistan's regional security and economic integration. Nonetheless, the SCO again deferred the question of admitting new full members, indicating that the organization has yet to escape its expansion deadlock. Russia reportedly is seeking to make India, Pakistan, and perhaps other countries into full members to dilute China’s influence, which Beijing is resisting. Iran’s continued denial of SCO membership is widely appreciated in Western circles.
The Chinese chairmanship has laid the foundation for a greater role for the SCO in Afghanistan, but the content of such a strategy remains unclear and the SCO has yet to allocate additional resources to sustain new initiatives. Thus far, the SCO’s activities regarding Afghanistan have been limited essentially to issuing joint declarations and sharing information about drug trafficking and Afghan terrorists. The SCO members have done little to implement the action plan adopted at their March 2009 special conference on Afghanistan, which itself was quickly overshadowed by other conferences that actually raised money and launched collective projects regarding Afghanistan.
The SCO governments still seem uncertain regarding what type of security structure they would like to construct after NATO reduces its military presence in Central Asia. This uncertainty even extends to ambiguity regarding when they wanted NATO combat forces to withdraw, with SCO member governments at various times urging NATO to leave the region as soon as possible but stay as long as necessary. Without greater efforts and commitments, the SCO will continue to lack the capacity to fill the security vacuum that increasingly looks likely to ensure following the Western troop withdrawal.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies.