Building a NATO-SCO dialogue

By Richard Weitz

Since late 2001, NATO has emerged as a major institutional player in Central Asian security affairs. This development resulted from the increased Alliance interest and involvement in Central Asia following the September 11 terrorist attacks and NATO's takeover of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in August 2003. However, the Uzbek government's May 2005 crackdown in Andijan revealed the fragility of the Alliance's relations with the countries of the region. Consequently, NATO needs a new initiative to enhance its position in Central Asia.

Even before the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the Alliance had engaged regional governments on defence matters. Since the mid-1990s, all Central Asian countries have participated in NATO's Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and its related Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme (the only exception was Tajikistan, which joined PfP in 2002).

The EAPC and the PfP provide mechanisms through which NATO and its Partners, including former Soviet bloc countries, can pursue practical defence and security cooperation on a range of issues. Promoting defence reform and increasing participants' military interoperability with NATO forces are primary objectives of the Partnership programme. PfP activities also encompass other areas, such as disaster preparedness, arms control and border security. Scientific and environmental cooperation is also an important aspect of the Alliance's engagement in the region. For example, NATO has promoted Internet connectivity between the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus within the framework of its "Virtual Silk Highway" initiative.
> Central Asia Map
Establishing a formal dialogue with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) might help strengthen NATO's role in Central Asia. The SCO - comprising China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - is emerging as Central Asia's most influential regional grouping.

Central Asia represents the one area of the world where the militaries of Russia, China and NATO all operate regularly in close proximity. Yet NATO lacks formal institutional ties with the SCO or China. Following a cooling-off period after NATO warplanes mistakenly attacked the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo campaign, the Chinese Ambassador to Belgium met with then Secretary General Robertson in October 2002 to discuss establishing a closer relationship. Chinese officials appeared especially interested in a bilateral dialogue on strategic developments and security threats in Central Asia. In July 2004, Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer said the Alliance wanted to cooperate with China on several areas of common concern: anti-terrorism, countering proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and "maintaining regional stability", especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These expressions of mutual interest have yet to result in any concrete progress. Unlike Japan, China does not even have a "dialogue partnership" with NATO. In return for establishing formal ties with China, NATO members could insist on securing greater access to SCO activities. In exchange, the Alliance could designate the SCO as a "global partner" to underscore the value of joint security cooperation.

The proposed relationship would entail NATO-SCO collaboration in certain agreed functional areas. Topics that could entice SCO interest in working with NATO governments might include regional socio-economic development, energy exploitation, counter-terrorism and curbing trafficking in narcotics, people and weapons of mass destruction. Cooperating on managing natural and man-made disasters might also allow for enhanced ties in this important field. In their July 2005 Astana Summit declaration, the SCO governments endorsed greater joint efforts to deal with such emergencies in the paragraph immediately following the one in which they called on the coalition members in Afghanistan to set a timetable for ending their use of Central Asia's military bases.

A formal NATO-SCO dialogue would also allow for an exchange of views on democratisation, religious extremism and other topics of shared concern. Collaboration on concrete projects in the areas of energy security, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, counter-terrorism, and narcotics and human trafficking would help avert a debilitating great power competition in Central Asia and reinforce both institutions' capacity to manage Eurasia's complex transnational challenges.

In the coming years, the strategic importance of Central Asia to NATO will likely increase. Though the region poses challenges for the Alliance, it also presents opportunities for wider collaboration that could assist NATO's ongoing transformation to address the security threats of the 21st century.