Why the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is Important

By Dmitri A Titoff

When the SCO emerged at the turn of the century, Western observers worried that its key founders, Russia and China, plotted an anti-NATO bloc. It turns out, however, that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s primary objective is to keep the status-quo in Eurasia.

SCO stands for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization-a political grouping of China, Russia and Central Asian republics. In case you have never heard of it, last month it celebrated its anniversary summit in Astana, Kazakhstan's majestic capital.

When SCO emerged at the turn of the century, some Western observers worried that its key founders, Russia and China, plotted an anti-NATO bloc. They didn't. SCO's primary objective has always been to preserve the status quo in Eurasia, which is threatened both by fundamentalist currents and rapidly changing balance of power amidst Russia's decline and China's expansion. Should the region explode with Islamic violence, Russia risks great instability near and within its borders (in Chechnya), whereas China is at risk in the Xinjiang autonomous region. SCO's anti-terrorist/extremist body works to make sure that this does not happen. In the meantime, both states are concerned that U.S. military that moved in to Afghanistan does not intend to move out completely. The Astana declaration, signed at the summit, calls for a "neutral" Afghanistan.

In early 2000s SCO provided Central Asian republics with an institutional platform that balanced Russia's clinging grip on its sphere of influence. Nowadays the SCO helps to ameliorate Central Asia’s and Russia's fears that China might be scheming to envelop Eurasia with its economic prowess. This concern is signified, for instance, by the completion of the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China gas pipeline in 2007 that erased Russia's monopoly on gas purchases from the region. China is already Kazakhstan's major export market. Just a day before the summit, Chinese and Kazakh leaders discussed doubling their trade volume to $40 billion by 2015 and building joint infrastructure projects, such as high-speed rail and technology parks.

As much as Central Asian states and Russia benefit from SCO, China benefits the most. The Celestial Empire has used the organization to manage its expansion in a way that does not elicit excessive fears from other members. One of SCO's key successes was to oversee the demarcation and demilitarization of borders, among other borderline issues. For example, in a century-long border dispute between China and small Tajikistan, the latter ceded only one percent of its land to China, which initially claimed five. The deal was hailed as a "success for Tajik diplomacy".

Should China and the United States come to blows over something in the future, China would want Russia and the Central Asian republics to assume benevolent neutrality in that circumstance. It is in China's interest to maintain cordial relations with the region's countries, which it can do by issuing generous unconditional loans. Given that China's trade with Russia is relatively low despite their proximity, the former has the economic space to butter up the Russian elites. Presently, Russia supplies only 10 percent of China's oil imports.

Richard Weitz of the Hudson Institute, who probed numerous officials in Moscow at the meeting of the Defence and Security section of the Valdai International Discussion Club, noted that they do not at all view China as a threat, even though China has copied much of Russia's exported weaponry and now can manufacture its own. At least in public they continue to say that China's rise is a stabilizing factor in Asia. What worries Moscow the most is the risk of instability in Central Asia. If China's leaders are smart, they will continue supporting Moscow's concerns, reassuring the Russians of China's commitment to the preservation of status-quo.

Similar strategy was pursued by Otto von Bismarck, who managed the rise of the German state in the second half of the nineteenth century. Keeping the neutrality of Russia, who stood by as Prussia knocked out France in 1871, was one of his greatest achievements. In 1863, he assisted Russia in quelling a Polish rebellion. Later, Bismarck tried to keep Russia from aligning with France by forming the League of Three Emperors and then by signing the infamous (and secret) Reassurance Treaty.

The United States would want to see China and Russia resume their rivalry and SCO fall apart. Washington would wish that China accumulated as many enemies as possible. What the United States could do to facilitate the Sino-Russian rivalry is a question that professional diplomats should be thinking over. It is interesting whether the potential entrance of India, Pakistan and Iran into SCO can strengthen or weaken the organization. Perhaps that is why leaders did not come to any decision on that at the last week's summit.
Dmitri Titoff is a foreign affairs analyst residing in Washington, D.C.