Should we Fear the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is a relatively new structure of the international arena. It was officially founded in 2001, yet its roots can be traced back to the unstable post-Soviet years of the 1990s. Indeed, the dust had not fully settled following the collapse of the USSR before Qian Qichen, then the foreign minister of the People’s Republic of China, was touring states of the former Soviet Union, offering cooperation and support. The question is however: was this an act of defence or offence?

Image courtesy of the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office, © 2007, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office, © 2007, some rights reserved

The fall of the Soviet superpower left many of the former “core” communist states in a state of utter disrepair. A foundering economy coupled with a major political crisis fuelled politics of despair, whilst the decapitation of the law enforcement rocketed criminal activity into the sky. The resulting power vacuum played into the hands of radical Islamist groups just as much as Sultanistic crime lords. The situation, grave enough as it were throughout the entirety of the newly emergent “free” post-Soviet countries, was most pronounced and sinister in the border regions of the respective states – where even the strongest of governments have traditionally struggled to enforce the rule of law.

Of the countries of the former USSR, China borders Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia. The first four are full members of the SCO, and Mongolia holds the status of an observer country. In fact, the first four have been the original members of the Shanghai Five since its founding in 1996, with only Uzbekistan joining in 2001 (the expansion transforming the Shanghai Five into the SCO). It is reasonable to presume that the security of borders was a significant interest of China when the organisation was founded, especially considering the likelihood of radical Islamist groups seizing power in the devastated states. Moreover, the build-up of arms on the Sino-Soviet borders during the Cold War represented a further security challenge that needed to be addressed, particularly in the context of the instability detailed above.

Given the (almost) hegemonic predominance of China relative to the other states of the Shanghai Five – remember this was Russia during the Jelzin era – the organisation initially served as a way to address China´s concerns in a multilateral forum. Trust between the former adversaries (the PRC and USSR) needed to be established, and the institution provided the means to do so. The Treaty on Reduction of Military Forces in Border Region was signed within a year of establishment.

The transmutation of the Shanghai Five into the SCO following the accession of Uzbekistan in 2001 may have however transformed the dynamics of the formation. The SCO states its mission as combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism, as well as organised crime, drug, and human trafficking. Nonetheless, there is growing evidence of broadening economic and military collaboration. Indeed, it is these connotations that often raise the image of the “new Warsaw Pact” in question.

So what exactly does the SCO do? Alas, the ultimate extent of the SCO´s activity is rather hard to guess, much less find out through reliable sources. It is well known that much of the SCO´s endeavours focus on counterterrorism. To this end, the Regional Antiterrorism Structure (RATS) was established within the SCO in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 2004. The RATS is a permanently functioning body, and to a certain extent represents a joint intelligence task force of the six countries. It is an extremely efficient division that is nevertheless mired by controversy due to its potential propensity to violence and human rights violations. It is this division that raises much concern in the West, given its inherently clandestine nature and security implications. Furthermore, it will be the RATS that will effectively take over the role of the West in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US and NATO troops in 2014 (on their own terms of course). It would therefore be prudent to conduct more research on the operative engagement of the RATS, for our current understanding is far too limited.

That said it does not seem that one security-orientated division makes up a “new Warsaw Pact”, much less considering its predominant orientation on counterterrorism. And yet, one should still pay close attention to the SCO´s changing dynamic for the future. An organisation that started out as a trust-building structure has, since its founding, evolved into a multi-dimensional institution of great potential. Whether this development can be seen as a stepping stone to further military cooperation is an important question, but one for which the answer is “not at the moment”. Even though there is such potential, the level of trust between the parties has not yet reached that level, and the West will undoubtedly receive a number of indices were the SCO to head in that direction.

Lastly is the question of what to make of the possibility of SCO´s enlargement. Given that the organisation currently encompasses 60 percent of the landmass of Eurasia and its population is a quarter of the world, if observing and candidate countries were to gain membership (thus accounting for 50 percent of the entire world population), the rest of the world would face a significant balance of power problem. That said however, such a course of action is very unlikely at the moment, if not impossible. Considering which countries hold observer status (Afghanistan, India, Mongolia, Pakistan and Iran), there seem to be more reasons to withhold membership than to grant it. For example, how would the accession of a Muslim country help fight radical Islamism? How would the hostility between India and Pakistan help with trust building between states already fundamentally suspicious of one another? What of Mongolia, a country arguably more democratic than any other current member of the SCO? And what should one make of countries currently engaged in dialogue with the SCO: Sri Lanka, Belarus and Turkey, when only the latter can bring any meaningful advantage? There is quite clearly a problem with Turkey´s membership in NATO and its effort to attach itself to the EU. All things considered, any kind of enlargement of the SCO is improbable in the foreseeable future (which is however not to say its current extent is not imposing enough).

What direction will the SCO take in the future is a crucial consideration for the countries of the West, but any fears of a new Warsaw Pact military organisation to rival NATO aB4re, as of yet, unfounded.

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