An analysis by Lara Schech
“Central Asia once may have been Russia’s backyard, but China has redrawn the fences.” – Alexander Cooley (Barnard College/Columbia University)
By creating the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China has managed to counterbalance Russian influence in Central Asia. Apart from the two superpowers, the SCO, founded in 2001, includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Its primary objective is the regional combat against “the three evils” terrorism, extremism and separatism, which are regarded as a threat to international peace, territorial integrity, stability and security of its member states. Security being the SCO’s main goal, the overall focus of the organization has expanded to nowadays also cover cooperation in the economic, cultural and humanitarian field. However, while China considers the organization a prestige object and largely dominates its policies, the extensive historical and cultural links between Russia and Central Asia shouldn’t be neglected: Russia still considers Central Asia its natural sphere of influence, which leads to an underlying rivalry between Russia and China. It is crucial to analyze how the interests of China and Russia affect SCO affairs with regards to the key principles and objectives of the SCO, the assumption being near that while the SCO was initially created for combatting internal security matters, China’s and Russia’s interests overshadow and partially impede the SCO’s security strategy.
Sino-Russian Predominance in the SCO
The SCO is largely profitable to China and Russia when it comes to the pursuance of their own goals in Central Asia. Both countries, and particularly China, have so far largely used the SCO for their domestic problems and interests, and because Russia and China contribute most to the SCO’s budget with 24% each, they dominate the establishment of programs and hence the SCO security strategy. Yet this bipolar domination of the organization’s policies also bears risks. Many analysts and observers of the SCO and Sino-Russian relations distrust the Russian-Chinese partnership, predicting that due to their fundamentally different motives, eventual rivalry between both sides seems is inevitable.
China tries to expand its influence in the region, the SCO serving as China’s prolonged arm into Central Asia, allowing it to control and prevent the formation of possible threats. This objective influences Chinese policy and advocacy in the SCO, notably concerning its internal separatism problems and perspective on US-American – and probably also Russian – influence in the region. China’s ultimate goal in the SCO is the reduction of trade barriers and the eventual creation of a common market. However it is questionable what benefits this would give to the other member states, as their economic situation and growth is inferior to China’s.
On the other hand, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are all Soviet successor states. The Russian language is still present in these states and only one of many ties left behind from the Soviet era, additionally to the many newly made links to Russia, notably in the economic and military sector. Despite its lasting domination, Russia wants to ensure this influence, fearing that otherwise it will ultimately play a minor role next to China. It therefore has a rather careful view on the SCO and relies more on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Community, which are both dominated by Russia on its own and include the same Central Asian states as the SCO, plus other countries in the region.
Although the SCO forces Russia and China to cooperate, it does not prevent or diminish tensions and conflicts between the two superpowers and is thus built on instable ground risking to break apart on the long-term when these tensions become obvious. When the SCO was established, Russia and China were able to agree on the most fundamental security issues in the region. Over time a more comprehensive agenda will become indispensable, yet this requires China and Russia to agree on the SCO’s future orientation.
China and Russia both suffer from separatism, therefore an organization like the SCO, targeting separatism as a regional threat, has large benefits. China has been very successful in using the SCO to promote and defend its actions against separatism; some scholars even believe this to have been the primary aim of its reach-out to Central Asia and the establishment of the SCO. The country also appears to be more fortunate than Russia in this case, which might increase tensions between the two superpowers on long-term.
The separatist movements in the multi-ethnic Xinjiang province in Western China, led by Turk Islamists and the Muslim Uighur minority, are the most predominant Chinese separatism problem that is also addressed by the SCO. In the past, China has repeatedly been very successful in calling for SCO statements supporting its suppression of demonstrations and riots. The statements underlined the lawfulness of enforced measures and declared both Xinjiang and Tibet as unalienable parts of China. A statement on Tibet from 2008 even goes as far as to “oppose any attempts to use the events, which took place in Tibet, for improper political purposes, particularly with regard to the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing[,…] confident that the government and people of the PRC have the capability to ensure the best possible staging of the Olympics […]”, which clearly demonstrates how China uses the SCO to insist on national interests, in this case the international appreciation of its Olympics.
In contrast, after the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, Russia sought support from the SCO in recognizing the Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Its advances remained however futile and the SCO refused to give Russia the expected support. Recognizing the breakaway states’ independence could have been interpreted as a precedent for Xinjiang and as the Chinese province borders Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, this again could produce spillover effects into multiple member and observer states of the SCO. Furthermore, the SCO firmly reiterated its principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of States (cf. 2001 Convention). This gives hope for the growingly independent mindset of Central Asian states but obviously also leaves room to question how seriously Russia takes the SCO’s own guidelines. After all, separatism being officially regarded as threat to international peace and security and the promotion of friendly relations among States, it seems, that at least for Russia this is only the case, when it risks harming SCO members, not when it benefits them.
Addressing Extremism and Terrorism
Another joint problem that several SCO member states face, are transnationally operating extremists who are often affiliated with separatist movements or terrorist organizations. That separatism and terrorism are so inextricably linked in the region is well exemplified by the Uighur separatism movement in Xinjiang, which is supported by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, who are believed to have relations to Al Qaeda. Other regionally operating extremist movements, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Kazakh Hizb-ut-Tahrir, are equally accused of connections to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Last but not least, the Afghan War poses a serious threat to security and stability in Central Asia, the long and poorly controlled frontiers between Afghanistan and Central Asia being incapable of preventing spillover effects. The SCO’s strategy to deal with these threats is built on intelligence exchange, joint raids and military exercises. The latter have particularly drawn Russia and China closer to each other and have certainly also been conducted with the objective to counter US force and demonstrate power to the NATO and the West. After all, both China and Russia have a strong interest in resisting US-domination of the international system and wish to maintain or establish a strong position on the global scale.
The SCO’s security strategy will have to be expanded and deepened in the future to be able to react to the conceivable scenario of an insurrection spillover into Central Asia and the Northern Caucasus and its consequences. The SCO will need a closer military cooperation in order to reach its objectives: Cooperation in law enforcement, intelligence-sharing and joint military exercises, as repeatedly conducted in the past years, will not be sufficient, but so far the SCO member states have denied any further ambitions.
Additionally, the SCO’s policies on Afghanistan are overshadowed by the expansion of US military presence in Central Asia. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the US sent military forces to the region and established military bases in order to operate against Al Qaeda. But while Russia and China agreed that the USA was rightful to fight the radical Islamists responsible for the terrorist attacks, they were concerned about the establishment of airbases. Particularly Russia considered the US military presence and support of democracy in Central Asia as Western invasion of the region, and was one of the pressing members of the SCO to oppose the American bases in the region. The SCO and the West are both interested in fighting the Taliban, yet the Central Asian states prefer a regional solution. Their fear of Western influence on democratization and therefore possible destabilization of the region was a huge factor in chasing the USA from Central Asia.
The SCO Without Plan
The remaining void left behind after the withdrawal of US forces was not easily filled and the desired regional strategy hasn’t yet been found, despite a constant emphasis on the willpower to act. Central Asian attempts to take over the combat against the Afghan threat, or establishing links with other international organizations in this matter, largely failed. An example for this is Kazakhstan whom the NATO had provided with training and assistance so that Kazakhstan would be able to join international peace operations. Kazakhstan had indeed considered entering the ISAF forces in Afghanistan, yet the growing public opposition and direct threats by the Taliban resulted in the country stepping away from this ambition.
Russia, a leading member of the CSTO, has also repeatedly suggested that instead of the SCO, the CSTO should act as the NATO’s regional partner in Central Asia, which would leave more influence to Russia, rather than having to share power with China, and logically weaken the SCO’s stance. And although regularly confirming its commitment to supporting Afghan stability, China itself hesitates to engage more actively in Afghanistan, fearing that such involvement could attract unwanted attention not only to its foreign, but internal policies. These attitudes by the main players of the SCO obviously undermine any attempts to design a regional solution by the remaining SCO member states, as they lack the full support for any long-term strategy or action.
Additionally, the SCO members are having a hard time finding a unanimous position on their national policies concerning Afghanistan, preventing them from providing a more coherent strategy. Because the SCO largely bases its decision-making on consensus, this hinders the organization from being an “effective vehicle for tackling problems or seemingly intractable regional disputes” (Alexander Cooley), such as the threats of terrorism and extremism. The fact that the USA faced expulsion from the region came unsurprisingly regarding the SCO’s, and more particularly China and Russia’s general stance towards the USA. However, it seems to have been decided by the SCO without having a concrete alternative policy plan in mind, which, strategically, does not appear as a reasonable move.
The SCO’s Security Strategy under threat?
Central Asia lies between Russia and China and thus has to deal with their respective interests in the region, yet it risks, voluntarily or not, prioritizing those interests over their own. The SCO has strengthened and manifested this situation, institutionalizing Sino-Russian dominance on security matters in the region. So far, the SCO focuses on threats within its member states and lacks a truly reflected agenda on external security threats. Objectively, Russia and China barely face external threats and thus do not promote such an agenda and it is questionable if and when this could arise. There is also the danger of the two countries fostering and supporting authoritarian regimes and it is consequently reasonable to view the SCO’s security objectives as balancing between human security, regime security and maintenance of power.
The internal threats focused on by the SCO also clearly lie within the interests of Russia and, even more, China, who use the SCO to obtain support for their domestic policies, such as the suppression of separatism or backlashes against the West. However, the current disposition of the SCO on security matters leaves room for speculation on how the organization will cope with security threats in the future. If Russia and China keep focusing the SCO’s security policies on their own interests, not only their eventual clash is inevitable, with unknown consequences for the remaining SCO member states, but also, if neither Russia, with its preference for the CSTO, nor China, regarding its fear of interference with its internal affairs, fully support the SCO and stand behind it, the SCO’s action and decision making capacities are heavily limited and hindered as much as its credibility.