Wednesday, 22 May 2002

THE SHANGHAI COOPERATION ORGANIZATION AND ITS FUTURE

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By Stephen Blank (5/22/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: The SCO came into being originally as a confidence-building mechanism to define the five members\' (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, China) collective borders and ensure conditions for increased trade among them. However it soon evolved into something else. In a sense, China and Russia hijacked - or at least diverted - the SCO into becoming an allegedly model forum for their joint resistance to American policies concerning missile defense and support for Taiwan and for reform in Tibet and the American alliance system in Asia.
BACKGROUND: The SCO came into being originally as a confidence-building mechanism to define the five members\' (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, China) collective borders and ensure conditions for increased trade among them. However it soon evolved into something else. In a sense, China and Russia hijacked - or at least diverted - the SCO into becoming an allegedly model forum for their joint resistance to American policies concerning missile defense and support for Taiwan and for reform in Tibet and the American alliance system in Asia. They also wanted to reinforce their joint support for each other\'s integrity against secessionist threats. Central Asian states, for their part, increasingly confronted violent insurgencies that they could not decisively defeat, just as Russia faced secessionist forces in Chechnya and China in Xinjiang. In all these cases, it was assumed that the insurgents were linked in a kind of terrorist international. Yet because none of these states could defeat these insurgencies alone and America would not support Russia, China, and Central Asian states then given the tensions over Chechnya, deteriorating Sino-American relations, and human rights abuses in Central Asia, which was not then regarded as an important theater, local governments had no choice but to join the SCO which became a collective security organization by default. Even though transforming the SCO into an anti-American organization for regional collective security was not what Central Asian states wanted, there was no other alternative at the time. From 1998 to 2001 this evolution served both Russian and Chinese interests very well. Russia gained China\'s support, rather than its rivalry in policing Central Asia and resisting both American hegemonism and Islamic insurgencies. It also hoped to obtain markets for weapons which were otherwise not competitive on the world market and preserve its own sphere of influence in Central Asia with Chinese help. China similarly sought Russian support against U.S. hegemonism and against separatism and secessionism that it discerned in Central Asia. It also wanted to be able to suppress the uprisings in Xinjiang by suffocating external support for them from neighboring Central Asian states and showed the extent of its alarm over these threats by pledging for the first time that it would respond to calls for aid against such violence in member states by sending its own forces abroad. Thus the SCO reflected China\'s sense of its growing capabilities and of rising threats to its rising power in Central Asia.

IMPLICATIONS: This trend clearly did not reflect Central Asian preferences and evidently Russian policymakers too began to have second thoughts given the intensity with which China pushed the anti-American motif in the SCO\'s evolution during meetings in 2000 and 2001 and exploited its newly found potential to project military force into Central Asia. As a result, despite numerous meetings and communiqués citing progress in building collective forces, nothing was achieved. Certainly neither Russia nor the local governments could produce sufficient quality forces to combat Islamic insurgency, nor could they arrive at a common strategic viewpoint. Neither could Russia spare the military forces or monies needed to launch a systematic campaign against the terrorists, nor could it effectively assist Central Asian governments. Indeed, Russian policy was decidedly equivocal since there is overwhelming evidence that Russian forces not only colluded in the drug trade through Tajikistan, they also rendered tangible assistance on many occasions to Juma Namangani and his Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan (IMU). Thus the SCO was compromised at its source. Accordingly, the events of September 9 (the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud) and of September 11 failed to galvanize the SCO into action. This disharmony and lack of resources also typifies all the previous efforts to create a regional security organization in Central Asia and raises doubts about any future efforts to build one. However, both Russia and China continue to search for new modalities of collective security in Central Asia that will allows Russia to claim a hegemonic position, suppress the military independence of Central Asian states, and limit the American presence there. However, such Sino-Russian moves are encountering resistance form Uzbekistan and will undoubtedly encounter continuing passive obstruction in the guise of non-fulfillment of the decisions from the other Central Asian states. That obstruction has been the pattern for all agreements since 1992 and has contributed to the failure of Russian and joint Sino-Russian schemes for hegemony there.

CONCLUSION: The SCO\'s failure reflects major issues in both regional and international security: China\'s and Russia\'s inability to build a truly durable and capable mechanism to provide regional security in areas of common interest, the abiding inability of Central Asian states to do so as well, the difficulties in bringing effective military force to bear against terrorism and insurgent forces, and the continuing great power rivalry over Central Asia. But it remains an open question how long American military forces will remain in Central Asia and how lasting an imprint American power in general will have there. Thus there is no clear vision of what would supplant American forces as a provider of regional security in the event that American power would leave or diminish in strength The absence of an answer to this question imparts considerable urgency to the quest for an effective, durable, and legitimate solution to the many acute problems facing Central Asia.

AUTHOR BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of the US Army, Defense Department, or Government.

Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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