from Asia Unbound

Speaking of the SCO ...

June 15, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization walk during a meeting in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg June 15, 2009. Courtesy Reuters/RIA Novosti/Vladimir Rodionov/Pool.

Over at another CFR blog, The Internationalist, my colleague, Stewart Patrick, has posted a good piece about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Boy, did that take me back to old times.

The SCO stokes up all kinds of opinions in the United States—some informed, some less informed; some vituperative, and others merely skeptical.

Back in 2007, while serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia, I became, I think, the only U.S. official ever to devote an entire speech to the SCO.  Just two years earlier, the SCO had called for a timeline to end the Coalition military presence in Afghanistan.  And since the U.S. was in the midst of prosecuting a war, there was a great deal that we in the United States were forced to wrestle with as a result. For one, we sought to forestall any repeat statements from the group.  But for another, we aimed to sort through the SCO’s deeper (and perhaps darker?) intentions.

Stewart’s post took me back to some of the questions we asked ourselves four years ago.  And I still don’t have great answers. In fact, I’m not sure the SCO’s own members do either—although there’s no question that the organization is more active (and perhaps more functionally-inclined) than in the past.

For reference, here’s that old speech I gave back in 2007 at the Nixon Center (which recently changed its name to the Center for the National Interest). And here’s a Russian version, reprinted by the journal, Russia in Global Affairs (which earned me some rather scathing comments from Russian readers … ).

What’s the big question about the SCO?   The biggest, I think, remains this one—and it applies to many other organizations in this part of the world: How do interested states promote cooperation and integration in a region where cross-border linkages are so essential, and yet so very elusive?  The Central Asian space—indeed, much of the post-Soviet space—is littered with an alphabet soup of these organizations: not just the SCO, but also CSTO, EURASEC, ECO, the CIS summits, and so on. And we have a body of (mostly unhappy) evidence, accumulated over two decades now, to suggest that while Central Asian countries desperately need to cooperate, their need for cooperation too rarely translates into complementary policies.  And this has been true even on some of the backbones of economic life: crossing a border, clearing a customs checkpoint, sharing water and electricity, or irrigating land. In many areas, Central Asians and their neighbors are deeply dependent on one another. Yet this reality was, is, and will almost certainly remain deeply disquieting to some.

Four years after I gave that old speech at the Nixon Center, it may be worth re-asking the four questions that were at the heart of the presentation.

First, what does the SCO actually do, not just say, to promote cooperation?

Second, does the SCO strengthen or dilute the independence and sovereignty of all of its members, including its smaller Central Asian members who, too often, have been the victim of geopolitical struggles? Put a bit more sharply: What’s the relationship between two huge continental powers—China and Russia—and the SCO’s smaller Central Asian members?

Third, is the SCO directed against the United States?

And fourth, does the SCO’s agenda for cooperation in Central Asia complement or contradict Washington’s own?

You can go back and re-read that old speech. But the first question, I think, remains particularly salient.

Some, particularly in Beijing and Moscow, argue that the organization has now cohered. But I wonder. To some, it’s a security group, to others a trade bloc, and to others a group that has gained greater ideological content. But do diverse SCO members, observers, and dialogue partners truly share a vision of their organization? And for that matter does holding an exercise, however large and impressive, in itself produce enduring security cooperation? As Stewart notes in his own post, there are rivalries aplenty among this group of states.

Ironically, the larger the SCO has become, the more diffuse it has become. The SCO began in the mid-1990s as the “Shanghai Five.” And back then, in its early incarnation, the group had clear criteria for membership: its members all shared a border with China. The group had a defined purpose and measurable goals. In essence, the Shanghai Five sought to resolve outstanding border disputes among China and its post-Soviet neighbors.

But having accomplished this task, and then expanded its membership to include Uzbekistan, four observers, and some contact partners, the SCO’s purpose and goals have become broader and, thus, murkier.

The SCO charter lists a range of goals, from security and stability, to fighting narcotics and terrorism, to economic cooperation, to cultural exchange. And that’s an ambitious list. But it’s hard to point to concrete achievements in many of these areas—except on the basis of bilateral or non-SCO agreements and understandings.

It’s worth remembering that a Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline is not, in fact, a “SCO” pipeline. Indeed, while China established a SCO-specific loan facility to the tune of $10 billion at the height of the most recent financial crisis, its bilateral loans to Central Asia are more calibrated and significant, not least because their terms and conditions differ from the brand of conditionality promoted by the international financial institutions, and by the United States.

Should the U.S. cooperate with, or perhaps even join, the SCO? I doubt the issue will ever be considered seriously. Indeed, even without the many other reasons that fuel American skepticism, Iran’s observership in the group makes this prospect especially unlikely and unattractive. In a 2009 interview with CFR, shortly after I left the U.S. government, I reflected a bit on the Obama administration’s tentative efforts at outreach.

The fact is, regional cooperation in Central Asia remains thin, and the U.S. can and should promote it. (For an elaboration of that argument, see the report issued earlier this year by the bipartisan Central Asia Study Group, which I’ve highlighted in previous postings). But in the security realm, at least, the U.S. will, by necessity, have to focus mostly bilaterally. SCO membership for the United States isn’t in the cards. The U.S. hasn’t been invited to join and, in any case, SCO members would likely stall if the U.S. were to seek it. For the moment, the U.S. is probably more useful to Central Asians, in particular, as a modest counterbalance on the outside than as a clubby participant in this Chinese-Russian vehicle.

But ad hoc U.S.-SCO discussions are worth pursuing, building on the participation of Patrick Moon, then the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Afghanistan, in SCO discussions of Afghanistan issues in March 2009. That meeting was an example of timely and mutually beneficial—but ad hoc and topically specific—discussions, with the SCO, organized along functional lines.

The U.S. does need a regional approach to Central Asia, particularly on economic issues. But there are interesting opportunities elsewhere. The U.S. could, for example, revisit a stalled 2007 effort to work with the Asian Development Bank and two strategic partners— Japan and the EU—to lend additional impetus to the ADB’s Central Asian Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program, which includes ten countries (six in Central Asia, including Afghanistan, as well as China) and six international financial institutions. In 2007, the EU refused to join a U.S. and Japanese effort to create a forum between CAREC and the world’s three major market economies to be called “CAREC Plus Three.” However, if Washington and Tokyo approach Brussels again, this could still form a powerful pro-market nexus, working closely with key countries and the major IFIs. Together, Washington, Tokyo, and Brussels could aim to give market approaches a new push in the region.

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