China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at Five

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 13

It is an established fact among U.S. officials: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is China’s primary multilateral instrument to implement its openly anti-U.S. policy in Central Asia. The recently concluded fifth anniversary summit of the SCO in Shanghai confirmed its anti-U.S. proclivities. The SCO’s communiqué reiterated its opposition to the “interference in other countries’ internal affairs,” a common euphemism used to describe Washington’s calls for increased democratization in Central Asia. “Models of social development should not be ‘exported,'” the joint declaration stated, implicitly reflecting the assessment by Moscow and Beijing that U.S. non-governmental organizations were behind the opposition movements and the “color revolutions” in Central Asia (People’s Daily, June 15). In addition to its ideological inclinations, however, the summit also revealed interesting dynamics within the organization as well as Zhongnanhai’s policy dilemmas in dealing with Central Asia.

Fear of Strategic Encirclement

Among the reasons behind China’s antagonism toward the U.S. presence in Central Asia are strategic concerns; U.S. military bases in the region provide Washington with a potential source for strategic encirclement. Thus, while Chinese President Hu Jintao proclaims that the SCO is a non-aligned organization not directed at any third party, he is not only dissembling but also hinting at one of its key purposes from China’s perspective (Asia Times, June 16). There is little doubt that the SCO is intended to provide a platform for China’s comprehensive engagement with Central Asia and to serve as a mechanism for ousting the U.S. presence in the region. Indeed, in 2005, Russian sources candidly revealed that Beijing seeks to replace Washington in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, a move not favored by Moscow (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 8, 2005).

The Chinese campaign against the U.S. presence in Central Asia also suggests that statements to the effect of a common Sino-American opposition to Islamic terrorism must be greatly qualified. Beijing’s attempts to oust Washington from its bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan at a time of heightened insurgency by the Taliban hardly squares with such a common interest. Chinese spokesman Liu Jianchao said that anti-terrorism should not become a basis for “double standards,” i.e. U.S. leadership in the war (China Daily, June 15). It is likely that only the Taliban’s resurgence and its recent “inconvenient” decision to attack in force prevented Kyrgyzstan from submitting to Sino-Russian pressure to force Washington out of its base at Manas—a move that was widely expected to occur at the SCO summit.

Sino-Russian Rivalry

Another policy dilemma for the SCO is the question of its future role. China and Russia have both stated their desire for the organization to serve as a regional provider of security through intelligence and economic cooperation. Yet, this declared commonality belies certain visible and potentially significant differences between Beijing and Moscow (Asia Times, June 16). Both countries are energy rivals in Central Asia, with Russia striving to monopolize Central Asian exports, a stance that, by definition, constrains China’s ability to deal bilaterally with these states. China is also engaged in massive infrastructural projects of rail and road transportation with these states, positioning itself as a trade rival to Russia. Thus, both Moscow and Beijing use the SCO as a façade, behind which they compete for bilateral deals with member states. In this respect, China has done so quite brilliantly, making deals with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as with neutral Turkmenistan. Beijing has offered credits to Dushanbe and is discussing funding for a highway through Tajikistan; it has financed the construction of a cement factory in Kyrgyzstan; and it has discussed the construction of a gas pipeline to connect Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to China, as well as the construction of a projected Kazakhstan-China gas pipeline to go along with the existing oil pipeline between the two countries (Asia Times, June 16).

As opposed to its earlier view that the SCO was primarily a Chinese initiative, China’s political and economic inroads has forced Russia to reconsider the multilateral organ as one in which it must vigorously take part. President Putin has suggested that the SCO become a starting point for networking with other Asian security organizations to provide a basis for Russia’s enhanced standing in Asia. Beijing’s stance, on the other hand, has been that the structure for multilateral cooperation embodied in the SCO is a template for a new and alternative system of relations in Asia and the world. In other words, the SCO is actually the embryonic framework of an anti-U.S. system in Asia in which China plays a major role and leverages its new pro-multilateralist policy as a means of influencing these organizations in a favorable direction.

Nascent Military Alliance?

Both Russia and China have maintained that the SCO is not a military alliance and is not the equivalent of NATO. The evidence to date, however, points in an ambivalent direction (RIA Novosti, June 6). To begin with, the original charter of the SCO is a classic collective security document, mandating that each member come to the aid of any of the other members that requests help from an attack by terrorists, separatists or extremists. In addition, both China and Russia have sought military bases in Central Asia, and it is safe to assume that should new opportunities arise, both countries will do so again. Finally, since 2001, China and Russia have conducted a growing number of exercises either with Central Asian states or with one another, under the auspices of the SCO. If the SCO is indeed a non-military organization, why was there a need for such exercises and what was their ultimate purpose? It is worth noting that nearly every commentary on the Sino-Russian Peace Mission 2005 noted that the exercises were undoubtedly anti-U.S. and directed at U.S. policy in Central Asia, Taiwan or even the Korean Peninsula (China Brief, September 27, 2005).

An Ambiguous Future for the SCO

Although the SCO seems to have temporarily fixated upon an identity as a regional multilateral platform for cooperation, its destiny and purpose remain undefined. It is unclear if the SCO will remain a political and economic association or transform into a true provider of hard security. This point pertains particularly to the question of its future membership. Both Iran and Pakistan have appealed for membership with the SCO, although it is highly doubtful that either will be accepted. The current delicate situation of the P5+1 Talks over Iran’s uranium enrichment program almost guarantees a preclusion of Tehran from receiving membership, and despite China’s support of Pakistan’s observer status in the SCO, the volatile landscape in South Asia makes Pakistani membership just as unlikely. Admittance of Pakistan would also force the existing members to consider India for membership, something highly favored by Russia. Given the security obligation among SCO members, no country would wish to be tied to Iran or either of the South Asian countries. Furthermore, despite Beijing’s détente with New Delhi, it is certainly not eager to see India interfere in what China views as its sphere of influence. After all, China is busy trying to expand its ties to Iran and Pakistan as well as Central Asia in both energy and strategic affairs, e.g. help for constructing the port at Gwadar, and its strategic aims are still tied to supporting Pakistan in order to confine India to the subcontinent.

Likewise, if the SCO is to be a forum for trade and economic security and cooperation, then the competing energy policies of Russia and China will have to be adjusted. Although they should be complementary in principle, in reality China and Russia are rivals for energy, especially in Central Asia. Russia’s political system would not be able to survive without monopolizing Central Asian energy, and China demands independent access to energy without excessively depending upon on any one power. Russian and Chinese behaviors also demonstrate a preference for bilateral deals with Central Asian states where they can monopolize their power vis-à-vis those governments. This continuing bilateralism unquestionably erodes the foundations of the SCO framework and introduces increased competitiveness into regional diplomacy.

Although the SCO has built structures for cooperation and has achieved a certain level of influence, it has by no means established itself as a successful security provider. Russia’s preference for the Collective Security Treaty Organization as a vehicle for providing military security and economic cooperation among the member states (excluding China) bears the sign of an incipient Sino-Russian rivalry. Ultimately, the security of Central Asia cannot be built exclusively or even primarily upon the basis of an anti-democratic or anti-U.S. platform. The SCO will have to confront and adapt to new challenges if it is to remain both relevant and effective. The SCO’s importance to Beijing, however, as the first international organization headquartered in China and as its first membership in a collective security project means that one can hardly expect Beijing to allow it to fail to come to grips with its new challenges. Thus, the fifth birthday summit is not only an occasion for self-congratulation and anti-Americanism, but also an occasion for new assessments concerning China’s policies toward Central Asia.