Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 217

When Russia and China begot the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) five months ago, there was no telling whether the child would die in its infancy, live handicapped by its birth defects, develop normally as a functional member of international society, or grow into a two-headed Russian-Chinese monster throwing its weight around (see the Monitor, June 22). The only certainty was that Moscow and Bejing were seeking to establish a condominium in Central Asia, as a means of containing the West’s role in the region.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had no option but to join the initiative while trying to limit the possible damage to their interests, and hoping in some cases to use it in their interest. The Russian-Chinese initiative was integral to their policy of counteracting the American global primacy, labeled “unipolarity.” Russian and Chinese officials described the SCO as intended to promote a “multipolar” restructuring of the international system.

In the wake of September 11, Russian views of the SCO at its foundation in June make especially interesting reading. The liberal Yabloko’s leading foreign policy specialist, Aleksei Arbatov, greeted the SCO’s birth as follows: “There is nothing more dreadful to America’s Central Asia policy than a rapprochement between Russia and China.” For his part, the influential hardliner Andranik Migranian wrote that the SCO should prevent America and Western Europe from performing the role of stabilizers for Central Asia generally and for Uzbekistan in particular.

The SCO’s founding speeches, as well as subsequent pronouncements in Moscow and Beijing, implied that the two big powers expected the SCO to enhance their bilateral cooperation both on Central Asian and global issues. Each wanted, moreover, a secure strategic rear in Central Asia while facing, respectively, an enlarging NATO in Europe and an American protective umbrella over Taiwan and South Korea. The Russians and Chinese began discussions on upgrading the SCO’s security functions from those of a confidence-building nature to those of a regional security system. For its part, Moscow vetoed Pakistan’s associated membership in SCO precisely because of Pakistan’s shared interests with some Central Asian countries.

September 11 and its aftermath have shattered those calculations and possibly the SCO itself. The events have propelled Central Asia from the position of strategic rear to that of center stage, with countries like Uzbekistan and Pakistan as indispensable components of a U.S.-led coalition, Kazakhstan equally willing, and even Tajikistan–which hosts massive Russian forces on its territory–engaging in a rapprochement with the United States. Presidents Islam Karimov, Nursultan Nazarbaev and Imomali Rahmonov each went their own way in granting overflight rights and ground facilities to U.S. and allied forces. Rahmonov’s decision was facilitated by a massive offer of Japanese aid.

Once the storm had broken out, the SCO stood exposed as irrelevant. No one in Moscow or Central Asia asked for the SCO’s collective wisdom, nor did any country propose convening an emergency meeting of the SCO to discuss the situation. A prescheduled meeting of the six prime ministers on September 14 in Almaty adopted a statement of intent on economics, and came up with a platitudinous statement about the evils of terrorism (Kabar, Interfax, September 14). In October, Nazarbaev declared while on a visit to Germany that the SCO aims only at economic cooperation, with “no military component” (Kabar, Interfax, October 3-4). By that time, Kazakhstan was already discussing security and antiterrorism cooperation bilaterally with the United States, and accelerating such cooperation with Turkey. Also last month, Uzbekistan–strategically and militarily the pivotal country in Central Asia–stayed out of the special meeting in Bishkek of senior officials of security and law enforcement agencies of SCO member countries. During that meeting, Russia’s Federal Security Service Deputy Director Viktor Kolmogorov warned the absent Uzbekistan against hosting U.S. troops, once the current antiterrorist operation has ended. By contrast, Kazakhstan’s Internal Affairs Minister Bulat Iskhakov argued at the Bishkek meeting that a long-term U.S. presence would only enhance stability in Central Asia, and that the antiterrorism efforts may in any case take decades (see the Monitor, September 18, 26, October 8, 12, 30, November 12, 16, 21; Fortnight in Review, September 28, October 12). At that juncture, Uzbekistan was already hosting U.S. forces and had just signed a document on cooperation with the Pentagon, which includes elements of an allied relationship (Kyrgyzpress International, October 11; Institute for War and Peace Reporting (London), October 19).

The SCO was barely mentioned during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on October 19-21 in Shanghai, the SCO’s birthplace (Western news agencies, October 20-22). And, yesterday, Kyrgyzstan offered to host French tactical aviation for antiterrorist operations, without reference to the SCO–or, for that matter, to the CIS Collective Security Treaty, or the CIS Antiterrorism Center which Bishkek hosts (RIA, January 26).

The SCO, in sum, has cracked at the first serious test. It will not soon recover. Any attempted recovery would in any case have to adjust to the new constellation, probably including an American military presence in Central Asia–something that the SCO’s founders may only have envisaged in their worst-case scenarios five months ago.