The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: uneasy amity

About the author
David Wall is an associate member of the faculty of Oriental studies at Cambridge University, and an associate fellow of Chatham House.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) held its fifth anniversary summit meeting in Shanghai on 15 June 2006. The heads of state of the six full members – China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – were present, as were those of three of the four observer members – Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia. India, the other observer member, sent Murli Deora, its minister of petroleum and natural gas. The president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, also attended as a special guest.

The communiqué at the summit's end announced the shared commitment of the SCO's members to combatting the "threats posed by terrorism, separatism and extremism and illegal drug trafficking". But the warm words and the appearance of unity are deceptive.

The SCO brought itself into many people's sight for the first time in July 2005, when its fourth summit meeting in Kazakhstan's new capital Astana declared that it was time for the United States to pull its troops out of central Asia. A few weeks later Uzbekistan told the US to close its bases in that country by the end of 2005, and Kyrgyzstan demanded a hundred-fold increase in the rent that the Americans were paying for its base there.

This new awareness of the organisation was heightened further in August 2005, when Russia and China held joint, large-scale, military exercises designed to repel seaborne invaders and to practice such invasions themselves. These exercises were conducted under the auspices of the SCO, even though only Russia and China of the six full members are coastal states.

This growing public register of the SCO's independent existence was confirmed in the prelude to the July 2006 summit, when its Chinese (and Beijing-based) secretary-general announced that he expected that Iran as well as India, Pakistan and Mongolia were to be made full members at the 2006 summit; this contradicted his earlier statement that the organisation had no legal framework for accepting new members.

The vice-president of Iran, Parviz Davoudi, who was in Moscow at the time the secretary-general made this statement, boasted to the press that this would create an arc of oil and gas producers reaching from Moscow to Tehran. There was even talk of an "Opec with nuclear weapons".

David Wall in an associate member of the faculty of Oriental studies at Cambridge University, and an associate fellow of Chatham House

Also by David Wall in openDemocracy:

"China: the plan and the party" (29 March 2006)

"North Korea and the 'six-party talks': a road to nowhere"
(12 April 2006)

In the event, the 2006 summit did not expand the SCO's membership, reaffirming instead the official position that the legal procedures for expanding membership are not in place. In the joint bilateral statement on the Iran nuclear question, Presidents Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin did not take up the membership issue, only commenting: "With regard to the Iranian nuclear issue, (the) various parties concerned should grasp opportunities to peacefully resolve the issue through diplomatic talks, adding they will maintain contact and coordination."

So, what did not happen at the 2006 summit is more important than what did. In particular, Iran's dream – that it would become a member of an organisation led by Russia and China that would defend its interests against the US imperialists – was shattered.

Iran is not alone in its disappointment: the United States had also applied for membership, or even observer status. Both were refused.

A new regional balance

What is the SCO? Where does it come from?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was founded in 2001 as an organisation dedicated to eradicating the evils of "splittism, fundamentalism and terrorism" in the six countries. It replaced the "Shanghai five" that had been founded in 1996 by the six countries of the SCO less Uzbekistan, reflecting the fact that the five came together to sort out border problems left behind when the USSR collapsed and Russian troops were withdrawn from central Asia. Uzbekistan does not have a border with China.

In its early years, the Shanghai five and the incipient SCO was seen as basically a Chinese initiative of local interest; Russia did not take it very seriously. Two things made Russia take notice. The first was the arrival of US troops in central Asia in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 and the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the ensuing tilt to the west among dictators in the region (especially Uzbekistan) following assiduous American cultivation.

The second factor was Russia's growing awareness that China too was moving in a big way into Russia's "lost" Soviet-era satellites, including heavy investment in the development of the oil and gas sectors. People's Liberation Army troops even protect the Chinese oil wells in Kazakhstan, which flow – for the first time ever on the Eurasian land mass – from west to east.

As late as 2002, Putin regarded the SCO, and China's ambitions for it, with disdain. All has changed: Russian troops are moving back into central Asia, a reflection of Putin's deep suspicion of Chinese expansionist ambitions. Tens of thousands of Chinese migrants are moving into central Asia and many are moving on into Russia across the Kazakhstan border, a border which is porous and not (yet) properly protected.

Putin is now taking the SCO seriously, as one way to attempt to turn central Asia once more into Russia's backyard. When Turkmenistan – the only central Asian country not part of the SCO – recently signed a long-term contract to supply gas to China from 2009, Putin ordered his officials to travel to Uzbekistan within days to persuade the Uzbeks not to allow the pipeline to cross that country.

Since 2002, then, Putin has remembered that Russia has a Pacific coastline, which makes it an Asian state. This "tilt towards the east" has its odder aspects, such as Russian support for Asian ambitions in the United Nations: slowing down or perhaps even blocking US plans for its reform, especially security-council expansion, and calling for the next secretary-general of the UN to be an Asian.

This last objective was included in the Shanghai "declaration on the fifth anniversary of the SCO". The Asian candidates so far nominated included figures from Thailand, Sri Lanka and South Korea, while India nominated the long-term under-secretary general, Shashi Tharoor, on 15 June. It should not be overlooked in this regard that Vladimir Putin himself – public opinion and his own political calculations permitting – will be looking for a job in 2008.

The real power-play

Where is the SCO going? Will it become an eastern Nato? Does it really represent a tectonic shift in glower power relationships?

I suspect that the Chinese proposal to expand membership was shot down by Russia and India, each for its own reason. Russia believes its influence is stronger and more independent in the "quartet" (US, European Union, Russia and China) framework for negotiations on Iran, and does not want to be seen as part of a Russia/China team in which China can upstage it. India does not want to be seen to be leaning too far towards the east by joining an organisation that refuses membership to its US strategic partner soon after the two countries reached a nuclear accord accepting India as a nuclear power.

Meanwhile, Russia has a wider concern about China. Now that it has secured agreement on containing the US military presence in central Asia, and convinced the central Asian countries to stay within the autocrats' club, Russia's main interest in the SCO is to contain the growth of China's influence. There are limits to it ability to do this, but I believe that the Russians think – or at least Vladimir Putin thinks – they can do this more effectively by playing an active role within the SCO.

In this light, the joint Russia-China military exercises under the SCO's umbrella can be seen not as the beginning of a new security organisation but as serving commercial ends for each side: as a vehicle for the Russians to enhance their arms sales to China, and as providing China with an opportunity to hint to the west that its continuing embargo on sales of military equipment will lead it to work with the Russians to fill the gap. I do not believe that this military cooperation would survive the ending of the embargo.

For the most part the SCO will continue as a means for China to improve its economic and political involvement in central Asia, in order to secure its territorial boundaries. Russia cannot stop this. The travelling circus that has Putin and Hu shaking their hands for the cameras as they travel around the world hides the Russian president's serious worries and fears about China's rise, and China's concerns about Russia's efforts to block that rise.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation may engage in dozens of useful meetings about banking arrangements and improvements in transport links. But these do not add up to a "Shanghai spirit". In political and strategic terms, the SCO is now more important as a factor in the power-play between Russia and China than as a component of the balance of power between those two countries (and the other members and observers) and the west.