By Marcel de Haas
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) brings together almost half the world’s population, several members own nuclear weapons, many are big energy suppliers and it includes some of the world’s fastest growing economies. Yet few outside Central Asia have heard much about it.
The SCO emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1996. Today, its members are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, while Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan and India are observers. Russia and China remain the lead actors. Since its launch, the SCO’s military exercises have become increasingly ambitious, growing from largely bi-lateral to include all the members. The SCO is also beginning to work together in the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime.
Until recently, the SCO’s members addressed energy issues only bilaterally. But, in order to coordinate energy strategies and strengthen energy security, last year the organization launched a club that unites energy-producing and energy-consuming states, transit countries and private companies. The SCO also promotes free trade and aims to build essential infrastructure, such as roads and railways, to link its members and boost commerce between them while also harmonizing customs systems and tariffs.
Yet cooperation within the SCO remains focused on national rather than collective objectives, because its members’ interests vary so much. China, for example, seeks markets for its products and further energy resources, while Russia aims to use the SCO to promote its anti-Western agenda. The group’s other members — led by China and Kazakhstan — want to strengthen their already robust levels of economic cooperation with the West. Thus, for example, at the SCO summit in August, Russia did not get the support of other members regarding the Georgia conflict.
These diverging objectives make it hard to believe that the SCO will ever evolve into an eastern version of NATO. True, its members have held joint military exercises and have expressed a desire to build the SCO into a more mature security organization, but the SCO still lacks many essential elements of a full-grown NATO-style security organization.
The SCO has no integrated military-political structure and no permanent operational headquarters. It has no rapid-reaction force and does not engage in regular political deliberations. NATO’s focus is on external security risks, while the SCO’s members target security issues within their own territories.
It makes sense for the West, particularly the EU, to seek cooperation with the SCO, as this would also help counter Russia’s attempts to use it as a tool for its anti-Western policies. It would also prevent the SCO from turning into a militarized entity.
These may look like negative reasons for the EU to engage with the SCO, but there are also ample positive reasons for encouraging cooperation. Europe needs energy supplies from Central Asia and Central Asia needs European investment.
Another sphere of mutual interest is Afghanistan. At present, the EU offers financial support to the Afghan government and helps to train its police and judiciary. The SCO has established a contact group with Afghanistan. Both sides want to do more and they might be able to make a greater impact by working together rather than separately. The EU has money and the SCO organization — most of its members border Afghanistan, have trained personnel and direct experience in the region.