Is the SCO Emerging as Eastern Counterweight to NATO?
As tensions between Russia and NATO continue to percolate along Europe's eastern periphery, another development has quietly emerged along the vast southern expanse of what was once the Kremlin's Soviet empire. Possibly due to the wrap-up of NATO's combat mission in Afghanistan last December, scant attention was paid in the West to an announcement in July that not only may have an effect on security issues in Afghanistan, but is edging ever closer to the trans-Atlantic Alliance's doorstep in Asia Minor.
At the 15th summit meeting of the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on July 9, it was announced that initiation procedures would begin for two countries with current observer status to become full members. Those two countries are India and Pakistan. With their membership expected to become active by the 2016 summit in Uzbekistan, the SCO is about to expand the vast territory and population under its membership umbrella as well as the organization's geopolitical heft.
The addition of two new members will mark the steady evolution of a grouping that originally began as the "Shanghai Five" in 1996. That grouping served largely as a forum for addressing border disputes lingering from the Soviet era.
Five years later, the original Shanghai Five members – China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – were joined by a sixth partner, Uzbekistan, and the current SCO was born.
The rebranded grouping broadened its original mandate to include economic trade and regional security cooperation, with the latter primarily aimed at combatting what the Chinese government terms the "Three Evils": terrorism, separatism, and (religion-inspired) extremism. By and large this focus has created space for members to conduct their own domestic crackdowns against internal dissent – all while supported by SCO partners looking to shield each other from international criticism regarding human rights violations.
More importantly, however, the SCO is considered a crucial instrument by its two dominant members, China and Russia, with which to exert influence over Central Asia.
From the Russian perspective, the SCO provides an additional element by which to ensure the Central Asian countries along its soft underbelly remain tethered in strategic alignment to Moscow. Through additional institutions such as the loose, Russian-led federation of former Soviet republics known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and its mutual defense extension, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia is able to exert political and military leverage over three SCO members (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and somewhat offset China's economic influence within the SCO.
For its part, China considers Central Asia as the new Silk Road in its "Go West" strategy to create a Eurasian land bridge with which to break out from any maritime-based containment efforts of the U.S. and its allies. While pacifying terrorist and separatist elements in "the 'stans" is in China's interest, its primary aims for the SCO involve economic trade and tapping into the region's significant oil and gas reserves.
With the impending full-membership status of India and Pakistan, there is a temptation to see the SCO as a burgeoning military bloc that may one day become a NATO antagonist.
Certainly when taking into consideration the combined military capabilities of the SCO members, one might see the logic of such worries.
On paper, a combined China and Russia military force would field 3.1 million active-duty personnel, plus millions more in reserve, financed by a cumulative defense budget eclipsing $200 billion. Further, these two nations feature some of the world's largest ballistic missile forces.
When adding India and Pakistan to the mix, the SCO would present NATO with four nuclear-armed opponents, plus millions more manpower reserves and frontline troops. This all, of course, fails to account for Iran, which remains in observer status – for now.
Still, such worries fail to account for realities on the ground.
India and Pakistan remain wary neighbors, endlessly preparing for another outbreak of conflict with each other. Their admittance into the SCO will merely add another complicated internal dimension to an organization divided where security policy is concerned. Neither China nor India wants to see the SCO become a militarized Russian stalking horse meant to offset NATO's presence and influence in Eastern Europe, as this would damage their trade relations with the West. Instead, from the view of Beijing and New Delhi, the core purpose for the SCO will be to promote regional connectivity, energy transshipment, and stability.
Thus, with the SCO's heavyweights holding different views regarding their goals for the organization, the threat of an emerging counterweight to NATO is not readily apparent. Instead, the SCO provides a useful vehicle for helping to defuse regional tensions and prevent separatist elements from undermining internationally recognized national borders, and quite possibly could help to stabilize Afghanistan.
If nothing else, a stab toward the latter might prompt a quiet nod of approval at NATO headquarters.