Cooperation Gets Shanghaied

China, Russia, and the SCO

The recent rise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- a mutual security assembly comprised of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- has been met with skepticism in the West. Some fear that it has nefarious intentions to control Central Asia; others worry that the West will somehow be left behind in the region if it does not engage with the SCO. Since its founding in 1996 as a forum for negotiating lingering Soviet-Chinese border disputes, the SCO's mission has broadened to promote regional security and economic cooperation, and combat what its members call the "three evils": separatism, extremism, and terrorism. As its agenda has expanded, so, too, have Western concerns.

When the heads of the SCO countries called for a timetable for closing U.S. military bases in Central Asia at its annual summit in 2005, the SCO appeared to be positioning itself against U.S. influence in the region. Days later, Uzbekistan ousted American forces from a base in Karshi-Khanabad. And that same year, the SCO strongly condemned the Western-backed color revolutions that were sweeping across Eurasia, along with the Western NGOs that were supporting the movements.

Five years later, however, predictions that the SCO would develop into a full-blown anti-West alliance have proven exaggerated. Despite claims of widespread cooperation, the SCO has failed to translate its official announcements into actual regional cooperation. And although China has been able to use the organization to project its influence across Central Asia, Russia has remained reluctant to deepen its participation. Subtle but key differences in the regional security priorities of the two countries have started to play out.

Russia regards Central Asia as its "zone of privileged interests." For the past two decades, Moscow has sought to embed the states of Central Asia in a system of Russia-controlled institutions -- the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a mutual defense alliance; the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), a customs union; and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose federation of former Soviet countries. At the same time, it has actively worked to block Western actors such as NATO. China, in contrast, has been focused not so much on countering the West as on stabilizing its own western territory: the autonomous province of Xinjiang, which borders the Central Asian states.

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