Russia and China increasingly seek to offset U.S. influence in Central Asia through enhanced cooperation conducted under the banner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). While its impact is often exaggerated, the SCO does offer certain benefits to the states of the region, as well as to Moscow and Beijing, that the United States can ill afford to ignore.
The United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies play a critical role in Central Asia through their stabilizing presence in Afghanistan, something that neither Russia nor China can match. Central Asia's geostrategic qualities keep America strongly interested in retaining access and building cooperative, stable relations with regional states. Russia and China oppose U.S. democracy promotion as naive or subversive (or both). Yet neither has articulated a vision for systemic change and long-term stability in the region.
Russia's influence is a matter of its imperial past, economic interdependence, and trading routes. Russia depends on Central Asian energy resources and labor, but its control over both gives it leverage over the region. China's influence has been growing due to expanding trade, acquisition of energy resources, and overall rise as a major power.
China and Russia will remain significant actors in Central Asia, and advancing U.S. interests in this region will become more complicated if Russia and China are ignored. Dialogue and limited cooperation with both countries in areas of mutual interest should be important elements of a successful U.S. strategy for the region.
The SCO Record
Since the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) called upon the United States to commit to withdraw its military personnel from Central Asia at its July 2005 summit, the SCO has acquired the reputation as a significant obstacle to U.S. policy. However, this reputation obscures the real state of affairs. Notwithstanding press reports about the challenge posed by the SCO to U.S. policy in Central Asia, a close look at the organization, the behavior of its members, their motivations, and the practical impact of their declarations suggests that the SCO's challenge to U.S. interests and policies in Central Asia is less than meets the eye.
But ignoring the SCO simply because of its limited capabilities for action and concrete results would be a mistake; it is more than a paper tiger. As a political organization, it is an important vehicle for Russian and Chinese diplomacy aimed to counter U.S. influence in the region. The SCO also provides a forum where Central Asian states, dwarfed by their giant neighbors, can sit at the table with them as equals, at least nominally. For all these reasons, the SCO is worth the attention of the United States. The question is what kind of attention we should pay to it.
The SCO has its origins in the April 1996 meeting of the heads of the Shanghai Five states--China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan--to address border management issues, enhance cross-border cooperation, and promote confidence-building measures. In an effort to put the legacy of Sino-Soviet tensions behind them and to avoid new friction arising from the uncertainties of the post-Soviet era, the heads of the Shanghai Five states signed the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions in 1996 and the Treaty on Reduction of Military Forces in Border Regions in 1997. The annual meetings of the Five continued until 2001, with the addition of Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov as a guest in 2000. Beyond the annual gatherings and the two initial treaties, however, the Five's record of accomplishment was quite slim.
In June 2001, the original five states and Uzbekistan established the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and issued a declaration in which they pledged to work together to enhance mutual security and stability in their region. In 2003, a joint counterterrorism center was established in Shanghai; in 2004, a Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure was established in Tashkent; and in 2006, SCO members agreed to establish a new institute to fight transnational crime. …