T he Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) marked its 10th anniversary last week at the annual leaders summit, this year held in Astana, Kazakhstan. The organization continues to mature.

While there are fears that the SCO could become a strategic counterweight to NATO, a more far-sighted approach is more accurate: The SCO can do good work if it provides stability to a region prone to instability. With the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on the horizon, all efforts to provide support and security in Central Asia should be welcome.

The SCO was launched in 1996 as the “Shanghai Five”; members included China,Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. The group focused on confidence-building measures and capacity building to stabilize unstable countries. In 2001,Uzbekistan joined and the SCO was born.

The official purpose of the SCO is fighting “the three isms” — terrorism, separatism and extremism — a struggle that took on new purpose and urgency in the aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. China in particular worried about the situation in its western regions, which border Central Asia and have a majority of Muslim residents. Beijing feared the spread of unrest propagated by Islamic extremists and sought ways to deny them safe havens, a concern of Moscow as well.

The SCO has slowly expanded in size. Now, there are four observer nations — India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan — along with two dialogue partners — Belarus and Sri Lanka — and three guest members — Afghanistan, the Commonwealth of Independent States and Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The primary focus of the group continues to be security. Members participate in military exercises, share information and strive to build law enforcement and military capacity. A Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure has been set up in Tashkent that serves as an information clearinghouse for members’ security forces and facilitates security and intelligence cooperation.

Laudable in concept, it is worrisome in practice. Those terrorist lists are more inclusive than the United Nations terrorist list. And those states have been charged with violations of international law in the use of that information. Human rights groups allege that the process of putting individuals on the list is not subject to international scrutiny and that their treatment when caught violates commonly accepted international practice, including torture, renditions and the forced return to their state of origin.

In recent years, the group has expanded to take on other responsibilities. Beijing has been pushing the SCO to promote economic cooperation. That corresponds with an increase in Chinese trade with the group, which has expanded from $12 billion to $90 billion over the last decade. China has been especially keen to gain access to the region’s extensive energy resources to feed its own economic expansion.

At the summit, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for joint economic projects such as the establishment of a venture fund, a commercial center and a feasibility fund that would look at the suitability of potential projects. Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov backed a SCO Development Bank to finance major projects in Central Asia.

Beijing’s growing influence in Central Asia could cause friction with Russia, which has traditionally seen this region as part of its own sphere of influence. Moreover, Moscow would like to keep a grip on the pipelines through which the region’s energy resources flow to international markets. China has been eager to set up alternative routes to get those fuels to the market.

Thus far, the SCO has proved valuable in damping competition between Moscow and Beijing. They, along with the other members, seek stability in Central Asia to prevent the spread of contagion to their own restive Muslim populations. While it is unlikely that any of the members sees the organization developing the capacity that would permit it to become an “Asian anti-NATO,” they support every regional institution that lends credence to the notion of a multipolar world.

And of course, members will not hesitate to use the SCO to criticize the United States when possible. Thus, last week’s summit criticized missile defense programs, noting that “member states believe that unilateral and unlimited build-up of missile defense by one state or by a small group of states can cause damage to strategic stability and international security.”

The biggest concern for SCO member states is Afghanistan. The situation in that country remains dangerously volatile and members worry that the withdrawal of U.S. forces will compound instability there. Russia’s history with Afghanistan prevents it from taking a more prominent position in dealing with that nation. China’s preference, like that of other members, is to tackle social and economic issues while maintaining a strict security cordon; a thickening web of relations with other SCO members is likely to follow.

That may prove more difficult than anticipated given competition between India and Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan. If SCO members can overcome their divisions and provide stability to Afghanistan and its neighbors, then the organization may actually deserve the applause its members are so eager to bestow upon themselves.

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