After a slow start in 2002, the SCO's St.-Petersburg summit in May 2003 approved development of a military arm to assist SCO anti-terrorist cooperation. The organization’s first multilateral military exercise (called “Interaction-2003”) took place that August in Kazakhstan and China, although without Uzbekistan’s participation. In September of that year, the prime ministers of the member states agreed in Beijing to fund the SCO in the amount of $4 million during 2004, establishing its secretariat in Beijing (moved from Shanghai in accordance with a September 2002 decision) and the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure in Tashkent (rather than Bishkek, and beginning operations in January 2004).
In 1996 a group of countries called the Shanghai five organized together for the purpose of delimiting and demilitarizing the international borders of the former Soviet territory with China, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Agreements about how to proceed with the task were reached in 1997, and the actual work has continued since then. In 1998, the five countries established annual summits and began to shift their focus to “anti-terrorism”, a codeword they used before September 2001 to signify the containment of domestic insurgencies. Their Bishkek summit of August 1999 saw an agreement to create an anti-terrorism center in that city, and at the Dushanbe summit of July 2000 their defense ministers decided to plan and hold joint military exercises.
Also at the 2000 Dushanbe summit, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov was present as an observer. The Shanghai summit of June 2001 saw Uzbekistan formally become a member of the cooperation mechanism, which was transformed into a new international institution, complete with secretariat and interministerial committees, and called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Today the institutions of the SCO are: the Council of Heads of State, the Council of Heads of Government, and the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, all of which meet annually; the Council of National Coordinators, which meets at least three times yearly; the Conference of Heads of Agencies, which establishes meeting mechanisms, such it has already done for national attorneys general and defense ministers, for officials concerned with economic cooperation including transportation, and for heads of national law-enforcement, security, emergency, and disaster-relief agencies; the Secretariat; and the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS). Whatever weaknesses the SCO has shown so far during its short existence, it is alive and well and developing at an accelerating rate. That is more than can be said of, for example, GUUAM.
According to Kyrgyzstani officials, the transfer of RATS from Bishkek to Tashkent resulted from an overall SCO judgment a year ago that Uzbekistan is today more susceptible than Kyrgyzstan to incursion by militant insurgents. Whereas for Kyrgyzstan, developing cooperation in trade and economic spheres is a means to increase security and stability in the region; for China the latter is a means to the former, which in turn serves to project Chinese influence. Four countries are members of both SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO): Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Adding Belarus to these four yields the composition of the Eurasian Economic Community, and adding Armenia to those five completes the membership of the full CSTO.
The SCO's membership compromises the four first-named, plus China and Uzbekistan. The deployment of the Russian troops to Kant in Kyrgyzstan, in the framework of CSTO anti-terrorist programs, was no surprise to Beijing, which was kept more than fully informed by the Kyrgyz government. Yet the decision to place the SCO's anti-terrorist center in Tashkent is not without significance: it provides both China and Russia with a security presence in Uzbekistan, which has a recent history of guarding its diplomatic and strategic autonomy especially jealously. China is keen to increase the SCO’s profile as an instrument for promoting the country's economic influence in the region, under the guise of moving towards creation of a free trade zone.
Thus the six heads of governments approved in September 2003 at the Beijing summit a document entitled "Outline of Economic and Trade Cooperation of the SCO" that appears to have the eventual goal of establishing a free-trade zone among the participating states. Not all six governments, however, appear so enthusiastic. China would by far be the most advantaged by such an evolution. But even more modest economic cooperation would lead to deeper cooperation in security and geopolitical spheres, and the other members seem unwilling or unable to resist, even though they each try to put their own spin on it.
While the "Outline" document enumerates such goals as cooperation in transportation, energy, environment, telecommunication, consumer electronics and agriculture, authoritative Kazakhstani officials prefer to put the accent on the creation of favorable investment climate and on the growth of leading "high" technology and electronics, while still seconding the call for cooperation in energy and transportation. At the same time, one cannot lose sight of SCO's significance as an instrument for the gradual increase of Sino-Russian strategic influence in Central Asia, opposing (at least in Beijing's eyes if not in everyone else's) the U.S. presence in the region. To ascertain this, it is necessary only to observe that the new SCO secretariat is headed by China's recent ambassador to Moscow, who speaks fluent Russian. Cooperation is already planned between the SCO's RATS in Tashkent and the CSTO's center at Kant.
It has been no secret for over a decade that Beijing, viewing Xinjiang as its geo-economic springboard towards the Caspian region, has flooded this region with ethnic Han immigrants who benefit most from economic development of the region's huge wealth, including not just oil and natural gas but also mineral resources. China has in the recent past funded the construction of connecting highways through the hinterland of western Xinjiang, this remotest of remote regions, promoting international trade flows there in order to strengthen its own strategic grip. Western Xinjiang borders not just Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but also Afghanistan and both sides of the Indo-Pakistani Line of Control in Kashmir (not to mention the oft-forgotten Chinese Line of Control, which lies across Kashmiri territory claimed by India). China's large contribution to the modernization of the Pakistani port of Gwadar foretokens an eventual trans-Pakistani route, transiting Xinjiang, for Central Asian trade with world markets.
In this context, it is not without interest that both India and Pakistan have expressed interest in joining the SCO, with Pakistan showing a particular interest and China particularly sympathetic. Beyond being an eventual instrument of putative Sino-Russian condominium over Inner Asia, the SCO is a tool for heightening the strategic significance of the hinterland of western Xinjiang in particular, and enforcing Beijing's influence there.
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First published in Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst, vol. 5, no. 6 (24 March 2004): 8–9.