The Rise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)

Updated On: Aug 21, 2007

The Warsaw Pact comprising an alliance of Central and Eastern European communist states helmed by the former Soviet Union was, at the height of the Cold War era, seen as a hegemonic force capable of challenging NATO and overrunning Western Europe with numerical superiority in tanks and infantry units.

This was, at least, the nightmare scenario painted by some Western military strategists then.

Now that the Cold war is supposedly over, and the Warsaw Pact dissolved, old school Western military strategists are now casting a wary eye on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an organization forged by the twin powers of China and Russia.  Both powers have taken care not to present the SCO as anti-US or provoke the US, but   what happens when there are tensions between Russiaand the US? With Russia’s unhappiness over the expansion of NATO to include many of its former allies, and US intention to deploy missile defence in Central Europe, would SCO become a tool of the Russians?  

In some ways, the SCO is showing signs of a NATO-esque development as heads of member states observed the first ever joint anti-terrorism drill, which enhanced the member states' coordinating capability to safeguard regional security and stability. The drill is also important in ways to enhance mutual trust among the SCO members, deepened their practical cooperation, promoted common development and improved the international reputation of the SCO.

More worrying for some American planners is the increasing cosiness in the Russo-Chinese axis. The Chinese president and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin held talks during the Bishkek summit and the joint military drill and outlined plans and detailed steps in terms of boosting bilateral ties and also made in-depth and candid discussions about strategic security cooperation as well as major international and regional issues.

Officially, the SCO uses terrorism as a point of unity for cementing together the organization. "China and Russia are both unswervingly against terrorism in any form," Chinese President Hu said while meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at a military base near the Ural Mountain city. "At present, the non-traditional elements threatening security are still notable. Terrorism is posing severe threat to world peace and development," Hu said.

The Chinese president said the two sides have sound cooperation in cracking down on the "three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism and extremism and expect such ties to be further enhanced. "The joint military exercise is very successful, it attracts wide attention and wins high appraisal from the international community," Hu said. The drill has improved the SCO countries' anti-terror capabilities, fully revealed their determination and perseverance of anti-terrorism and will push the SCO to play a greater role in safeguarding regional security, he said.

Hu spoke highly of Moscow's preparation for the exercise and thanked Russia for its backup for the participating Chinese troops. For his part, Putin said the drill demonstrates a high level of the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership of cooperation, adding that it is also of great importance for maintaining regional security and stability, taking security cooperation in the SCO framework to a new level. Putin further proposed "raising the SCO's capability in the security sphere" with regular military training exercises.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited as an observer at the SCO summit meeting in BishkekKyrgyzstan.  At the summit, Russia outwardly expressed support for an outspoken attack against US plans to build an anti-missile shield in Central Europe by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.   Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters the United States was using "invented, projected threats" fromIran as an excuse to build the shield and that he could understand Ahmadinejad's concerns.

Such support for anti-American sentiments is especially sensitive to Washington as NATO forces struggle to suppress Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. Moreover, the US is losing some influence in this oil-rich and energy-rich region. In 2005 the United States was forced to close a military base in Uzbekistan and now Kyrgyzstan is under pressure to end the US lease of an air base outside Bishkek. Russiawants to expand its own air base near the capital.

For the moment however, the Russians still tries to allay Western fears. "The comparison of the SCO to NATO does not correspond to reality, and is improper either in content or form," Putin told reporters in the final stage of the " Peace Mission 2007" anti-terror drill in the Chebarkul military range near the Ural Mountain city of Chelyabinsk. "The SCO was established for solving border issues between Russia andChina, and we have solved them successfully. During forty years we have held talks with China, and we have been able to find solutions that suited both sides," Putin was quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency as saying.

"The SCO has begun broadening its boundaries; it attends to political and economic matters. As for the military component, it is not properly a military, but an antiterrorist component," the president said. "Regrettably, many countries of the world, including Russia, are confronted with a terrorist threat, and the latest event at the Moscow-St. Petersburg railway proves once more that we have not done everything we could to abolish this threat," Putin said.

According to Putin, the economic component "is coming into the foreground, and we attend to the development of the infrastructure and finances, we encourage the business activity of all member countries." "Other countries show interest in work of the SCO -- PakistanIndiaIran and Afghanistan, and they regularly send observers to SCO summits," Putin said.

To the Chinese, however, the SCO is more of a diplomatic mechanism than a military organization and it is used to further Chinese energy interests and also foster a peaceful environment in an area flanking its vast territory in line with its philosophy of peaceful development. Chinese President Hu Jintao embarked on a five-day tour, which started on 14 August 2007, to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, participated in a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Bishkek and observed an anti-terror drill in Russia.

A sign of growing Chinese diplomatic clout is the exchange of views between President Hu and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Iran's nuclear issue on the sidelines of the SCO tour and drill. It is, however, unlikely that diplomatic priorities would overtake economic ones in the near future for the Chinese. Economic and energy diplomacy is still on the top of the list for them. For example, the China-Kazakhstan trade volume hit 8.36 billion U.S. dollars last year, up 22.8 percent over the previous year. The trade volume for the first half of this year reached 5.97 billion dollars, up 60.4 percent over the same period of last year. Strategic imperatives more often focuses on such economic mutualism than military alliances.

While the US is concerned about China’s long-term plans for the SCO, its worries recently are more focused on Russia. With the spat over US missile defence system in EuropeRussia has reasserted itself militarily to reflect its unhappiness about US encroachment on its traditional spheres of influence. In retaliation for American extension of power and influence into its surrounding regions, Russia has resumed flights of its long-range nuclear-capable strategic bombers(Tu-160 and Tu-95 bombers known by their NATO appellations as Blackjacks and Bears) and it would be done on a permanent basis. Previously,Russia has unilaterally stopped these flights in 1992 out of good will. The Russian flights were covered extensively on Russian media.

The Russian bombers flew over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the North Pole, and were intercepted and escorted by NATO fighter jets, as if the Cold War had suddenly come back to life again. Putin also warned that the bombers will fly more regularly and further from Russian soil outside scheduled training exercises. Quite dangerously, Russian bombers flew near the American military base on the Pacificisland of Guam.

Gen. Pavel V. Androsov, the commander of long-range aviation, boasted that the sortie prompted the United States to scramble fighter jets that flew so close to the Russians that the pilots “smiled at each other and then peacefully went their separate ways.” The Russians are also pushing the boundaries with Washington’s de facto main ally in Europe, the UK. In July 2007, Russian Tu-95 bombers flew towardScotland and turned back just before entering British airspace. The British Royal Air Force scrambled fighter jets in hurried response.

2007 marks the year of a decline in Russo-American/NATO relations. Russia backed out of a major arms pact, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, and defied British demands to extradite the principal suspect in the radiation poisoning of a former K.G.B. officer in London. Outwardly, the US is less concerned about such provocative actions although it is unlikely that her European partners would have the same state of mind and comfort.

"I don't think our military has those concerns about it," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters in CrawfordTexas. "Militaries around the world engage in a variety of different activities and so it's not entirely surprising that the Russian Air Force, the Russian military, might engage in this kind of activity or exercise," Johndroe said. In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, "If Russia feels as though they want to take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again, that's their decision." (20 August 2007)


Chinese president concludes visit to Kazakhstan (People’s Daily, 19 August 2007)

Hu's tour to Central AsiaRussia fruitful: FM (People’s Daily, 19 August 2007)

Fighting terrorism important mission of SCO, ChinaRussia: Hu (People’s Daily, 18 August 2007)

Chinese president in Astana for state visit (People’s Daily, 18 August 2007)

SCO different from NATO: Putin (People’s Daily, 18 August 2007)

Recalling Cold WarRussia Resumes Long-Range Sorties (NY Times, 18 August 2007)

U.S. plays down Russia's resumption of flights of strategic planes (People’s Daily, 18 August 2007)

ChinaRussia, Central Asian leaders tout new strength (Channelnewsasia, 16 August 2007)