By Dr Subhash Kapila

Introductory Observations

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SC0) came into existence in 2001 and was founded by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.. From this core group, the SCO stands expanded to include India, Iran, Mongolia as Observer States, and Belarus and Sri Lanka as Dialogue Partners. Guest Attendance Status has been extended to Afghanistan, ASEAN, CIS, and Turkmenistan.

China more specifically, and Russia were the prime movers who brought about the emergence of SCO and even today they dominate the deliberations and strategic policy formulations of the SCO besides providing the budgetary support.

Geopolitically and geostrategically, Russia and China as the prime movers of the SCO can be said as two major powers that on the global stage are contending powers with the United States. The other core group members are former breakaway republics of the former Soviet Union and still have considerable interdependent political, economic and military linkages with Russia, than with China.

The SCO basically emerged as a regional security organization though after the Astana Summit Declaration in 2005 it has sought to extend its role in economic cooperation and cooperation with other regional organizations.

The point to note in its emergence is that the SCO as a security organization was not a left-over of the Cold War era but emerged as a fresh security organization encompassing Eurasia and in response to the changed global geostrategic calculus that emerged in the wake of the post-Cold War era.

Nearly a decade is about to finish since the SCO came into existence and hence it is an opportune time to analyze whether the SCO has emerged as a strong security organization to countervail the United States strategic predominance globally and in Eurasia or whether it is heading towards strategic redundancy as a result of no visible decline in global predominance of the United States or United States strategic predominance on the peripheries of Russia and China. Furthermore the differing long-term strategic perceptions between China and Russia may themselves contribute to the strategic redundancy of the SCO, besides their mutual strategic misgivings.

This Paper accordingly sets out to analyze the following related issues:

Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Ineffective as Counterweight to NATO and the United States Strategic Predominance
United States as a Threat: Differing Perceptions of China and Russia
China and Russia: The Mutual Strategic Misgivings
China –United States Military Showdown: Would the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Institutionally Confront the United States?
Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Ineffective Counterweight to NATO and the United States

The SCO on inception was designed as a counterweight to NATO’s Eastward creep towards the peripheries of Russia and China. The founding impulses also had their origins in arresting unbridled United States unilateralism in global strategic affairs after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

China also figured that the SCO as a security organization would be a strategic pressure point available to it against the United States in East Asia to play Chinese power- play mind-games.

China had more stronger strategic imperatives to pre-empt any unilateral military interventions on humanitarian grounds by the United States in China’s outlying regions of Xingjiang and possibly Tibet. China was also impelled by considerations of energy security pertaining to the pipelines grid that it was configuring for spreading over the Central Asian landmass.

At the end of ten years of its existence it can be analyzed that the SCO has not lived up to its intended objectives as the following would indicate:

NATO continues as an effective and strong military alliance which has added former breakaway constituents of the former Soviet Union to its enlarged membership.
NATO stands embedded in Afghanistan on the doorsteps of China and outflanking China’s strategic nexus with Pakistan
The United States has footholds in the Central Asian Republics despite Russian and Chinese countermoves to the contrary.
The United States reigns supreme in East Asia provoking China to incendiary confrontations with the United States and its allies like South Korea and Japan.
China stands encircled by the United Sates with its bilateral security alliances with South Korea, Japan, Philippines and Thailand. To this needs to be added the United States’-India Strategic Partnership which if properly handled by USA could prove a substantial game-changer in Asian security. Vietnam and the United Sates are currently engaged in exploring strategic cooperation options.
China and Russia as the prime constituents of the SCO are divided by their differing perceptions of the US-threat and their own mutual strategic misgivings.
The SCO for reasons best known to China and Russia has shied away from adding firm contours of a military alliance on the pattern of NATO. Even sizeable Joint Military Exercises are said to be designed to meet terrorism, extremism and separatist threats.

In this context it needs to be noted that China comparatively stands strategically isolated as opposed to Russia, the other founding member of SCO, which enjoys wider international multilateral linkages. To that extent this itself may create problems in concerted strategic policy formulations of the SCO.

United States as a Threat: Differing Perceptions of China and Russia

Contextually, the SCO came into existence when both China and Russia had strategic concerns of United States unilateralism in global strategic affairs, NATO’s Eastward creep towards the peripheries of both China and Russia and when Russia’s strategic resurgence under President Putin had not fully taken off. The United States figured overwhelmingly in the threat perceptions of both China and Russia then and provided a strategic convergence to both to set up the SCO to countervail the United States in Eurasia and the Asia Pacific.

Ten years down the line while a number of short-term convergences exist between China and Russia pertaining to Central Asia but it appears that China and Russia do not share the same long –term perceptions of the United States threat, which was the prime consideration that stimulated the formation of the SCO.

China all along has considered the United States as its prime strategic threat despite any peace rhetoric that flowed between Beijing and Washington all these years. In the last decade China accuses the United States of thwarting its strategic rise as a great power if not a superpower. The Chinese Grand Strategy in the last ten years to defeat its perceived US-Threat has been to gear up the speedy build-up and modernization of its Armed Forces and its Strategic Forces, promote strategic nuisance value of rogue states like North Korea and Pakistan by equipping them with nuclear arsenals and create counter pressure-points against the United States in the Islamic World.

As the year 2010 is heading towards a close China seems to be locked in a strategic confrontation and military brinkmanship bordering on the extreme with the United States in East Asia. The sequence of events in2010 most vividly illustrate that China has not strategically restrained itself in creating potential flashpoints with the United States. It seems somehow that China is on a collision course with the United States.

When it comes to Russia the strategic setting in relation to the United States differs vastly from that of China. Russia in 2010 cannot be said to be on a collision course with the United States. The United States may be a strategic concern for Russia but realistically it cannot be said that the United States is a military threat to Russia.

The United Sates is presently engaged in ‘resetting” relations with Russia and reorient the Cold War mindsets on Russia. There is hope that United States would realize that it would be better to craft a bipolar global power structure by co-opting Russia as a partner to manage China’s strategic rise and what it entails in China’s propensity for conflict to resolve conflictual issues.

Consequently, the differing perceptions of the United States as a threat between China and Russia are likely to arrest the growth of SCO as a potent security organization for countervailing the United States.

China and Russia: The Mutual Strategic Misgivings

Notwithstanding the rhetoric that flows between Beijing and Moscow on the institutional viability and strengths of the SCO, what cannot be swept under the carpet are the mutual strategic misgivings that abound between China and Russia. These are over and above the divergent perceptions on the US-threat and center on the respective strategic interests of China and Russia in Central Asia.

China and Russia can both be said to have strategic misgivings about each other and have competing strategic interests in Central Asia. The Central Asian Republics even after breaking away from the former Soviet Union enjoy close and interdependent political, economic and military cooperation linkages with Russia. What needs to be recorded here is the fact that the Central Asian Republics unlike the others did not wish the Soviet Union to disintegrate.

Other than the commonality of SCO membership these Central Asian Republics are also members of Moscow-centric security organizations like the CIS and the CSTO. Their natural tilt therefore is towards Russia than China.

Russia therefore views the Central Asian strategic space as its ‘area of natural influence and interest’. It views with suspicion Chinese efforts to muscle-in in this region on the strength of its economic strengths and energy security considerations. Russia has even been successful in limiting and regaining military influence in this region in the face of United States moves in the region especially after its military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001.

In terms of strategic focus, Russia looks more towards Europe whereas China focuses on the Asia Pacific and East Asia more specifically. Nothing epitomizes this more than Russia’s differing approaches than those of China to North Korea and Japan

Lastly while on this subject it needs to be stressed that Russia too is fearful of China’s increasing strategic assertiveness in its trajectory to grab superpower status. Here the Russian and United States strategic interests enjoy convergence. Russia fears that China has the potential to marginalize Russia and arrive at compromises independent of SCO linkages to grab superpower status.

China-United Stats Military Showdown: Would the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Institutionally Confront the United States?

This is a crucial determinant of the strategic viability of the SCO and whether the SCO has strategically matured to the point where it can be safely asserted that it has now become strategically integrated to meet its founding objectives.

Keeping in mind the differing threat perceptions of China and Russia on the US-Threat, and the mutual strategic misgivings that divide China and Russia it seems unlikely that the SCO would institutionally confront the United States in the eventuality of a China- United States military showdown.

A potential China-United States military showdown would have global implications and since it is more likely to arise from Chinese belligerency, it is unlikely that the other SCO members would be inclined to enter a military conflict to back-up China.

More pointedly, any future China-US military conflict is likely to arise over any US military intervention in Pakistan or North Korea as Chinese satellites and that too as rogue Chinese satellites, it seems that in the interests of overall regional stability in heartland Asia, any siding with China by the SCO institutionally is unlikely.

Concluding Observations

The strategic impulses that stimulated China and Russia to establish the SCO as a countervailing platform to NATO and the United States stand replaced by newer geostrategic and geopolitical realities. These do not portend the maturing of the SCO as a substantial regional security organization on the lines of NATO despite its internal differences.

The sum total of the strategic relevance of the SCO as a strong and effective regional security organization would have been dependant on the strategic cohesiveness and strategic convergences of China and Russia. In 2010 no portents are available for analysis to suggest that SCO can evolve as a countervailing heavyweight to the United Sates and NATO.

On the contrary, the pointers available suggest that the SCO may metamorphize into a regional economic organization with strategic redundancy in attendance.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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