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The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a New Military Alliance?

In the Guest Web-log, David Wall (Chatham House, London) outlines what he sees as the role of China’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. What is it? How does it work? How will it develop?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) celebrated its fifth anniversary in the summer of this year. It was built on the foundation of an earlier organisation, The Shanghai Five, which was established by China in 1996 after the collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR). China was concerned about the security of its borders with the three newly independent countries that had emerged after the disintegration of the USSR. The three countries in question were Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Russia was the fifth member.

The Shanghai Five, under the leadership of China, did agree on China’s borders with the three Central Asian countries and also agreed to move troops away from them. China made proposals for developing the agenda of the Five in many directions: economics, logistic, cultural and militaristic. After discovering that meeting the objective of containing “terrorism, extremism and separatism? would involve working with another former Russian colony, Uzbekistan, that country was invited to join the institution in 2001 and the Shanghai Five was renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

As China’s presence and status in the four Central Asian country members grew, Russia became concerned. Around the time that the USA came into the area (having established bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and supporting facilities in Kazakhstan after 9/11,) Putin began to watch developments there more carefully. He began to consider it as an organisation capable of balancing USA power in the region, and maybe beyond.

In 2005 he persuaded Hu Jintao to join him in getting the members of the organisation to press the USA to give a date for the closure of its bases in Central Asia. He also persuaded China to mount, in August 2005, their first ever large scale joint military exercise with Russia, involving more than a hundred thousands troops and the latest military equipment. This was run as an SCO exercise.

After commentators began to draw attention to the growing range of military activities being held by SCO members Grigory Loginov, Russia's permanent representative at the organization's secretariat, felt he had to say (in April 2006) that "The SCO has no plans to transform into a military bloc.? However, he went on to say: “... the threat of terrorism, extremism and separatism is so serious today that it is impossible to counter it effectively without the full-scale involvement of the armed forces. The SCO can play an independent role in efforts to sustain stability and security in the region. Its member-states are consistently intensifying their cooperation in fighting terrorism, extremism, and separatism; drug trafficking, cross-border crime, human-trafficking, and money laundering?.

Presumably that is why the large scale military exercise Russia and China held under the auspices of the SCO was a war game involving battling with invading forces coming in from the sea: none of the SCO members other than Russia and China have sea coasts.

It is worthwhile noting that Article 19 of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisations constitution says that “When a situation arises in which one of the contracting parties deems that peace is being threatened and undermined or its security interests are involved or when it is confronted with the threat of aggression the contracting parties shall immediately hold contacts and consultations in order to eliminate such threats.? This wording is very close to the wording of Article 3 of the old Warsaw Pact and Article 5 of NATO’s constitution.

The militaristic element in its constitution, the large scale SCO war games (and extensive range of military cooperation and training exercises and extensive trade in equipment) growing Russian and Chinese military presence in Central Asia, suggest that its members do regard the organisation as a military alliance in one form or another.

Oh, by the way, Iran and Pakistan (currently observers – as are India and Mongolia) are pressing to be admitted as full members, so are other western allies such as Belarus and Serbia. The USA did ask to be admitted as a member, but it was turned down. I wonder why?

David Wall


What are the aims of and challenges for SCO?