Like Peter Pham at NRO’s Tank, the Œcumenical Volgi has long had an eye on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, stemming from his long interest in Central Asian affairs (which interest led to one of the most painful incidents in his adult life, but we’ll pass over that in silence). Here, Pham discusses its potential as a rival to NATO. His discussion is worth reading, but do take his caveat very seriously that it’s a long way off from being a serious rival, and the Volgi would note that the SCO also contains within itself some contradictions.
First and most obviously, Russia and China’s interests—while coinciding powerfully in wishing to widen the scope of respectability and freedom of action for authoritarian governments within (and without) the liberal economic and political order—cannot always be expected to coincide. Particularly as Russia depopulates and China’s population burgeons (before dropping off), the wide-open spaces of Eastern Russia may look awfully appealing as Han settlements, and particularly the port of Vladivostok, founded by Manchus and Jurchen, may look increasingly like it should become the Sea-Cucumber Cliffs of Hăishēnwăi again. Now, if this happened, there’s no reason that the Russians couldn’t sell land to the Chinese à la Seward’s Folly, but in the nationalist-paranoic climate that seems to be the Putinshchina‘s characteristic Zeitgeist, Russian pride may buckle at surrendering one of her eleven timezones to what Russians still consider an inferior race.
Speaking of “inferior races,” then there’s the problem of the “black-asses,” as Russians charmingly call their ethnic minorities, particularly Turkic peoples. The “‘Stans” of Central Asia have historically been relatively enthusiastic proponents of the SCO as it serves two purposes for them: creates a forum in which their authoritarianism is relatively penny-ante (except Uzbekistan, which punches above its weight in despotism) and in which they theoretically have an equal seat at the table with the two enormous empires which have historically had designs on their territory. Russian military might and ethnic Han population pressure (in varying combinations) have historically been the biggest threats to the independence of the Turkic peoples from Mongolia to Tatarstan and Azerbaijan. The Turkic “‘Stans” (and Persian Tajikistan) generally just want to be left alone and hope to get their massive natural-resource wealth to world markets. And this requires the sufferance of the Russians and Chinese. The SCO gives them this, plus some “anti-terrorist” cooperation which helps guarantee the stability of all the regional governments from ethnic and religious terrorism. (E.g., the Uzbeks and Kazakhs won’t back the separatism of their Muslim Turkic cousins the Uyghurs in Western China, and the Russians and Chinese will help them stamp out Islamist movements at home.)
The status quo is pretty good for the ‘Stans, and the SCO boots their regional profile. If, however, Russia and China start either clashing or looking hungrily at their territory, they’ll have to weigh their options differently. Kazakhstan may always be at the mercy of Russia, with its huge, empty, undefended (and almost indefensible) common border. Chinese (or more faintly, American) patronage may make more sense to them if they feel threatened by Russia, but hinting at that before they’re in extremis could lead to a disastrous Russian overreaction à la Georgia. Uzbekistan, as usual, has the most options, as it borders neither Russia nor China, as well as has the most capable military in the region (though that’s not saying a lot). But obviously, as European history shows, small weak countries between Great Powers have to be extremely deft to keep their independence, and it’s an open question as to whether the SCO will help or hinder the Central Asians in this respect.
Last, there are the observer states of India, Pakistan, and Iran. Given that their relations between them are, to put it mildly, fractious, it’s rather hard to see what and SCO that has closer ties to them does in terms of establishing a powerful regional or global identity, other than than, perhaps, carving out freedom of action for authoritarian states like Pakistan and fascist regimes like Iran. Democratic (currently somewhat Hindu-nationalist) India has fewer obvious interests in the group, although it’s doubtless a useful forum for keeping tabs on their neighbors (particularly Pakistan and China, with whom they’ve fought wars) and Iran (with whom they have fairly close relations, surprising as that may seem).
Last, from the perspective of Americans, do note the hole in the middle of the SCO in that logo: Mongolia, perhaps the most pro-American country in Asia. And give a thought to aiding them in preserving their liberty and developing their economy. We are a terrifying enemy, but are also often a terrible ally. (As the Turks noticed after the First Gulf War, the British, Poles, etc., after the Second, etc. Not even to mention the late Republic of Vietnam.) Anyone in a position to remedy that—please fight to do so with constant vigilance. Reward our friends early and often.
Don’t ask impertinent questions like that jackass Adept Lu.