Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.
Lately the foreign press hasn't paid much attention to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This inattention isn't due to inactivity on Russia's part.
Recent reports suggest that Moscow is eager to enhance the SCO's capabilities. Given China's rising economic and political influence in Central Asia, however, Moscow is finding that its desires don't automatically translate into an altered SCO agenda. Thus, Moscow's near-term goal has been to identify threats that it shares with China, and enhance joint cooperation to fight them. The hope is that joint cooperation will evolve into a more robust SCO.
The security threat that generates perhaps the greatest amount of shared concern these days is narcotics trafficking. Russia's point man in its anti-narcotics fight is Viktor Ivanov, who tends to describe the country's drug situation in "apocalyptic" terms. But he may be only slightly exaggerating the seriousness of the situation when one takes Russia's overall demographic crisis into consideration. Over 100,000 people aged 15-30 reportedly die annually from narcotics' use and Russia's rehabilitation infrastructure is woefully underdeveloped. What Ivanov doesn't mention, however, is that widespread corruption within the Russian and Central Asian security services is enabling drug use and addiction. Chinese officials and experts also voice concern about trafficking, but they seem to do so with an eye on geopolitics. For example, Wang Lijiu, a senior researcher at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said recently that the "sooner the SCO becomes the alternative to NATO in the region, the better."
Turning Russian and Chinese expressions of concern into joint action won't be so easy. The two countries harbor different strategic aims for the SCO. Moscow wants to use the organization to enhance its own influence, moderate China's, and to minimize, if not extirpate the American presence in Central Asia. Of late, Russian officials have also been interested in seeing the SCO develop its defensive capabilities as a hedge against a US-NATO failure in Afghanistan. For China, meanwhile, the SCO is seen largely through an economic filter. http://www.eurasianet.org/node/62107 China, for example, is pushing for the creation of an SCO Development Bank in which it is ready to invest $8 Billion.
Russia also has its eye on the SCO's economic role. Last November, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin proposed a 10-year roadmap for the SCO to develop trade and economic cooperation among member states. In effect, Putin is trying to expand the recently formed Eurasian Customs Union to bring SCO members into an integrated transport network that facilitates trade via the East-West and North-South corridors. In both cases Russia would be the primary beneficiary of expanded trade networks owing to its geographic location. Thus, Russia's plans can be seen as an attempt to shift the locus of the SCO's economic activity away from China toward Russia.
In order for Moscow to get, it is reasonable to expect that the Kremlin has to give. Yet once analysts get past the surface attraction of joint Russian-Chinese efforts to contain narcotics trafficking, it becomes clear that Moscow's ideas for expanding the SCO's scope are self-serving. And it is difficult to see how the other members would benefit equitably under Russia's vision for the SCO's future. It remains to be seen just how far Beijing will cooperate with Moscow since the Kremlin's initiatives seem intended to blunt China's challenge to Russia in Central Asia.
The one factor that might prompt a change in the thinking of China and other SCO members is a marked deterioration of security conditions in Afghanistan. The SCO's security component is currently unprepared to handle even a minor strategic challenge, and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization proved itself to be a paper tiger in 2010, as it could not even begin to come to grips with the inter-ethnic clashes. If US and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan before the country has been genuinely stabilized, not simply prepped for some sort of "peace with honor" solution a la Vietnam, there would be no organization in Central Asia capable of containing the security challenges there.