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The Limits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

(Washington -- August 7, 2006) Any claim of an "active threat to Western interests" by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is "exaggerated," two Central Asian experts told a RFE/RL audience last week. While they differed on the primary function of the SCO, which consists of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, Richard Weitz, Senior Fellow and Associate Director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute and Daniel Kimmage, Regional Analyst for Central Asia at RFE/RL agreed that the SCO represents "both a challenge and an opportunity" for Western decision-makers.

Weitz rejected claims by some observers that the organization was "NATO's evil twin." In particular, Weitz said that, despite its "potential strengths... the SCO lacks the internal coherence and capacity of NATO or other strong multilateral security institutions." Weitz outlined three areas where SCO members "disagree over important issues," including "the desirability of the Western military presence in Central Asia," "the SCO's role in traditional defense matters," and "the extent to which member governments should assist one another to suppress future 'colored' revolutions and other domestic unrest."

Kimmage argued that the SCO represented a "hands-off alternative and institutionalized counterweight" to what a "like-minded elite of the SCO member countries have seen as the common strong-arm [tactics of the] schoolmarms of the West." The security officials of the SCO countries are increasingly cooperating to support each other as they "fight these threats to the local power structure," Kimmage said. "The SCO ruling elites have a shared understanding of stability as the status quo," he said, and "they see their self interest in the maintenance of that [status quo]."

The most recent meeting of the SCO included Iran as an observer. Addressing concerns that a potential Iranian membership could transform the SCO into an "OPEC with bombs," Kimmage and Weitz reiterated the above-mentioned weaknesses of the alliance and dismissed the possibility that Iran would join the organization in the near future. Kimmage noted that the alliance is hesitant of extending membership to a Middle Eastern state with its own collection of regional problems,including tense relations with the West; while Weitz said that a membership expansion could "just as easily weaken the SCO as strengthen it."

Weitz recommended that the "growing importance" of the SCO, as well as its "broad agenda" to combat terrorism and extremism, "warrants a NATO initiative to establish direct ties with it." "A formal dialogue would [help] avoid misunderstandings and dampen competitive pressures," Weitz said. Kimmage, on the other hand, felt that formal links may be less necessary than a reconsideration of policies towards the SCO. According to Kimmage, the SCO members have a "different understanding of terrorism [than the West]" which is "not global," and there are "natural limitations" among the SCO members. At the same time, Kimmage acknowledged that there are two tendencies that could pose a threat to western interests -- first, "the resistance of domestic elites to outside pressures that they perceive as a threat to their hold on power," and second, the desire of some nations "to turn [the SCO] into a platform for greater global influence."

Archived audio of this briefing can be heard in RealAudio and Windows Media formats.