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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

East of the Middle East: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and U.S. security implications


The war in Afghanistan represented an eastward shift in the United States’ international focus. Previously concentrated on the Middle East, the United States has reconfigured its foreign policy directives to include interests east of the Middle East. The shift was long overdue. Central Asia is a rising regional security concern, and Chinese and Russian actions therein have cultivated robust political ties. Resulting cooperatives and agreements promote Chinese and Russian regional objectives. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) originally consisted of five Central Asian and Asian countries (the Shanghai Five), ostensibly to unify signatories on economic, social and political platforms.[1] However, the SCO is often a proxy to advance Chinese and Russian interests.

Although the SCO is not nominally directed against any specific power, the organization presents several causes for international anxiety. Inclusion requests by countries like Iran, Pakistan and India elevate the SCO beyond a simple economic and political partnership to a regional power that bears watching. SCO policies and agendas frequently clash with those of the United States, creating an adversarial and potentially hostile U.S.-SCO relationship.

The SCO bumps up against U.S. policy goals regarding its alliance with Taiwan, missile defense policy, and ongoing war in Afghanistan. While these three considerations are hardly exhaustive, they do demonstrate some of the key U.S. concerns regarding the SCO.

SCO expansion: Iran, Pakistan and India

In June 2001, heads of state of the Shanghai Five met for their fifth annual summit. The meeting marked Uzbekistan’s inclusion and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s formal establishment. While inviting Uzbekistan to join had considerable energy[2] and security implications,[3] the expansion of the SCO was also organizationally significant. After Uzbekistan’s full membership, Mongolia, which had lobbied vigorously for inclusion from the beginning, became the first official SCO observer country in 2004.[4] The following year, Iran, Pakistan and India obtained observer status.

The SCO now includes full membership for the original five – China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan – and Uzbekistan. Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan and India have all been granted official observer status. With the newest additions, the SCO includes two formal nuclear powers (China and Russia), two nuclear powers that are outside of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (India and Pakistan)[5] and one aggressive nuclear technology pursuer (Iran).[6]

Implications – U.S. and international security

Despite having voiced their desires for benign trade relations and “good neighborliness,” China and Russia have used the SCO as a mechanism to influence Central Asia.[7] Both countries have long been anxious about U.S. involvement in the region and the SCO is an expanded instrument to counter such influence while advancing their own security agendas. Rejecting the U.S. request for observer status, while calling for the removal of U.S. troops from Central Asia, is a sign of such concerted efforts to attack U.S. regional sway.[8]


China’s obsession with unification in the face of potential Taiwanese independence, coupled with the U.S.-Taiwanese alliance, creates a menacing political-military security threat. If the situation only involved the United States, China, and Taiwan, it would be an extremely sensitive matter. But the SCO’s firm support of the “one-China” policy creates an instant partnership for China were it to move against Taiwan. This support exacerbates the matter and increases geopolitical implications exponentially.

Recent scandals involving Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian have wounded him politically and such damage could have a negative impact on Chinese-Taiwanese relations. Chen gained popularity in Taiwan through vociferous calls for separation and some fear that, in an effort to mollify political damage and rally support, he will revitalize the independence movement.

In the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief, Willy Lam notes, “President Hu Jintao [China] and his aides fear that the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party – Chen’s affiliation], which suffered a humiliating defeat in local-level polls last December, might try to claw back lost territory by going further, to the extent of revising the island’s constitution to effect de jure independence.”[9] China has repeatedly threatened a military response if Taiwan officially declares separation from China.[10] Because the United States and Taiwan are political allies, any military action taken by China against Taiwan will affect the United States.

Enter the SCO

The Dushanbe Declaration, a statement released after the 2000 meeting of the Shanghai Five and a precursor to the SCO framework,[11] has specific wording to establish formal support for the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) regarding the “one-China” principle.[12] As a Taiwanese ally, the United States could be drawn into a conflict with China and subsequently Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, India, Pakistan and Iran.

It is unlikely, however, that the United States and Russia or India will go to war with each other because China invades or attacks Taiwan. The scale of such a war and the resulting damage to each party creates a situation where the costs likely outweigh the benefits. However, the possibility does exist and the SCO, by summarily backing the PRC, provides specific context for such a conflict.

Victor Corpus, a retired brigadier general and former chief of the U.S. intelligence service in the Philippines, provides an eerie prediction of a war resulting from Taiwanese separation. After illustrating examples of asymmetric tactics to neutralize the U.S. sea fleet in the Taiwan Strait, China’s SCO allies could become involved in the fighting. Corpus writes:

On yet another major front in Central Asia, Russian troops lead the other member-countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization into a major offensive against US military bases in Central Asia.

The bases are first subjected to a simultaneous barrage of missiles with fuel-air explosives and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) warheads before they are overrun and occupied by SCO coalition forces.[13]

As Corpus notes, a military engagement caused by Taiwanese independence could escalate, due to the alliance articulated within the SCO framework, into an international conflict involving five nuclear powers and the leading global economies.

Missile defense

Missile defense systems are another principle addressed in the SCO framework and cause for international friction. The United States is pursuing an exceptionally ambitious missile defense system. In the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) budget estimate for fiscal year 2007 (FY 07), it requested $9.3 billion.[14] Currently the U.S. missile defense systems include the:

§ Sea-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System

§ Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD)

§ Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)

§ Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-3 Missile Defense System

§ Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS)

§ Airborne Laser (ABL)

§ Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI)

In addition to the above technologies, MDA plans to expand its missile defense systems to space. The FY 07 budget request includes funding for preliminary stages of a space-based interceptor (SBI). A Center for Defense Information (CDI) commentary on the FY 07 MDA budget request notes, “Contrary to reports that MDA would wait until after the 2008 election to decide on whether to field space-based interceptors, the FY 07 budget states ‘the Space Test Bed will begin to exploit the natural advantages of space systems and integrate them into the BMDS [ballistic missile defense system].’”[15] By introducing space-based missile defense components, the United States would set a dangerous precedent regarding space weaponization while expanding its already lofty missile defense policy.

To pursue such a policy, the United States first had to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). On Dec. 13, 2001, the United States announced that in six months it would formally withdraw from the ABM to “defend its homeland against ballistic missile attack[s]” and to cooperate “in developing missile defenses against long-range threats with our friends and allies.”[16] Since December 2001, the United States has significantly increased its own missile defense systems as well as internationally trading in similar technologies.

The Shanghai Five adopted a diametric posture, supporting the ABM unequivocally. The Dushanbe Declaration states, “The Sides emphasize the unconditional need for the preservation and strict observance of the 1972 ABM Treaty prohibiting the establishment of systems of anti-missile defense of the territories of countries. This Treaty is a cornerstone of strategic stability and a basis for further reduction of strategic offensive arms.”[17] Because of concerns that theoretically effective ballistic missile defense systems would create a shield behind which a country can deliver nuclear-armed missiles without fear of reciprocity, the SCO argues that such programs reduce strategic nuclear stability.

China and Taiwan – missile defense

Chinese concerns unabashedly drive the wording within SCO statements and agreements. Taiwan is specifically mentioned in the Dushanbe Declaration as an example for why the group opposed ballistic missile defenses. The declaration notes, “The Sides consider that the deployment of closed bloc ABM systems of theatres of war in the Asian and Pacific Region may lead to the breach of stability and security in the region and the escalation of the arms race, and express support for the position of China coming out against the plans to include Taiwan in the ABM system of a theatre of war by any state and in any form.”[18] While Chinese missiles would quickly overwhelm even an advanced Taiwanese missile defense system, China is still wary of any enhanced defense system on the island.[19] Thus the SCO, acting as a Chinese proxy, opposes the system.

The 2006 Department of Defense (DOD) report on the military power of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) notes, “Surprise SRBM [short-range ballistic missile] attacks and precision air strikes could support a campaign designed to degrade Taiwan defenses, neutralize its military and political leadership, and break its will to fight before the United States and other nations could intervene. To attempt these effects, China could employ SRBMs to saturate Taiwan’s air defense system, including air bases, radar sites, missiles, and communications facilities.”[20]

Because defending against a full Chinese SRBM attack is infeasible, Taiwan must have other motivation to bolster its missile defenses. According to a report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Taiwan’s missile defense ambitions are not to repel a full-scale Chinese missile attack, but, rather to create Chinese doubt and to discourage diplomatic bullying.[21] In such a scenario, Taiwan’s missile defenses would be more of a political frustration for China than a force-neutralizing threat.

While selling technology and equipment to Taiwan is one way to vary U.S. strategic involvement, the United States could also incorporate Taiwan into its existing ballistic missile defense system. U.S. Aegis missile cruisers deployed to the Taiwan Strait or to the South China Sea would supplement a Taiwanese missile defense system. Armed with Standard Missile-3s (SM-3), these ships could intercept a limited number of short- and medium-range missiles fired from China at Taiwan.[22] However, China’s estimated 710-790 SRBMs would quickly swamp even the more-advanced U.S. missile defense system.[23]

Russia – missile defense

The ABM was originally a joint agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, Russia, as inheritor of the Soviet Union, condemned the U.S. decision to withdraw from the treaty. After the U.S. withdrawal, Russia announced it was no longer bound by START II. It has furthermore issued several public statements against various U.S. missile defense systems.[24]

Despite Russian misgivings, the United States plans to place a missile defense base in an as-of-yet undecided European country. Currently, the Czech Republic and Poland top the list. Russia has offered stern warnings against any missile defense placement so close to its borders. CDI notes, “Yevgeny Buzhinsky, director of the Russian Foreign Defense Ministry’s international military cooperation department, said U.S. missile defense units near Russian borders would be a ‘real threat to [Russia’s] deterrent forces’ and ‘would require taking adequate retaliatory measures.’”[25] While Russia and China might be more threatened by the idea of a proximate U.S. base than by the actual missile defense system contained therein, the proposed missile defense sites do represent a growing U.S. military presence and therefore are disquieting. It is little surprise that the Dushanbe Declaration unequivocally denounced any departure from the ABM, given Russia and China’s organizational domination.

SCO, missile defense and international security

The international security implications which arise from the SCO’s vehement rejection of missile defense system are fairly straightforward. The two dominating forces within the SCO, Russia and China, have glaring strategic interests in preventing the proliferation of missile defense systems. China, wary of any increased defensive posture in Taiwan (however effective or ineffective) and the false emboldening of separatist sentiments which could ensue, opposes any ballistic missile defense. Concurrently, Russia perceives immediate threats from neighboring missile defense systems, especially in former Soviet states. Such defenses erode Russian influence on an abstract level and threaten with a prominent U.S. troop installment on a tangible level.

If the United States sees its strategic interest advanced by bolstering its own missile defense system and by propagating such technology to its partners, then it directly conflicts with the SCO. As discussed above, in any form of military conflict or clash with an SCO country, the United States can expect to face a political and perhaps military coalition of SCO states.

Extra-SCO interest in Afghanistan

The collective interests in Afghanistan by countries outside the SCO are vast, including state stability, frustrating terrorist networks and reducing opium production. These three missions are compatible with SCO interests, yet the SCO and the international community remain divided on how to best pursue said goals. The SCO seeks reduced coalition (U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]) forces despite 600 insurgent attacks per month in 2006.[26] SCO calls for troop withdrawals, however worsening security conditions reveal that any SCO interest in Afghanistan is secondary to its want for U.S. and NATO troop removals. As traditional regional superpowers, China and Russia are likely behind such moves to keep the United States and Europe outside Russian and Chinese dominated countries.


Both the SCO and the United States have a vested interest in Afghan stability. Regional proximity, historical ties and cross-cultural integration tie Afghanistan to the other Central Asian and Asian states. With Pakistan and Iran serving as observers, the SCO now forms a perimeter around Afghanistan, with Turkmenistan as the only non-SCO-affiliated border country. The protracted war in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s efforts to reclaim control are used to justify American interests therein, creating its need for cooperative regional partners and a strong U.S. presence in Central Asia.

However, the United States and the SCO have competing ideas for Afghanistan and cooperative regional partners are becoming rare. While both entities desire a stable outcome, the SCO sees the U.S. presence as an aggravating factor. Conversely, the United States views a premature withdrawal as tantamount to restoring the very forces it sought to remove.

The SCO is clear regarding U.S. troops in Central Asia, calling for a set withdrawal timetable. In an article published in the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, Victor Socor notes, “Their joint declaration requests the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition forces to set a date for leaving Central Asia. It is the first request of this type since the American-led forces established a presence in Central Asia in the autumn of 2001.”[27] The wording in the SCO statement includes but is not limited to “anti-terrorist coalition forces,” meaning the NATO mission takeover in November 2006 will likely face the same SCO response.

Despite the size of NATO and its recent assumption of control in Afghanistan, the United States is still the largest military presence in the country. Of the 36,000 troops committed by the 26 members and 11 non-alliance partners, the United States accounts for 12,000 NATO-assigned troops and 8,000 troops exclusively under command of U.S. forces.[28] Thus, even with a NATO-led coalition, any anti-coalition statements by the SCO also adversely affect U.S. interests.

Uzbekistan and K2

Uzbekistan provides another revealing case for the SCO’s priorities in Afghanistan. In October 2001, President Islam Karimov granted the United States permission to use the Karshi-Kanabad (K2) Airbase for staging and refueling air strike operations in Afghanistan. Access to K2 also carried implications the United States would drop human rights objections previously directed at the Karimov regime.[29] However, U.S. criticism over killings at Andijan in 2005, a public protest where Uzbek authorities fired on a group of protestors, led to Karimov revoking U.S. access to K2.

The original airfield offer, which took place just four months after Uzbekistan’s new inclusion into the SCO, soured Uzbek-Russian relations. Russia resented the idea of U.S. military establishments so close to its own borders and within a former Soviet state. After revoking U.S. access to the facilities in June 2005, after four years as SCO bedfellows, Karimov and Putin enjoyed renewed amicability. Again, the SCO advanced Moscow’s agenda by removing U.S. forces from Uzbekistan.[30]


After access to K2 was revoked, the United States and coalition troops became absolutely dependent on their sister air base Manas, in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan did not have a specific political gripe with the United States, as Uzbekistan had. However, the Kurmanbek Bakiev government in Bishkek, to capitalize on its new strategic supply advantage over the United States, decided to spike the rent on Manas in July 2006. The original 2001 terms of the lease involved yearly payments by the United States of $2.6 million.[31] Terms were adjusted following the U.S. eviction from K2 and subsequent dependence on Manas. The new terms include annual payments of $150 million[32] and were a clear way for Bakiev to demonstrate to his SCO cohorts that Kyrgyzstan’s recent political revolution did not represent a comprehensive Western tilt.[33]

Nor was the rent explosion for the United States a self-interested economic move by the Kyrgyz government. While the United States lease terms increased by almost 5,800 percent, the Russian lease terms for their Kant air base – located a few miles away from the U.S. base and the Kyrgyz capital – have remained constant. In fact, the Russians do not pay any rent to use Kant and utilities are provided free of charge.[34] If Bishkek was purely interested in economic profit from its airbases it would, at the very least, charge Russia for using the Kant facilities. Kant, Manas and K2 reveal the robust political ties within the SCO and another facet of its resultant military implications. The SCO forms a self-protectorate which can -- and has -- compromised U.S. military and security interests. When such actions are taken at the behest of powers like Russia and China, the SCO’s potential threat becomes even more compelling.


Because of each party’s intractable respective interests, U.S.-SCO political tension will likely continue. Indeed, rejecting U.S. requests for observer status further demonstrated SCO asperity toward the United States. Russia’s pervasive sense of nostalgia for Central Asia and its influence therein, coupled with anxiety over proximate U.S. troop placements makes it an obstinate player. China’s obsession with Taiwan and the “one China” image creates a source for future volatility. Such tensions, with the U.S. pursuit of ballistic missile defense systems, its alliance with Taiwan, and the concurrent war in Afghanistan demand an acute interest in SCO policies and actions. Only if Russia, China, the United States or the remaining SCO states undergo a drastic ideological shift or internal collapse, the status quo will remain. Absent such an unfolding, U.S.-SCO interests will continue to clash.

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For the complete report with footnotes, please download the PDF file here.

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