Central Asia’s Waking Giant

THE HAGUE – The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) brings together almost half the world’s population, several members own nuclear weapons, many are big energy suppliers, and it includes some of the world’s fastest growing economies. Yet few outside Central Asia have heard much about it.

The SCO emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1996. Today, its members are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, while Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan and India are observers. Russia and China remain the lead actors. Since its launch, the SCO’s military exercises have become increasingly ambitious, growing from largely bi-lateral to inclusion of all members. The SCO is also beginning to work together in the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime.

Until recently, the SCO’s members addressed energy issues only bilaterally. But, in order to coordinate energy strategies and strengthen energy security, last year the organization launched a club that unites energy-producing and energy-consuming states, transit countries, and private companies. The SCO promotes free trade, too, and aims to build essential infrastructure such as roads and railways to link its members and boost commerce between them while also harmonizing customs systems and tariffs.

Yet cooperation within the SCO remains focused on national rather than collective objectives, because its members’ interests vary so much. China, for example, seeks markets for its products and further energy resources, while Russia aims to use the SCO to promote its anti-Western agenda. The group’s other members – led by China and Kazakhstan – want to strengthen their already robust levels of economic cooperation with the West. Thus, for example, at the SCO summit in August, Russia did not get the support of other members regarding the Georgia conflict.