Since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, media reporting has shown an unfortunate tendency to observe international politics from a “friend or foe” perspective. For the sake of simplicity, anything that defies this scheme is placed on one side or the other: Those who are not with us are against us – and vice versa. Interpreting the summit meeting of the SCO in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, as an attempt to establish a new anti-Western axis of evil also falls short. For the organisation’s members, the SCO’s most important function has always been to balance interests among its major members. This is more true than ever against the background of ongoing geopolitical confrontations.
The SCO was founded in June 2001 as the successor organisation to the “Shanghai Five”, an alliance that had existed since 1996 and consisted of Russia, the People’s Republic of China, and their three Central Asian neighbours Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. With its transition to the SCO, Uzbekistan also joined. Subsequently, the organisation, which also included India and Pakistan in 2017, established itself as a supraregional security policy format, which observers have always seen as a kind of Sino-Russian counterpart to NATO.
Such ambitions may well have existed on the Russian side, but the interests and preferences of the members always stood in the way. From the very beginning, China played the leading role in the organisation. The People’s Republic was primarily concerned with clarifying a number of unresolved border issues with its three Central Asian neighbours under the umbrella of multilateralism, containing the danger of the “three evils: separatism, extremism, and terrorism”, as well as preventing Islamist movements from spreading into its own territory from Central Asia. The majority of the agreements between the SCO members have been de facto bilateral in nature.
Russia’s efforts to create an overarching security alliance and merge the SCO with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – which includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – have not progressed far. This is partly because such a merger was not desired by the majority of member states. On the other hand, Russia and China have always held different views on the function and significance of the SCO, which they regarded primarily as a vehicle for achieving their own political and economic goals. Consequently, the SCO’s main function was primarily to balance Russia’s and China’s policies in Central Asia.
The Samarkand summit did little to change these realities. The objectives and preferences of the participating states are still too divergent. For Chinese President Xi Jinping, participation in the summit offered an opportunity to renew China’s claim of being a major player in Eurasia within the framework of the Silk Road Initiative (One Belt One Road). President Vladimir Putin, for his part, used the meeting to demonstrate that he is all but isolated, notwithstanding his war in Ukraine, which has been unanimously condemned in the West. The presence of other heads of state who have tense relations with the West led to a situation in which summit participants advocated critical views of Western policies and highlighted the importance of the SCO as an alternative model for governance in international relations.
But this approach by no means implies that the Samarkand summit is going to transform the SCO into an anti-Western alliance. Conjecture of this kind fails to take into account the interests of the majority of the organisation’s members. For the Central Asian states, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in particular, a bloc formation directed against the West would be anything but desirable. For these states, whose political weight within the SCO has grown considerably since its founding, the value of the SCO lies precisely in its non-aligned status, as emphasised by host Uzbekistan in the run-up to the summit. Due to their historical experiences with the hegemonic aspirations of Russia and China, Central Asian members hold foreign policy independence as a value of the highest order. With Russia in particular, they are bound by a complex web of relationships and dependencies. They would rather loosen these ties than strengthen them, and the means of choice is a diversified foreign policy. Relations with Western states are particularly important in this regard.
Against this background, the expansion of the SCO to include countries such as Iran and, prospectively, Turkey as well as Arab states is an extremely attractive option for the Central Asians. However, they do not associate this with the prospect of a powerful alliance against the West, from which they would gain no advantage. Rather, the benefit of an expanded SCO for them lies in increasing the diversity within the organisation, thereby curbing claims to power by individual members and at the same time expanding their own room for manoeuvre.
Strategies and Perspectives