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Why Shanghai Is Not Warsaw

SCO antiterror exercise in August 2007
SCO antiterror exercise in August 2007
As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) holds its annual summit, there is increasing attention on the military potential of an alliance that groups both Russia and China along with four Central Asian states.

Some have called the SCO the "NATO of the East" or even the new Warsaw Pact. But those comparisons don't hold up -- in fact, the SCO is not much of a military threat at all.

The SCO groups together Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It provides a forum for member and observer states to boost bilateral and multilateral relations in a number of spheres, including military cooperation.

On paper, an SCO military alliance is formidable. Its members' combined air, naval, and ground forces would be daunting to any foe. And Russia and China also have nuclear weapons.

Little Cohesion

But cohesion in the SCO is questionable. The reason the group was originally formed had nothing to do with military matters -- quite the opposite, in fact.

In 1996, the current members, except Uzbekistan, which joined in 2001, signed their first joint agreement aimed at easing tensions along the former Sino-Soviet border by withdrawing large forces and equipment from the border area. The agreement suited all the parties as Russia and the Central Asian states were suffering economically, which meant cutting military funding. And China wanted to move troops freed up from the northern and western borders to eastern coastal areas opposite Taiwan.

Symbolically, this withdrawal of forces showed they no longer wished to attack one another. That agreement worked so well that the group decided to change the focus to cooperation -- at first economic cooperation.

The security aspect of the organization came later. When Russia was involved in the second Chechen conflict, in the late 1990s, China was seeing a surge in problems in its western Xinjiang Province, home to the Turkic Muslim Uyghurs, while Central Asia was fighting annual summer incursions by armed Islamic militants.

The original military agreements between the countries were based on counterterrorism and counterseparatism, helping member states involved in a localized conflict -- presumably with a stateless opponent.

Over the last five years, the member states have also held bilateral military exercises, which have seen Chinese troops on Central Asian soil and multilateral exercises like the "Peace Mission 2007" exercises held on Russian and Chinese territory in advance of last year's SCO summit.

Kazakhstan, however, did not give China permission to move its forces through Kazakh territory to reach the Russian site for the continuation of the drills. Uzbekistan did not send any troops to participate. The SCO vowed to hold such exercises regularly but did not do so in advance of this year's summit.

Trust Issues

Duncan Innes-Ker, an analyst on China at the London-based "The Economist," says that close cooperation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization "is not really building deeper trust between the countries involved."

"There is still, at the root, a fundamental mistrust among the members of the cooperation group and that mistrust about the intentions of Russia -- of China particularly -- amongst the smaller members of the group is really the key flaw in this organization," Innes-Ker says.

Not helping to build trust is the fact that SCO agreements seem not to include informing other members about impending military action. If Russia did consult with other SCO members prior to or during its recent military action in the Caucasus, that information was not well publicized. (However, SCO members are required to inform the other members before they host any foreign troops on their soil.)

But it is mistrust between Russia and China that may one day be the undoing of the SCO.

When the original agreement on trust along the Sino-CIS border was signed, the Russian Army was in a state of decay. Under then-President Vladimir Putin, there was a new emphasis on regaining Russia's past military might. His successor seems determined to continue on that path, and a resurgent Russian military may reconsider troop deployments.

Russia has the biggest energy resources in the world and China, with 1 billion people more than Russia, is on its way to becoming the world's biggest energy consumer.

Another complication for the SCO military alliance is the composition of its combined forces.

NATO and the Warsaw Pact are and were, respectively, essentially European military blocs. Their forces came from different countries but mostly from the same continent -- except the United States and Canada, both of which have a strong European heritage, however.

An SCO military force, by contrast, looks more ethnically and culturally problematic. Russia's troops would be generally European and Christian, Central Asian forces would be mainly Turkic and Persian Muslims, all allied with Chinese communist forces.

However, it is virtually inconceivable that any force would attack an SCO member, knowing that it might then have to face the SCO's combined forces. So cooperation does provide an enormous security guarantee. But it is almost equally inconceivable that the SCO would band its military forces together to attack anyone outside its territory.