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Afghanistan In Focus At Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit

A photo of the leaders from member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at the 2019 summit in Bishkek.
A photo of the leaders from member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at the 2019 summit in Bishkek.

After a dramatic August that saw the Taliban take power in Afghanistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is set to meet on September 16 in Tajikistan for a summit that will grapple with the region’s increasingly uncertain security situation.

The Eurasian security bloc -- which consists of China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russian, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- will have its attention centered on the regional fallout from the U.S.-led international military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power when it convenes in Dushanbe.

How exactly officials from those disparate countries will reach a common consensus, however, is unknown, with several of the SCO members holding differing views on how to deal with a Taliban-governed Afghanistan.

Since it was founded 20 years ago, the bloc has billed itself as a multilateral organization and centered its activities around what it calls the “three evils” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism -- areas where its largely authoritarian members have tended to see eye-to-eye.

Troops carry out SCO-organized counterterrorism drills in Kyrgyzstan in 2016.
Troops carry out SCO-organized counterterrorism drills in Kyrgyzstan in 2016.

But the SCO has also been a microcosm for the shifting geopolitics of Eurasia and helmed by Beijing and Moscow, who have used the organization to find new ways to both cooperate in the region and slow the other’s regional ambitions.

With the situation in Afghanistan dominating the concerns of the SCO’s members, how it responds will be a major litmus test for China’s influence in Eurasia and the bloc’s future relevance.

The Summit's Focus

Attention will be fully on Afghanistan.

Beijing has established working ties with the Taliban, recognizing its hold on power and agreeing to provide aid and vaccines to Afghanistan.

Meanwhile the militant group has offered goodwill to China with support for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and vowing that it won’t let radical Uyghur groups -- which China views as an internal threat -- operate in the country.

The withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops from the region has also opened the door to expanded Chinese influence, but Beijing is cautious about becoming overextended by being sucked into the security vacuum in neighboring Afghanistan.

China is instead looking for a common solution from Central and South Asia and hoping that the SCO can be a forum where China can flex its diplomatic muscles to make that happen.

That won’t be easy, though.

In addition to China, Russia has also shown a willingness to engage with the Taliban, but several key differences among SCO members that share a border with Afghanistan will need to be reconciled.

Tajikistan remains hostile to the Taliban and is concerned about what the group could mean for its own internal security, while Uzbekistan has walked a tightrope with the militants, reaching out to the group while trying to keep its distance from the chaos across the border.

Pakistan has a complicated dynamic with the Taliban, but Islamabad remains its chief patron. India, meanwhile, views the militants as a Pakistani proxy and has longstanding strategic worries over the risks that an entrenched Taliban government could bring for Delhi.

Trying to find common ground among those conflicting views is a major challenge and how much compromise Beijing is able to push for at the SCO summit will be a sign of how willing its members are to follow China’s lead.

Beyond the attention being put on Afghanistan, full membership in the group for Iran is said to be on the table at the upcoming summit, with recently elected Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi slated to attend the meeting in Dushanbe.

The bloc will also hold joint-military exercises later this month in Russia, as part of the SCO’s ongoing counterterrorism drills and efforts to create more interoperability between its countries’ militaries.

What Could The Summit Achieve?

What might be accomplished at the SCO meeting in the Tajik capital is a central question for the organization.

The SCO was founded in 2001 as an upgrade to the smaller Shanghai Five. It has since tried to serve as a platform to settle border disputes following the collapse of the Soviet Union and later adopted a broader agenda centered on security, economic development, and humanitarian aid.

A Taliban fighter with an M16 assault rifle stands outside the Interior Ministry in Kabul on August 16.
A Taliban fighter with an M16 assault rifle stands outside the Interior Ministry in Kabul on August 16.

But the group has also faced criticism for being an empty talk shop with few concrete achievements to its name. Problems emanating from Afghanistan have long been a focus of the SCO, but beyond some lower-level meetings and bringing on the country as an observer to the organization, few practical steps have been taken.

The SCO’s limits have been partly intentional. While the bloc is mainly a Chinese initiative, Russia has long seen Central Asia as part of its “sphere of influence” and Beijing has moved to respect Moscow’s sensitivities about its growing sway in the region, seeing the SCO as an experiment in how two major powers can cooperate across a region.

But despite their growing partnership in recent years, Moscow is still anxious about China's ambitions and is concerned about being relegated as the junior partner as the two countries deepen their ties. This has led to a two-track approach in which Moscow has moved to selectively support and impede China in Central Asia and in the SCO.

The expansion of the SCO to include India and Pakistan in 2017 was seen by many observers as a move by Russia to water down the bloc and limit China’s influence by bringing in the two rivals and their dysfunctional history.

When it comes to regional security, Beijing and Moscow tend to see eye-to-eye, but Russia is cautious about relinquishing its long-standing influence in the region. As the situation in Afghanistan has intensified, Russia has stepped up its military cooperation and held several exercises with Central Asian states through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-led military bloc that does not include China.

What Does The SCO Show About China’s Regional Ambitions?

Beijing’s power in Eurasia has grown dramatically in the past decade and continues to rise, but the big question is whether the SCO has outgrown its usefulness.

As the organization has found itself bogged down in the conflicting agendas of its members, China instead moved to expand its influence bilaterally and through massive projects like the BRI, which play to Beijing’s biggest strength: its economic might.

Chinese policymakers still value taking a multilateral approach to big issues and have no ambition of taking up the U.S. mantle as the main country taking the lead on Afghanistan -- so Beijing will be looking to at least provide the optics of a collective response.

Hints of Beijing’s strategy for the summit in Dushanbe were seen during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s July tour of Central Asia that included a visit to Turkmenistan, a foreign minister-level SCO summit in Tajikistan, and a regional conference in Uzbekistan.

Wang met with high-ranking officials at each stop and Afghanistan was a central topic during meetings. But while local representatives were quick to offer their support to Chinese leadership on border security and working together on Afghanistan, no clear or specific moves were announced.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.