Dr. Matthew Crosston & Anonymous (*)
The United States has long been the dominant economic-security structure in the world. It steps in to negotiate international trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership. Its military is relied upon to train NATO troops and forces from Iraq to Colombia on how to manage uprisings, terrorism, and invasions.
Its Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) trains other countries’ law enforcement units about counter-narcotics trafficking and other anti-crime measures. Its Secretary of State and President are often called upon to negotiate peace treaties and conflict settlements. However, with new nations rising to become powerful economic and military blocs in their own right, the United States may have new allies it can rely on to manage regional matters or, conversely, have new contenders to push into the power market and threaten America’s standing as the only global super power. The direct threat to US influence in economic trade or military matters will not likely come from Russia or China independently. The concern, rather, is an ever-strengthening alliance where Russia and China come together to oppose Western influence with other like-minded nations. One such alliance to emerge in the next decade is likely the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which combines China’s economic power with Russia’s military assertiveness.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was created as a Eurasian political, economic, and military organization in 2001 between China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It was originally focused just on the Central Asian region but it has rapidly expanded its purview. In 2016, the SCO decided to admit India and Pakistan as full members and they are expected to join within the next year. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia are considered observer states while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkey participate as dialogue partners. The SCO established formal relations with the United Nations where it is an observer in the General Assembly, alongside the European Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), The Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
The SCO largely focuses on economic trade opportunity and security in the Central Asian region. Initially, the organization was mostly oriented towards China’s interest in better economic trade. It has since broadened that focus to also build economic opportunities beyond the region and into the Persian Gulf. Iranian writer, Hamid Golpira stated, “according to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s theory, control of the Eurasian landmass is the key to global domination and control of Central Asia is the key to control of the Eurasian landmass…thus, Russian and China have been paying attention to Brzezinski’s theory since they formed the SCO in 2001, ostensibly to curb extremism in the region and enhance border security, but most probably with the real long-term objective of counterbalancing the activities of the United States and NATO in Central Asia.”
In 2004, the SCO established the Regional Antiterrorism Structure (RATS). RATS is funded by the SCO and has a permanent staff of 30 with an initial budget was $2.6 million. Since then its budget has increased considerably. RATS is primarily a hub of information exchange between the security services of SCO members and conducts extensive analytical work. The 30 RATS staff includes seven from Russia and China, six from Kazakhstan, five from Uzbekistan, three from Kyrgyzstan, and two from Tajikistan. RATS was established to fight the “three evils”- terrorism, separatism, and extremism. One way this is supposedly done is by disrupting cross-border drug crimes, taking away economic opportunity and illicit finances.
The SCO has also conducted joint military exercises that the organization claims are transparent and open to the media and public. As SCO’s counterterrorist arm, RATS advises members on operational training, drafts international legal documents to combat terrorism, and is compiling a database of suspected or known terrorists and extremists for SCO-member use. The RATS committee participated in drafting the action plan on the implementation of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in Central Asia and sought to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation with ASEAN. In addition, RATS reportedly assisted with security for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Expo, and the 2011 Asian winter games.
RATS also supports security efforts and military training exercises for SCO members. China and Russia send the majority of troops participating in such games. However, all of the members are welcome to participate in these training exercises with topics ranging from peacekeeping activities to anti-terror exercises. All are joint efforts and depict scenarios such as disrupting and defeating hostage-takers, storming buildings and villages, and forcing down hijacked airliners. The main benefit to the members is that their military and security services practice tactics and weapons-handling while also gaining useful experience working with other countries on coordinated planning, command and control, logistics, and maneuvers. In 2008, for example, an exercise depicted neutralizing terrorists who had seized an oil tanker and its crew while another focused on repelling a simulated attack on a nuclear reactor.
Another extraordinary agreement between RATS member states is the ability to extradite criminals across borders. In other words, RATS members can carry out abductions across national boundaries and outside of standard judicial procedures. This has been compared to the CIA’s practice of extraordinary rendition and allows members to detain suspects across the six participating states. Furthermore, the members’ agents are not subject to criminal liability for any actions committed in the course of their duties and are immune from arrest and detention within the six states.
Finally, the SCO RATS has held several conferences that allow for coordination between the UN, ASEAN, NATO, EU, G8, and Organization of the Islamic Conference on critical issues like the lack of security and drug-trafficking in Afghanistan. The conference in 2009 developed a framework for the SCO-Afghanistan Action plan, which called for joint operations to combat terrorism, drug-trafficking, and organized crime. It involved relevant Afghan bodies to take part in joint law-enforcement exercises led by the SCO, as well as provided measures to improve drug agency training and border patrols. A successful raid in 2010 by Russian, US, and Afghan forces against drug labs in Afghanistan was actually an example of international cooperation launched in the region by the SCO. In 2010, RATS signed a Protocol of Cooperation with the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Center (CARICC) to combat drug-trafficking, trans-border drug crime, and subsequent terrorist-related financing. The CARICC was originally established in 2006 between Central Asian nations, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, and Russia. In 2015, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi officially reaffirmed the SCO’s commitment to becoming a regional security leader by calling for the organization to take a larger role in regional security and stability during a meeting of foreign ministers held in Moscow.
Once a group globally dismissed as an international organization in name only, the SCO has slowly evolved and deepened its power relevance within the constituent member states. As it continues to grow its ranks and develop deeper ties of influence within each member, the SCO has the chance to become an IO that actually wields an impressive portfolio of legitimate security, economic, and trade responsibilities. While there are still obstacles and tensions between the member states that hinder this future potentiality, it is nonetheless important that the SCO can no longer be considered a joke on the global stage.
(*) Anonymous is currently a graduate student in International Security and Intelligence Studies at Bellevue University and works within the US governmental system. The opinions expressed are strictly personal and do not reflect a formal endorsement of or by the United States’ government and/or Intelligence Community.