Dr. Matthew Crosston & Anonymous (*)
Cooperation between the nations of the SCO on terrorism, separatism, and extremism can be viewed as progressively positive. Russia and China taking the lead across general Central Asian cooperation has been critical in keeping terrorism and extremism from creating safe havens throughout the region.
China and Russia establishing consensus and agreeing to tackle drug trafficking, financing, and online recruitment in the expansive fight against terrorism and extremism is a big step towards containing the problem regionally. In addition, the SCO’s broader cooperation with Afghanistan, Mongolia, Iran, India, Belarus, Sri Lanka, and Turkey, creates a stronger regional commitment framework against terrorism and extremism. The SCO’s RATS (Regional Anti-terrorism Structure) teams work with the aforementioned states to train military and intelligence services to monitor terrorism. This will create a more uniformed approach to stop transnational financing and recruiting. To the member states, the SCO is “a political commitment of Russia and China to the international fight against terrorism where the West has totally abdicated this task.” This includes the fight in Syria and Iraq where RATS’ objectives are to stop DAESH expansion.
Beyond Afghanistan and DAESH expansion, China is anxious to prevent the infiltration of foreign terrorist, extremist, and separatist groups in the restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in its Northwestern territory. The area has long had its own homegrown violent separatists who jeopardize the security of the Chinese state, according to the ruling regime. Xinjiang, which was first incorporated into China in 1949, shares borders with other SCO members – Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. The population of Xinjiang is predominantly Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs that share strong historical, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious ties with the Uighurs residing in these other Central Asian countries. Separatist militants such as the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement and the Turkistan Islamic Party are known to be operating partly from these neighboring countries and have committed terrorist acts in their fight for an independent state or at least autonomous territory. These terrorist activities peaked at the end of the 1990s / beginning of the 2000s, coinciding, as Hansen points out, with the rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Thus, for China, security in this region is extremely important and the partnerships with the Central Asian states through the SCO allow cooperative security initiatives to target extremism and terrorism that directly impact Chinese national interests and agendas without necessarily taking excessive criticism from the international community for unilateral initiatives.
Security is also Russia’s primary focus for the SCO. Any breakdown of security in Central Asia would directly threaten Russian national security perception in general terms because of the approximately five million ethnic Russians who live in the region. Russian is still the common second language of most of the region’s populations and the countries in the SCO have generally maintained a cooperative and non-provocative attitude toward Russia. Most obviously, they have all provided use of military facilities and troops to Russia when necessary. Central Asia is also one of the only areas that Russia does not yet have to compete with so-called “infiltration” by the EU and NATO. For Russia, the SCO plays a supplementary and consolidating role in the region in which its national security interests largely go unchallenged. Pairing with China also reduces what could have been a potentially adversarial dynamic, as China seeks to gain economic growth by tapping into the vast energy resources across Central Asia. As noted by Reeves and many other academics, the SCO RATS also allows Russia to less bombastically counter US and NATO influence in the region. In 2005, the SCO was able to collectively lean on Western powers to set a final timeline for cessation of their temporary use of military bases in Central Asia as a launching pad for operations in Afghanistan. They also called for the withdrawal of troops from SCO members’ territories. Ultimately, Uzbekistan terminated the US military’s rights while Kyrgyzstan only allowed the US military to stay after drastically renegotiating the rent for its base.
For other member states the SCO’s anti-radicalism policy provides additional support and strength to their own local security measures, with the final delineation of their borders with China and Russia stabilizing some disagreements at home. The Central Asian states have always been acutely aware of their precarious position between two major powers, with yet another distant American power commonly initiating contact because of its own security agendas within the region. The SCO, therefore, provides Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan some ability to balance Russia and China off of each other and carve out some maneuverability and space with the United States. Ostensibly, the training and enforcement of counterintelligence operations against terrorism, local insurgency, and drug trafficking has helped keep internal instability at bay. Many of the members have always been concerned that the unrest in Afghanistan could spill over their borders, especially into places such as the Fergana Valley. These areas have often shown increases in extremist Islamic movements, such as the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). The Fergana Valley is artificially split between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and Central Asian militaries and intelligence agencies have routinely performed poorly in combatting such movements as individual states. RATS provides better communication channels and more efficient strategic coordination to combat groups like the HT, in addition to much needed security services training, that was simply not available before the SCO.
Many of the SCO observer states face similar issues at home with drug trafficking, terrorists, extremists, and separatists, and want to be included more formally in the SCO to benefit from these exercises, training, and transnational policing efforts. India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan all have their own fights domestically and on shared borders. All of them have interest in the economic and security advantages of being linked to the SCO. Iran could gain further critical economic and military trade that has long been blocked by economic sanctions by the West. India and Pakistan have good relations with the West but seek to have better political relationships with Central Asian powers and need help combatting border infringement, terrorism, and insurgency in order to find the regional territorial stability their countries need. Ultimately, what can be seen over the past decade is an international organization that was often criticized for its lack of seriousness and gravity is slowly but surely evolving across several measures and within multiple layers of connective interactivity to be an IO of note.
(*) 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.