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Is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization China’s NATO?

By Kuek Jia Yao '19, Staff Writer

· Jia Yao Kuek

This piece is the first of three parts, and is excerpted from a paper titled ‘Intelligence Assessment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Vis-à-vis NATO and US Interests.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) grew out of the mid-1990s ‘Shanghai Five’ group, consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Originally intended to resolve border and disarmament disputes between China and Russia, it has now attracted international attention for its efforts in the areas of trade, counterterrorism, and anti-drug trafficking. Recently, it has become a vehicle for increased Chinese and Russian influence in the region, and the question arises as to whether the SCO poses a direct threat to NATO and the US.

Unlike NATO, the SCO remains primarily focused on regional issues, and often asymmetric threats by non-state actors. This is as much a reflection of individual member-state priorities, as it is an exemplification of contemporary and geographically specific trends. Across Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries, the rise of non-state actors present a security threat, as well as within other countries with significant and politically disenfranchised Muslim minorities. Examples range from the Uyghur Muslims in China, but also include the southern Thailand Muslim separatist movement, or the Séléka Muslim rebels in the Central African Republic. Indeed, the internal security threats faced by SCO member states are a result of the regional multiethnic cultural and religious milieu. It is for these reasons that the SCO is especially focused on internal terrorism, extremism and separatism.

As a reflection of this, all multilateral military exercises conducted so far under the ambit of the SCO have been focused on internal security threats. For example, the Peace Mission 2016 exercises emphasized anti-terror drills between the participating SCO member militaries.

NATO, on the other hand, has a common external geographic focus eastwards and southwards (Russia and the Middle East respectively). It was borne out of the common Cold War threat posed by the USSR and the Warsaw Pact states. Unlike the SCO, NATO also possesses relative geographic continuity, with a European continent that is exposed towards a massive Russian Front across the North European plain. In contrast, Central Asia has historically straddled trade routes between Europe and Asia. It is seen as a crossroads for the movement of people, goods, and ideas. This crossroads position has often led to conflict, and thus SCO’s need to focus on internal stabilization measures rather than external threats.

Additionally, NATO’s degree of cultural homogeneity and political unity (via the institutions such as the European Union) draws a stark contrast with the often-fractious historical legacy of ties between SCO member states. These historical and cultural differences impedes any talk of a homogenous political or security agreement within the SCO.

Ultimately, this leads us to the conclusion that the SCO is not a direct threat to NATO at the moment, particularly not in the military arena. As aforementioned, its main security focus is internal, while the organization’s expansion has taken on a more overtly economic nature.

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