NB: This piece is the second of three parts, and is excerpted from a paper titled ‘Intelligence Assessment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Vis-à-vis NATO and US Interests’.
I have two major concerns regarding claims that the SCO was created to counter NATO. To start with, the fundamental premise is flawed, as the SCO was created to resolve disarmament and border disputes following the breakup of the USSR in the mid-90s. However, in the contemporary context, given changing Chinese and Russian perceptions of the SCO’s potential role in strengthening pan-Eurasian economic and foreign policy networks, it is still useful to compare the SCO to NATO, or other European-centered organizations such as the European Union (EU).
Firstly, the picture of an SCO that is diametrically opposed to NATO presents an oversimplification of world affairs. It pits a supposedly monolithic, American-led, Western-dominated liberal international order, against an anti-Western alliance. Such a narrative fails to consider the various cracks that have emerged within cross-Atlantic cooperation, such as the potential drawdown of US involvement in Europe, following the election of President Donald Trump. Within the European members of NATO itself, the impending exit of the United Kingdom (UK) from the EU raises further questions about its continued military involvement in, and security cooperation with its mainland European neighbors (despite statements to the contrary, by UK PM Theresa May and her cabinet).
Furthermore, as aforementioned, the changing international diplomatic landscape reflects the growing economic and diplomatic heft of Asian states, particularly China. However, the label of a monolithic anti-Western alliance fails to consider the often-divergent foreign policy and national interests of individual nations, as well as the important role played by smaller, non-aligned countries in influencing the global diplomatic environment. As such, non-Western countries are not necessarily represented in a single homogenous bloc, let alone a formal alliance system.
This leads into my second point, regarding an SCO that is opposed to NATO. As the SCO grows bigger, greater differences will emerge. Currently, the SCO remains dominated by two major players, Russia and China, and is focused on issues within the immediate region. The future entry of Iran, India, and Pakistan (both nuclear-armed states) presents a confusing socio-economic and cultural milieu, together with very concrete political and security challenges.
As with other large multilateral organizations, I outline two possibilities for an expanded SCO: First, if SCO maintains many of its lofty economic and foreign policy goals, these initiatives may eventually prove ineffective, as member states refrain from signing agreements that would entail costly compromises. Conversely, to avoid inflaming existing regional tensions, the SCO may follow a similar approach to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, by focusing only on the lowest-common denominator, commitment to the principles of non-confrontation, agreeability and of “quiet, private and elitist diplomacy versus public washing of dirty linen.” Given such an eventuality, the SCO may lack the legally binding frameworks that are the necessary prerequisite for concrete cooperation across all areas, and merely persist as a token of regional unity.
In sum, it is undeniable that the expansion of the SCO will introduce new obstacles to multilateral cooperation, in tandem with the increase in bilateral or multilateral disputes between member states.
 Gillian Goh, "The ‘ASEAN Way’," Pacific Review 13, no. 3 (2000), 114.
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