The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation expands into Europe — and gives us a taste of what ‘Cold War II’ looks like12 min read

 In Analysis, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Politics, Russia

Just a talk-shop and paper tiger? After having admitted Iran in 2023, the leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) met in Astana last week to welcome Belarus into their ranks. Azerbaijan and Turkey aim for a permanent seat at the table, too. Although it lacks substantial projects to show off, the SCO sets out to become a ‘Cold War II’ platform that makes the world safe for authoritarianism.

The expansion of the SCO links to two of today’s key geopolitical questions. The first, which primarily preoccupies Central Asia experts, asks: Is Russia’s influence in the region waning? The second question has crept into wider public debate, and relates to the bigger picture: Are we already living in a Cold War II?

The first question has frequently been confirmed with an enthusiastic ‘yes.’ But these takes seem to be rooted in different sorts of wishful thinking.

For example, the European Parliament in January cheered that “Russia’s weakened influence is an opportunity to expand ties with Central Asia” — while worrying that “the growing influence of China in the region calls for a complete rethink of the EU’s Central Asia strategy and a more active presence of the democratic EU in the region as an alternative to established autocratic actors.”

These “Russia is out” chants are premature. European and American policymakers have come to realise this, given the booming trade and business ties between Russia and Central Asia — which has become a backdoor for Russia (and Western companies) to circumvent Western sanctions.

Growing interest in Central Asia makes Russia a key player in an upgraded region

Proponents of the thesis of Russia’s waning influence are nevertheless right to point out China’s growing economic footprint in the region. And other global players like the EU, Turkey, or South Korea have expanded their engagement, too. The more players, the less important Russia becomes, one may think. But this conclusion is myopic.

Kicked out of the club of Western states, Russia has no choice but to turn East, catapulting Central Asia back to the top of Moscow’s foreign policy priority list, right next to China. Good for the Central Asians, as it increases their bargaining position vis-à-vis their former coloniser while they enhance bilateral trade and investment cooperation. The more, the merrier — growing interest in the Central Asian countries elevates their significance. Far from diminishing Russia’s influence, however, this makes Moscow a key player in an upgraded region. 

And here, question number two — are we living in a new Cold War? — comes in.

Cold War mentalities, Cold War realities

The idea of a new Cold War has been around for some time. George Kennan, the architect of the US containment strategy against the Soviet Union, criticised NATO expansion as a source for a “new Cold War” in 1998. Twenty years later, BBC’s Edward Lucas eventually popularised the term with his book titled The New Cold War.

In recent years, scholars and public intellectuals such as the late Henry Kissinger, historian Niall Ferguson, and international relations theorist Barry Buzan have begun to discuss the reality of a Cold War II. This time, however, the focus is less on Russia and more on China. Both Buzan and Ferguson highlight that Cold War I and II, like World War I and II, may not be identical but share certain similarities.

“The two basic requirements that define cold war are the existence of disputes seen as worth fighting about plus a defence dilemma that raises hot war to, or above, the level of defeat as the military catastrophe to be avoided if at all possible,” writes Buzan. He thus defines it as a “durable and deep political confrontation about power and international order that […] neither side wants to resolve by a hot war between the principal powers.”

Certainly, a cold war order is more complex than notions of bipolarity suggest. The historical Cold War was a three-body problem where great power rivalry involved third parties: Nixon’s strategic rapprochement with China, the Non-aligned Movement, and competition over the so-called ‘Third World’ or ‘Global South.’

This complexity is perhaps even more nuanced today — and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a good illustration.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: Just a meaningless talk shop?

The SCO was originally founded by Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan as the Shanghai Five in 1996 to delineate the borders between China and the former Soviet states.

Analysts and Western policy-makers tend to dismiss the diplomatic platform as a mere talk shop without any substantial achievements, apart from some security cooperation through the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (with the unfortunate acronym RATS). However, its long-standing existence and continuous expansion from five to ten members throughout almost thirty years may be considered a success in itself, especially for its principal sponsor, China.

The summit on 4 July in Astana marks another milestone: with the accession of Belarus, its tenth member, the organisation has finally expanded into Europe. This does not only help Alexander Lukashenko’s regime to reassert international recognition and legitimacy; it also shows that the authoritarian states under the leadership of China and Russia institutionalise alternative international fora that defend Eurasian autocracies against Western talking points and democracy promotion.

After all, it is an alliance of states in which so-called rogue governments (Iran, Belarus, and Russia) mingle with states wooed by Western leaders. India, which has been considered a democratic ally by the West, joined the SCO in 2017.

SCO enlargement invites conflict — and gradual integration through soft ties

There are good reasons to dismiss SCO enlargement. Temur Umarov, an Uzbek policy analyst for Carnegie, calls it adegradation” that reduces the SCO to an “event manager” — “a mere shell of an institution capable of only hosting meetings and generating self-indulgent headlines.”

Indeed, the SCO does not miss opportunities to set up a plethora of committees, councils, and consortia that do little more than hold seminars and serve as “a home for pen-pushing bureaucrats.” According to Umarov, even RATS did not deliver much more than joint military exercises and press releases when actual attacks occurred, such as in Moscow and Dagestan this year. In the economic realm, Moscow has been fearfully blocking Chinese initiatives.

Of course, the growing diversity of its members bears liabilities. By bringing India and Pakistan into the grouping, for example, it admitted two hostile states at once — and China too has its border conflicts with India, which were rumoured to be a reason why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dodged this year’s summit.

But it also offers opportunities to Russia and China: delineating and demilitarising the 8,000 km-long former Sino-Soviet border and confidence building have been their organisation’s initial raison d’être. SCO membership will certainly not resolve these border conflicts, but it offers a forum for the parties to convene and demonstrate goodwill for cooperation. In fact, Pakistan, India, and China continue to participate in joint SCO military drills, including in India in 2022, which testifies to the SCO’s resilience.

Balancing Russia and China, building relationships

As Russia has put brakes on China’s economic initiatives within the SCO, it serves its other members — notably those from Central Asia — to have both neighbouring behemoths convened in a joint organisation. It allows them to shape policy dialogue and regional engagement, offering leeway to balance Russia’s military might with China while hedging against Beijing’s growing economic thrust. Such an arrangement also provides Moscow and Beijing a framework to monitor and control competing interests.

With all members holding veto powers, expansion makes decision-making undoubtedly less effective (just take a look at the European Union, in which foreign policy is held hostage to the principle of unanimity), but also creates a sense of unity and empowerment for its smaller members, as Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Peterson note in their 2022 book Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.

After all, a talk shop is not useless for autocrats and their neighbours. However insignificant and intangible the outcomes of the joint military exercises and economic-political platforms may be, however incoherent its membership and initiatives may appear — they gradually develop relationships and soft security ties.

Afghanistan is a case in point. While almost all regional governments — along with Russia, China, and Pakistan — cooperate with the Taliban, it seems not unlikely that Afghanistan may become a candidate to join the ‘SCO family’ in the future. Several countries support the revival of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group. However, the issue has caused friction, in particular, between Russia and Tajikistan.

Russia, China, and others mainstream their initiatives through the SCO and cooperation with the UN

The SCO provides a forum for its members to promote their initiatives and institutions, such as Russia’s Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This year’s SCO chair, Kazakhstan, spoke in favour of deeper integration with EAEU, BRICS, and ASEAN.

The SCO also offers them international recognition, as it is an active partner of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Last year, the EU’s Special Representative for Central Asia met twice with the Director of the RATS Executive Committee.

Every two years, the UN General Assembly has adopted resolutions on cooperation between the UN and SCO (the United States and Israel voted against it in 2023). UN General Secretary António Guterres, too, honoured the organisation with his presence at the Summit, commending it as a valuable partner for the UN. “The Shanghai Cooperation Council — the largest regional organisation in the world — has the power and the responsibility to push for peace,” he said.

With a rotating chairmanship, SCO member states have the chance to fill the organisation with their foreign policy initiatives and garner diplomatic support, thereby strengthening their identification with the SCO. A good example is Kazakhstan, a country seeking international recognition as a “middle power” and whose SCO chairmanship ended last week.

At the UN General Assembly in September, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev invited the international community to join the SCO “Initiative of World Unity for a Just Peace and Harmony,” praising it as an initiative for a “new security paradigm,” “fair economic environment” and “clean planet.”

Driving out NATO while cooperating on trade corridors

In his dismissive analysis of the SCO, Temur Umarov nonetheless admits one of its biggest achievements: it has driven NATO presence out of Central Asia. This is no minor feat — and will remain a strategic priority of its core members, first and foremost Russia, China, and Iran. “SCO members should consolidate unity and jointly oppose external interference in the face of the real challenges of interference and division,” Chinese President Xi Jinping warned his fellow SCO colleagues, lashing out at the West’s “Cold War mentality.”

Above all, the SCO is consolidating itself as an alternative forum to Western-led institutions to create a safe space for autocracies. 

The larger this space becomes, the more difficult it will be for Western countries to monitor and control the evasion of sanctions placed on countries such as Russia and Iran. Although states like Kazakhstan vow to comply with Western sanctions, they make no secret of their general disapproval of “sanction confrontations.” Russia, meanwhile, rejoices in growing trade flows with India and Iran along the North-South Corridor.

Few costs or strings attached

SCO membership is not set in stone: it will depend on Cold War II dynamics. India may be the most likely to break off, depending on its relationship with the Western camp and its two-sided conflict with Pakistan and China.

Yet, so far, SCO membership comes with few costs and strings attached, making it less likely that a member will deem it necessary to leave once joined. It’s neither a security provider, nor a customs union. Rather, it is more akin to a little Eurasian ‘United Nations of non-Western states.’

Much more than the final summit declarations, it is the business done on the sidelines of the SCO’s summits that matters — the formal and informal conversations that deepen bonds. Before becoming a member, Belarus participated in the 2022 summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where Lukashenko and Xi established an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” between their countries. Xi also met with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev who had been an invited special guest like Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

This year in Kazakhstan, Xi met again with special guest Aliyev to announce that they upgraded their countries’ relations to the level of a strategic partnership. Baku also clarified its ambition to attain official observer status in the SCO soon. 

SCO and BRICS as primary Cold War II institutions

In addition to the UAE, Azerbaijan, and Mongolia, Turkey’s Erdoğan took part in the “SCO plus” session. And he made it unmistakably clear that he seeks full membership for his country — which may cause further irritations with other NATO members, as he made such claims already in 2022.

Xi also used the summit’s occasion to meet with the Kazakh and Tajik leaders. Most prominently, Xi announced his support for Kazakhstan to join BRICS, Moscow and Beijing’s other pet project to challenge the West’s G7.

Xi and Tokayev also celebrated the first official crossing of Chinese freight from Kuryk and Aktau across the Caspian Sea — which Chinese state media jazzed up by presenting it as the “opening ceremony” of the so-called Middle Corridor — and discussed the commercial use of each other’s space launch sites and scientific cooperation on microsatellites.

Meanwhile, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi met with his Indian counterpart, with whom he vowed to double down on their efforts to resolve border disputes.

Putin, too, met with his counterparts from Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Turkey, China, and Kazakhstan. At the summit, of course, he did not miss the opportunity to declare that “the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and BRICS are the main pillars of this new world order.” 

As Cold War II unfolds, only time will tell if these pillars are strong enough to carry such dreams of a “new world.”

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons / Canva
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