Foreign Policy Blogs

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Astana

Last week the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security body with a total population of 1.5 billion people, held a 10th anniversary summit in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana. The original “Shanghai Five” was formed in 1996 comprised of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In 2001 when Uzbekistan joined the pack, it became the SCO, as it is known today. China is the unofficial leader of the group with its sidekick (and a rival of sorts) Russia following closely. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call the four ‘stans’ junior members (minus the non-member Turkmenistan), only because they are overshadowed by such powerful geopolitical players. Today the organization also includes four “observer” status states — India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan — and two “dialogue partners”— Belarus and Sri Lanka.

Central Asia Focus:
The Central Asian states, although energy rich and vast, are the weaker players in a big boys’ game, with both Russia and China vying for influence either economic or geopolitical.  Beijing wants greater market integration within the organization while the other states are weary of opening their economies to Chinese competition. Russia sees its former imperial possessions as a legitimate sphere of influence and a political leveraging tool with respect to the U.S.

Something to note is the SCO’s joint statement opposing a European missile defense, a major point of tension between Moscow and Washington. It is also the first time that China publicly weighted in on the issue as one of the signatories behind the formal declaration condemning any unilateral and unlimited build-up of missile defense by a single or group of states, citing the dangers such actions could pose to strategic stability and international security.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, representing the observer-status nation Iran, joined the Chinese and Russian leaders in Astana. As the Christian Science Monitor correctly noted, there aren’t many places Ahmadinejad can go these days to find a receptive audience. (See the full article on a more in-depth discussion on Iran).

According to the CSM, in one meeting Ahmadinejad is quoted as saying “All opinion polls show that the U.S. is the worst country in the world. People everywhere regard this country as their own enemy.” He called on the SCO to take a more active role in undermining the U.S.-led global system of “slavers and colonizers” and replacing it with a more just order. In his opening address he said: “Which one of or countries [has played a role] in the black era of slavery, or in the destruction of hundreds of millions of human beings?” Much of Ahmadinejad’s speech was devoted to an exhaustive series of thinly veiled accusations against unnamed western countries, which he described as “enslavers, colonialists [and] invaders”.

Hamid Karzai: (from the Guardian) During the summit he “renewed calls for the U.S. to respect his country’s sovereignty. In recent months the president has become increasingly strident in his criticism of NATO air strikes affecting Afghan civilians, describing the western-led alliance as being at risk of becoming an ‘occupying force’”.

Asif Ali Zardari: Pakistan wants to join the SCO. Quoted in China Daily he said, “I believe the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a great association. Pakistan wants to join it and hopes for support from all organization members. I am convinced that the SCO has great prospects.”

The SCO has come a long way since its inception in 2001, but it is no NATO , not even close. It has, however, picked up steam and increased its clout in the past few years and it should be interesting when India’s bid for membership is considered at the Astana summit next year.



Christya Riedel
Christya Riedel

Christya Riedel graduated cum laude from UCLA with degrees in Political Science (Comparative Politics concentration) and International Development Studies and is currently a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin focusing on Central Asia and Russia. She has traveled, lived and worked in Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Central Asia. She speaks fluent Ukrainian and Russian as well as intermediate-high Turkish.