The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) brings together almost half the world's population, several members own nuclear weapons, many are big energy suppliers, and it includes some of the world's fastest-growing economies. Yet few outside Central Asia have heard much about it.
The SCO emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1996. Today, its members are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, while Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan and India are observers. Russia and China remain the lead actors. Since its launch, the SCO's military exercises have become increasingly ambitious, growing from largely bilateral to inclusion of all members. The SCO is also beginning to work together in the fight against drug trafficking and organised crime.
Until recently, the SCO's members addressed energy issues only bilaterally. But, in order to coordinate energy strategies and strengthen energy security, last year the organisation launched a club that unites energy-producing and energy-consuming states, transit countries, and private companies. The SCO promotes free trade, too, and aims to build essential infrastructure such as roads and railways to link its members and boost commerce between them while also harmonising customs systems and tariffs.
Yet cooperation within the SCO remains focused on national rather than collective objectives, because its members' interests vary so much. China, for example, seeks markets for its products and further energy resources, while Russia aims to use the SCO to promote its anti-Western agenda. The group's other members – led by China and Kazakhstan – want to strengthen their already robust levels of economic cooperation with the west. Thus, for example, at the SCO summit in August, Russia did not get the support of other members regarding the Georgia conflict.
These diverging objectives make it hard to believe that the SCO will ever evolve into an eastern version of Nato. True, its members have held joint military exercises and have expressed a desire to build the SCO into a more mature security organization. But the SCO still lacks many essential elements of a full-grown Nato-style security organization.
The SCO has no integrated military-political structure, and no permanent operational headquarters. It has no rapid-reaction force and does not engage in regular political deliberations. Nato's focus is on external security risks, while the SCO's members target security issues within their own territories.
It makes sense for the west, particularly the European Union, to seek cooperation with the SCO, as this would also help counter Russia's attempts to use it as a tool for its anti-western policies. It would also prevent the SCO from turning into a militarised entity.
These may look like negative reasons for the EU to engage with the SCO, but there are also ample positive reasons for encouraging cooperation. Europe needs energy supplies from Central Asia, and Central Asia needs European investment.
Another sphere of mutual interest is Afghanistan. At present, the EU offers financial support to the Afghan government and helps to train its police and judiciary. The SCO has established a contact group with Afghanistan. Both sides want to do more, and they might be able to make a greater impact by working together rather than separately. The EU has money and the SCO organisation, most of whose members border Afghanistan, has trained personnel and direct experience in the region.
Cooperation with Nato also looks strategically wise. Given China's importance in both military and economic matters, growing energy and trade relations between Central Asia and the west, and the reasonable assumption that Central Asia's security will continue to have great significance for western security, cooperation between the SCO, the EU, and Nato looks inevitable. This is all the more true in view of the common security threats faced by Nato and the SCO in Central Asia, such as al-Qaida and Taliban-sponsored terrorism and drug trafficking.
But both Nato and the SCO have so far hesitated to engage in closer contact. It is hard to discern whether Nato has any opinion at all about the SCO. At best, Nato seems to regard it as being neither a problem nor an opportunity.
Reaching out to the SCO would certainly seem to support Nato's stated objectives. After 9/11, the alliance came to the conclusion that threats may need to be dealt with on a worldwide basis, which explains Nato's presence in Afghanistan. As a part of this global strategy, Nato strengthened its relations with partners elsewhere, including in Southeast Asia which is the SCO's chief area of responsibility.
Perhaps inevitably, the SCO – and Russia and China as its leading members – regards Nato's increased presence in the region with some distrust. As long as Nato remains reluctant to enter into a dialogue with the SCO, such a cautious attitude looks set to linger, and may even intensify. Consideration also needs to be given, therefore, to the establishment of a Nato-China Council, along the lines of the Nato-Russia Council, and to the creation of arrangements that would facilitate greater cooperation with the SCO as a whole.
Such cooperation would not bridge the main differences between SCO members and the west over issues like democratisation and human rights. Cooperation would also need to comprise much more than mere joint policy development, and should involve the practical pursuit of mutually beneficial, smaller-scale ad hoc projects. Nato and the SCO could work together on neutralising anti-personnel mines in Afghanistan, as well as other possible types of confidence-building measures, such as joint police training and counter-narcotics operations.
If security cooperation is to be a success, politically sensitive issues should be avoided, with the emphasis squarely on practical measures. This approach would serve the interests of the EU, Nato, the SCO's members, and, not least, Afghanistan.