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The Evolution of the U.S. Attitude towards the SCO
| 03-14-2013 | visitors:3117

Yang  Hongxi, Research Fellow of CCCWS


During the early years after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was established in June 2001, the U.S. government and academia regarded it as a loose organization with internal differences and diverging interests. Thus they were not optimistic about its development and did not pay much attention to it. But because of the SCO member states’ continuous efforts, especially their trying to deal with the “democratic tide” in Central Asia, the SCO’s cohesiveness increased constantly. The United States began to worry that the SCO’s development would undermine U.S. interests in Central Asia. People in the United States, especially scholars and policy-markers, called for their government not to ignore the organization’s growing influence.[1]


The Evolution of the U.S. Perception of the SCO’s Development


Prior to 2005, the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) mentioned little about the SCO in their annual reports on the Central Asian situation. Academics seldom systematically talked about the SCO.[2] However, the Shanghai Five state mechanism only experienced a short period of six years during its course of turning into a new regional cooperation organization and exerting important influence over Central Asian affairs. The United States’ domestic scholars called for the U.S. administrations to attach importance to relations with the SCO. The U.S. attitude toward the SCO saw a transformation from indifference, to doubt, to attention. Due to a series of events in 2005, the United States significantly increased its attention to and vigilance over the SCO. After the SCO’s Astana Summit in 2005, the United States adjusted its policy towards the organization accordingly. The U.S. domestic mainstream view was that the United States should establish a positive dialogue with the SCO so as to prevent it from becoming Russia’s and China’s tool for dominating Central Asia.[3] On 1 July 2005, the joint statement about the 21st century’s international order, which was published by Russia and China, was regarded as aiming at American policy towards Central Asia. The U.S. application to become an observer of the SCO was rejected, but countries such as Iran were accepted. On 5 July, the SCO summit issued a joint statement, calling for a U.S. timetable for withdrawing its troops from Central Asia. On 29 July 2005, the government of Uzbekistan asked the United States to withdraw its troops from the country in six months. Since 2005, especially on 25 July 2006, the Subcommittee of the Middle East and Central Asia under the International Relations Committee of the U.S. Congress, and in August of 2006, the United States–China Economic and Security Review Commission of the U.S. Congress, held hearings separately. Some viewpoints expressed at the hearings reflected the U.S. strategic analysis of the SCO after the U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Uzbekistan since 2005.[4]


In 2005, Central Asia saw a fury of “colour revolutions”. The so-called Tulip Revolution broke out in February in Kyrgyzstan. In May, the Andijon Event hit Uzbekistan. In response to the series of changes in the regional security situation, the SCO published relevant new policies, including admitting India, Pakistan, and Iran as observers of the organization. The Heads of States’ Declaration that was issued at the Astana summit called for a withdrawal of the American troops. The United States reacted strongly. The spokesman at the U.S. State Department rejected the request of the SCO. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Myers, said that the two powers of Russia and China had forced Central Asian countries to make the decision. The U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, then visited Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The United States thought that the SCO’s call for the United States to withdraw from the military bases in Central Asia would directly affect U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and its strategic interests in Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia. The United States questioned the SCO’s future direction as the SCO rapidly expanded its membership and admitted Iran as an observer. The U.S. media was sarcastic about the U.S. government. A commentator noted that “officials in Washington said that the SCO was not worth taking seriously when the organization was founded 4 years ago. Now they are proved wrong.”[5]


July 2005 was a turning point for the U.S. strategists. Prior to that, the United States had both paid inadequate attention to the SCO and harboured little antagonism to it. After that, the SCO’s importance grew greatly and U.S. vigilance was elevated. Although U.S. strategists still thought that the SCO was not strong enough and suffered from a variety of internal policy differences, they generally believed that the SCO’s current policy posed a threat to U.S. interests in Central Asia. The United States should deal with the threat carefully and pursue a policy towards the SCO.[6] U.S. scholars judged that the absence of understanding of the SCO might compromise the U.S. status as the only superpower in the world. The SCO members seemed increasingly united and tried to squeeze the United States out of Central Asia.


The Andijon incident in May 2005 had a far-reaching impact on Uzbek domestic and foreign policies as well as on outside powers’ competition in Central Asia. The United States supported the launch of an international investigation into the Andijon incident. At the same time, Uzbekistan sought support from its traditional allies Russia and China. Thus there could be no independent international investigation. In July 2005, after the SCO summit in Kazakhstan, Uzbek President Islom Karimov was more emboldened. The joint statement of the summit urged the United States to set a deadline to end its military presence in Central Asia. Soon, Karimov demanded that the United States withdraw its troops from Uzbekistan within six months. The demands made by the Uzbeks undoubtedly expressed the desire of Russia and China, for the U.S. presence in Central Asia had made them feel nervous.[7]


U.S. scholars of Central Asian studies thought that Russia and China had played a key role in the SCO to push for Central Asian countries to close U.S. bases in the region and prevent the United States from fostering a U.S.-led security mechanism. At the same time, the organization’s second clear goal was to provide an effective forum to coordinate viewpoints for the SCO members, to prevent the Americans from interfering in any member’s internal affairs. Russia and China could provide of security and ideology for the regional regimes. Russia sought more bases in Central Asia and wanted to update and set uniform standards for regional weapon systems.[8]


The U.S. Government Adjusts its Policy towards the SCO


When the U.S. government realized that the SCO was more than a “talk shop”, it began to adjust relevant policy in response to the SCO’s challenge to the U.S. Central Asian strategy. The mainstream view of American scholars was that if the United States still wanted to maintain a presence in Central Asia, it could not simply ignore the SCO. They believed that the United States should become an SCO observer. This view was basically in keeping with the U.S. official position. The United States should actively develop bilateral relations with the SCO’s Central Asian members, balance democracy promotion, security, and economic interests, and prevent Iran from becoming an SCO member. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Boucher indicated that the United States had tried to forge cooperative relations with Central Asian countries in the areas of economy, politics, and security to promote relations between Central Asian countries and the European Union, NATO, and OSCE.[9]Some American scholars pointed out that Central Asian countries hoped that the United States would maintain its presence in Central Asia as a counterbalance to the strength of Russia and China. The United States should encourage and take advantage of that line of thinking.[10]


Then, the U.S. government conceived a number of systemic plans, some of which were designed to deal with the SCO. First, it launched the plan of Central and South Asian Economic Integration, designed to strengthen electricity, energy, and other infrastructure construction, promote economic and trade relations between the Central and South Asian countries, and compete for dominance over the SCO in the process of Central Asian regional economic cooperation. In the U.S. strategy of integrating South and Central Asia, related geographical, economic, and security cooperation initiatives intersected and overlapped. The emergence of this situation was not coincidental. In designing the regional security cooperation mechanism and pushing forward the process of integration between South and Central Asia, there was an obvious intention to resist the SCO and scramble for the dominance of regional affairs. The United States was growing increasingly suspicious of the SCO’s development and growth. Besides verbal complaints, the United States took a competitive posture. For example, the United States claimed that the SCO observer members such as India, Pakistan, Mongolia, and the quasi-observer Afghanistan, were all its “main partners”. They were key factors for the United States to implement its integration strategy.[11]Second, the United States continued to strengthen its bilateral relations with the SCO Central Asian members such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, in order to alienate them from the SCO. Third, the United States government started to attach importance to communicating with the SCO on regional issues. When the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Boucher visited China in August 2006, he specially went to the SCO Secretariat in Shanghai to exchange views. Fourth, the United States continued to push for NATO, OSCE, and the European Union to maintain traditional relations with Central Asian countries, thus competing against the SCO.[12]


From the standpoint of the SCO’s development, it is not wrong for the SCO to maintain virtuous interaction with the United States. Furthermore, it is able to reduce U.S. suspicions and resistance. Both the United States and the SCO have certain common interests, such as in the areas of fighting terrorism, non-proliferation, fighting drug traffickers.[13] Some American scholars also have pointed out that although the strategic interests in Central Asia of the United States, Russia, and China were immensely competitive, their competition should not be a zero-sum game. The three outside powers together with the Central Asian countries have common goals of fighting terrorism and extremism, preventing drug and weapons trafficking and other criminal activities, and promoting regional development.[14]


The SCO’s Cooperation Strength and Potential


Some key American think tanks just a few years ago still stressed a need to properly estimate the SCO’s influence and power. In August 2006, at the hearing of the United States–China Economic and Security Review Commission under the U.S. Congress, there were strategic analysts who pointed out that the differences over the Central Asian issues of energy, water, trade, terrorism, deterioration of the environment, immigration, and smuggling were not significantly reduced. The SCO could not play an important multilateral role in solving the problems. Despite much fanfare, the SCO could scarcely prove that it had grown into a full-fledged regional cooperation organization. Although in terms of population, territory, and natural resources, the SCO is much larger than NATO and the European Union, its economy and military strength is not strong enough to rival that of the United States.[15] The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe – the Helsinki Commission – held congressional hearings in September 2006. The Commission discussed the SCO’s impacts on U.S. strategic, political, and economic interests in Central Asia. The Chairman of the Committee, Republican Senator Sam Brownback, set the theme of the hearing, asking whether the SCO was damaging U.S. interests in Central Asia. Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, replied in the negative. She thought that the SCO would never serve U.S. interests, but the United States needed not directly check it. People tended to believe that the organization was an alliance of non-democracies. But in fact, the organization was not unanimous in insisting that each member should remain non-democratic. They kept solidarity just because they wanted to share security interests and mitigate foreseeable risks. She further pointed out that the SCO’s annual summit was indicative of the nature of the organization as a forum for its members. Actually, its anti-Western rhetoric was more of a posture than an actual policy.[16]


Sam Brownback worried more about the SCO’s negative effect on Central Asia’s democracy and human rights issues. In response to Brownback’s view that the SCO was against democracy promotion, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Boucher thought that the SCO’s main goal was to achieve problem-free cooperation. The organization served as a happy club for members to have pleasant interactions without having to confront criticism.[17] In April 2008, Boucher said that the SCO was a useful mechanism to promote Central Asian regional cooperation. It played a helpful role in promoting the region’s economies and solving border issues. He believed that when the organization was involved in the political field or made a statement involving the United States and other countries, the United States should pay attention to or criticize it. But the United States did not seek to establish formal ties with the SCO and would not seek to participate in the SCO process. Boucher’s comments demonstrated that the United States had abandoned its plan to join the SCO, and instead had moved on to strengthening bilateral relations with Central Asian countries.[18] Brownback quoted some scholars as saying that the SCO was not a purely economic organization. It may become a “Warsaw Treaty Organization”. Boucher said that he did not think so. He believed that Central Asian countries had opportunities and choices beyond the control of any organization. But he and the scholars believed that the SCO had embarked on a combative track.[19]


Some in the United States academia and some politicians thought that the SCO was expanding its influence and was being used by Russia and China as a counterbalance against the United States. But now and in the foreseeable future the SCO would not become a military alliance whose members made commitments to the security of each other. It did not have that organizational capacity.[20] When it comes to U.S. policy towards the SCO, no public official documents can be found. Senior U.S. government officials rarely voice their opinions of the SCO. This may be because the United States ignored the SCO prior to 2005, and after 2005 the United States suffered serious setbacks in the region, so it tried to avoid tensions with the organization.[21]




In the author’s personal opinion, a few U.S. scholars’ viewpoints might have caused misunderstandings with regard to the nature of the SCO. As the SCO’s statement on the tenth anniversary of the Astana Declaration says, the organization cooperates openly with other countries and international and regional organizations. The observer states Iran, Mongolia, India, and Pakistan and the dialogue partners Belarus and Sri Lanka have participated in various fields of cooperation within the SCO framework. Meanwhile, the SCO has cooperative partnerships with the United Nations, CIS, CSTO, Eurasian Economic Community, ASEAN, and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Cooperation in the fields of security, economy, and improving the environment will be the organization’s priorities. Based on the achievements of the past years, the SCO members will continue to strengthen cooperation in a spirit of trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, and respect for diverse civilizations, will seek common development, and will jointly implement the purposes and principles prescribed by the SCO’s basic documents.

[1] This paper has its origins in the address to the 10th International Conference of Central Asia and Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Shanghai in July 2011. 

[2] Zheng Yu [郑宇] (ed.), Cooperation and Competition: China, Russia and U.S. in Central Asia, 1991–2007 [中俄美在中亚:合作与竞争], Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2007, 416.  

[3] Shao Yuqun, “The United States and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Cognition, Relationship and Future”, American Studies, Vol. 3, 2007.  

[4] Zheng Yu, Cooperation and Competition, 416.  

[5] Shao Yuqun, “United States and Shanghai Cooperation Organization”. 

[6] Zheng Yu, Cooperation and Competition, 427.  

[7] Robert Parsons, Central Asia: China–Russia Bloc Challenges U.S. in Region, 25 October 2005,  

[8] Stephen Blank, “Rethinking Central Asian Security”, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2008), 23–39.

[9] Heather Maher, “US Helsinki commission concerned about SCO”, 29 Sep 2006,  

[10] Shao Yuqun, “United States and Shanghai Cooperation Organization”. 

[11] Du Youkang, “The Analysis of the US’ Strategy on Integrating the South and Central Asian”, contained in Modern International Relations, Vol. 4, 2007.  

[12] Shao Yuqun, “United States and Shanghai Cooperation Organization”. 

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Jonathan Dunn, “Rethinking American Strategy in Central Asia”, March 2009, Midwest Political Science Association 67th Annual National Conference,  

[15] Zheng Yu, Cooperation and Competition, 424.  

[16] Heather Maher, “US Helsinki commission concerned about SCO”, 29 Sep 2006,  

[17] Ibid. 

[18] The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State pointed out that the U.S. would not participate in the SCO, 

[19] Heather Maher, “US Helsinki commission concerned about SCO”, 29 Sep 2006,  

[20] Stephen J. Blank, Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, “U.S. Interests in Central Asia and Their Challenges”, expanded and revised version of testimony offered to the subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, House Committee on International Relations, 25 July 2006.  

[21] Zheng Yu, Cooperation and Competition, 426.