From A World to Win News Service

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization:
How serious a threat to U.S. world domination?

September 10, 2012. A World to Win News Service. The twelfth summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) took place in Beijing in June. The SCO is a regional organization comprising China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as full members, and Mongolia, Iran, India and Pakistan as observers (Afghanistan was admitted as an observer in this year's summit). The most important feature of this year's meeting was its strong position against "external" intervention and regime-change attempts in the Middle Eastern countries, a clear reference to Syria and Iran.

The summit was intended to be a show of unity and success, demonstrating its members' common interests and concerns regarding world and regional political affairs, while insisting that the SCO is not a military bloc.

The group pledged to work more closely with the Afghan government on security and other issues, without providing details. The meeting's main emphasis was on "regional security," laying out a plan for the strategic and medium-term development of the SCO and a "Mechanism of Response to Events Jeopardizing Regional Peace, Security and Stability." (June 7, 2012,

Following this summit the SCO began carrying out joint military exercises in Tajikistan. According to the press center of Tajikistan Ministry, "During the exercises, a special anti-terror operation in a mountainous area will be worked on. New methods will be used to detect, block and destroy mock outlawed armed formations that have captured a mountain village." About 2,000 soldiers and 500 military vehicles and aircraft from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan took part in this annual military exercise.

It was named "Peace Mission." But there are good reasons to doubt that the goals of these operations were peaceful, since they took place as part of a series of military movements and maneuvers in the region. Furthermore, when placed in the context of world politics as they manifest themselves in this region, and other events over the last two decades, even more doubts arise.

In mid-April 2012, U.S. and Filipino joint military exercises also included troops from Australia, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia. About 4,500 U.S. Marines participated along with 2,500 Philippines Special Forces. The U.S. also held what it called a "Naval Exchange" with Vietnam, a country whose sea forces have been engaged in a face-off with China over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. This area is rich in gas and oil reserves as well as being strategically sensitive for China. Much of the world's imported energy and raw materials pass through these shipping lanes. In a policy shift, last November Obama declared that the U.S. would focus on the Asia-Pacific region as its top strategic priority. China and Russia also held joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, practicing defending sea lanes.

There are more large-scale military activities to come. Another major regional organization, called the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO, consisting of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—Uzbekistan suspended its membership in June this year), is holding military maneuvers this September in Armenia and October in Kazakhstan. The details and dimensions have not been announced, but last September's CSTO military exercise involved 24,000 troops and was designed to counter an assumed threat from Afghanistan, where over 100,000 NATO soldiers were stationed at the time.

Some observers have wondered why Armenia was chosen as the battleground of the next CSTO military exercise. First of all, the CSTO should be seen in light of Russia's desire to re-extend its influence southward into central Asia and Afghanistan, and its concern for American efforts to snatch up what Russia has historically considered its "backyard." Further, selecting Armenia as a practice "battleground" could be related to U.S.-Israeli threats to attack Iran. Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan have fought over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The U.S. and Israel are seeking to turn Azerbaijan into a military base for a possible attack on Iran, and already have unlimited access to its territory, including its airports and Caspian Sea ports. This puts the U.S. military very close to the Iranian border. Azerbaijan is acquiring a $1.3 billion air-defense system from Israel. Recently the old wounds of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia have reopened and military activities on both sides have increased.

The Emergence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

The SCO came out of the "Shanghai Five," a grouping formed in 1996 to resolve border issues between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. For China as well as the Central Asian countries, the border disputes and the rise of separatists, national movements and Islamic fundamentalist movements in most of the central Asian countries and Xinjiang (China) had become a security issue. Developments in Tibet were another factor in creating concerns for China.

At the July 2000 summit where Putin attended for the first time, the leaders of the countries involved announced that this organization must "wield significant influence not just in the region, but globally as well." (, September 2, 2008)

At the 2001 summit, with Uzbekistan also participating, the Shanghai Five was transformed into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. SCO's stated aim was to combat "terrorism, separatism and extremism" as well as promote various forms of cooperation. Russia tried to use SCO and other treaties to limit U.S. and other Western influences in Central Asia and advance its own interests in the region.

After the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, the U.S. emerged as the lone imperialist superpower and did its best to take advantage of the situation and secure its domination over the world for a long period to come. Other Western imperialists and powerful states have also been trying to use this turbulent period to their advantage. Consequently the collapse of the Soviet bloc gave rise to some more regional contradictions and conflicts, in some cases very violently, such as the various Balkan wars. This situation was also reflected in the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

By invading and occupying Afghanistan, the U.S. and other Western imperialists were attempting to broaden their influence in the region too. So they had one eye on the Middle East and the other on Central and South-East Asia.

In association with this invasion the U.S. set up military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. These advances in the region were taken as an attempt to encircle Russia and made China very uncomfortable too. The Central Asian regimes, partly under pressure from Russia and partly to protect themselves from the Islamic fundamentalists and rise of armed oppositions, felt compelled to stick to the organization.

During this period, U.S. imperialist policy was the main driving force, although all the imperial powers were trying to safeguard and advance their interests. The world and the configuration of imperialist coalitions changed dramatically between the two wars against Iraq. (Although it is very unlikely that the U.S. could have launched its 1991 war if the Soviet Union had not already been in the throes of collapse.)

The rise of China as an aggressive power following the overthrow of socialism there and the resurgence of Russian imperialism out of the ashes of the imperialist Soviet bloc (where capitalism had been effectively restored two decades earlier, despite the retaining of socialist forms) are two of the most important features marking the past quarter century. The grouping of these two giants together with other countries in the SCO is, so far, the most serious attempt to challenge U.S. influence, at least in the region. This could have been one reason why the American imperialists shifted their attention to the Asia-Pacific region in order to counter a potential challenge.

Russia especially has been active over the last two decades in seeking to curtail further blows to its power and once again re-emerge if not as a superpower at least as a dominant regional power with more influence in world affairs.

China's emergence as the world's second-largest economy should be seen in the context of what kind of economy that is, what logic drives it. When a new capitalist class took power through a coup after the death of Mao Tsetung, it became a capitalist economy, driven by the profit motive, the expand-or-die competition inherent in capitalism and the logic and titanic forces of the world market, so that its development has brought its thoroughly capitalist ruling class into conflict with the Western imperialists and other powers for markets, raw materials and outlets for investment.

Although only about a thousand troops took part in the SCO's first military exercise, it represented a newly formed treaty that had been able to unite two powerful countries in Asia with some small but nevertheless important regional countries. This organization soon attracted the interest of reactionary regimes in other countries in the region such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Mongolia, and heightened the concerns of the U.S. and other Western imperialists.

Shortly after its formation the SCO tried to push back U.S. influence in Central Asia. Following the July 2005 summit, in a joint declaration it called for an end to U.S. military bases in Central Asia. The U.S. had to pull all its forces out of Uzbekistan a few months later and retained its base in Kyrgyzstan only after some political maneuvering and agreeing to much higher payments. That same year Iran, Pakistan, and India were granted observer status, while Mongolia had achieved that status a year earlier. In 2007, SCO military exercises took place in China and Russia with the involvement of 6,000 troops.

In the past decade, the SCO consolidated its position as a military and economic grouping. This has involved joint military exercises, training programs and other measures to modernize the militaries of the member states, and efforts to draw in other countries in the region and beyond. Apart from military and security cooperation, there have been mutual multi-billion-dollar investments, particularly by China, in infrastructure (roads, railways, airports, hydro-electric power stations, mining, gas wells and petroleum pipelines) and banking (the SCO has an interbank union working alongside Russian-Chinese investment funds and other forms of investment).

This cooperation has strengthened both Russia and China. Beijing has benefited from the military strength of Russia not only as a partner but as a source of advanced military hardware and technology to enable China to produce its own more advanced weapons. One example is the SU-27 fighter, a variant of a Russian-designed "air superiority fighter" meant to match advanced U.S. and other Western war planes, now manufactured in China. Russia is also playing a role in the transformation of the Chinese navy as its mission shifts from coastline defense to "blue-water" power projection in the western and southern Pacific.

The relationship with China also strengthens Russia's position in dealing with the West—in the energy negotiations with the EU and also missile defense talks with the U.S.

Both benefit regarding international issues related to either gaining or preserving spheres of influence. Russia and China have worked together in opposing U.S. missile "shields" that would lessen the ability to retaliate against a U.S. first-strike missile attack. Most notably, this alliance has been a serious factor in rivalry with the U.S. in the Middle East, particularly Iran and Syria—the Russian and Chinese blockage of the U.S.-led bid for UN Security Council backing for foreign military intervention in Syria is the best-known example of this relationship.

China needs the Central Asian and Caspian Sea regions for strategic energy supplies, too. Two pipelines have been completed, a third is nearly finished and construction of a fourth will start soon. This allows China to become less dependent on supplies from the Middle East, where the U.S. dominates the flow of oil and gas. China has secured a long-term lower price structure with Central Asian states. It has already begun pumping oil in Afghanistan and has signed contracts that would make China a major competitor among the various foreign schemes for major mining operations in Afghanistan if and when political conditions permit.

China's infrastructural investments in Xinjiang and the passage through there of billions of dollars worth of Chinese consumer goods exported throughout Central Asia have produced a section of rich and middle strata in Xinjiang, a Western Chinese border region whose population has been predominantly Turkic Moslem, although China is moving in Han settlers. This has helped stabilize and strengthened the Chinese regime's rule in that region.

U.S. imperialism's certain degree of shift in strategic policies to put more emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region with the main goal of limiting China's influence has, at least temporarily, helped Russia by encouraging China to incline towards Russia's military strength.

The SCO's Contradictions and Limits

Due to these relationships and developments, some reactionary analysts and the media sometimes describe the SCO as the "Eastern bloc," "OPEC with nuclear bombs" or the "NATO of the East."

But the cooperation and collaboration among the SCO is not without constraints. In fact, from the beginning this cooperation has been paralleled by important contradictions among the participant countries, and some of these contradictions have grown rather than diminishing.

If we look at it from an economic point of view, the SCO's two main powers have numerous ties with the U.S. and other Western countries. The U.S. is China's main economic partner. China has trillions of dollars in investments in the American financial system. The value of China's exchange with Russia is only two percent of its foreign trade. Further, Russia is not at all happy with China's inroads in Central Asia. China's lucrative trade, investments, loans and especially oil and gas contracts could become a problem for Russia, not only economically, but also because these economic ties could strengthen China's political reach in a region that Russia intends to dominate.

Russia, too, is looking toward Western Europe for greatly increased trade (particularly energy exports) and wants to develop political ties, especially with Germany, a very important country for Russian imperialist interests in both economic and political terms. Both China and Russia have relied to some extent on Europe and the U.S. for developing their own industries, often with military implications.

There is also a contradiction regarding the SCO's expansion. Pakistan and India both want closer ties with the SCO. While Russia might be interested in including India, that would not be welcomed by China due to their unresolved border issues and rivalry in Asia. China considers India a main sponsor of disturbances in Tibet. However China might be more interested in drawing in Pakistan. China supports Pakistan in its border disputes with India. But including Pakistan or Iran could complicate relations with other countries too. The SCO's future expansion poses acute problems for the whole organization, especially if other big countries like India get involved.

There are also some countries that might not be trusted by the organization. For example Turkey has also shown interest in the organization but it was only given "dialogue" status. Since Turkey is a NATO member, it is unlikely to ever be accepted as a full member. The U.S. requested membership in 2005 but its application was rejected.

While Russia seems to be trying to forge a bloc out of SCO, considering the organization's contradictions and Moscow's fear of Chinese influence and possible dominance over the organization, that might not be easily achieved. Russia is also building an alternative to SCO through the CSTO, an organization that Russia clearly runs. At present, at least, Russia seems to regard China as a competitor as well as an ally, and it is not yet clear how closely they will align. It may be symptomatic of this contradictory situation that while Russia is helping China expand militarily, it does not seem to be sharing its most advanced weapons systems, in much the same way as the U.S. treats certain allies.

Is the SCO Challenge Real?

Many imperialist countries have conflicting interests and are not happy with American unilateral decisions and moves where others have to follow suit and basically dance to the U.S. tune.

U.S. policy and maneuvering room has changed from Afghanistan to Iraq and from Libya to Syria. Its position has been challenged.

Russia is trying to capitalize on the contradictions emerging between Western European countries and the U.S., especially Germany. Russia is also trying to influence Western Europe by supplying gas and oil and direct it away from U.S. dominance in this market.

The interaction of this emerging rivalry with the on-going international financial crisis (for instance, Germany's bid for Chinese financial support to help shore up the European financial system), and the possible global consequences for imperialist political stability of popular unrest and various sorts of uprisings, introduce other elements of uncertainty into future developments.

The situation is extremely fluid. The challenge is real but the final position of any of these countries in a future alignment has not been decided. Certain trends have emerged as the imperialists and other powerful reactionary-ruled countries vie for influence and domination over the world or part of the world, but other factors and events could accelerate or decelerate—or even upend—them.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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