With the current Russia-Ukraine war, and the escalating tensions between China and Taiwan, the West’s attention has been transfixed. Yet a group of countries accounting for 30% of global GDP, containing Russia, China and Iran, known as the SCO and described by some as the ‘Eastern NATO’, has largely escaped the media’s eye. Vali Kaleji agues that while the SCO appears to be a major threat to the West, it is also also held back by strategic conflicts.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, two regional organizations arose in The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS); both with the objective of defense-security. The first was the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), formed in 1992 and the second was the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001. While the CSTO has continued to operate in a limited scope, with only six members after the withdrawal of Uzbekistan and the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1999, the situation with the SCO is markedly different.
The SCO has undergone several horizontal (expansion of members) and vertical (tasks and functions) evolutions since its inception in 2001. At the present time, the SCO has 9 “main members”, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran, as well as three “observer members” - Belarus, Mongolia, and Afghanistan. In addition, during the last decade, many countries such as Turkey, Egypt and Qatar have joined as “dialogue partners”. The following chart clearly shows the “horizontal development” of the SCO since 2001.
Not only does the SCO contain roughly 60 percent of Eurasia - half of the world’s population - and 30 percent of the world’s GDP; it has two permanent members of the UN Security Council and four nuclear powers.
The “Horizontal Development” of the SCO since 2001
Furthermore, not only does the SCO contain roughly 60 percent of Eurasia - half of the world’s population - and 30 percent of the world’s GDP; it has two permanent members of the UN Security Council (Russia and China) and four nuclear powers (Russia, China, India and Pakistan).
In such circumstances, the membership of countries like Russia, China and Iran, which pose obvious challenges to NATO and the Western world, have led some to believe that the SCO is an “Eastern Bloc” that is seeking confrontation with the West and will become a “New Warsaw Pact” or “Eastern NATO.” But the SCO’s nature and performance over the last two decades, as well as its policies and approach towards its members— demonstrate why this argument should be soundly rejected.
First and importantly, the SCO’s charter, explicitly mentioned in Article 2 (Principles) states the “SCO not being directed against other States and international organizations.” Whilst it is true that over the past two decades the SCO has issued statements criticizing the United States and NATO in various areas - including for military intervention in Afghanistan; and the use of human rights, democracy, and freedom of expression to interfere in the internal affairs of SCO member states; in practice, the SCO has remained faithful to Article 2 of its charter. In this regard, the SCO has no military ambitions against any state or intent to impinge on the independence of any nation.
The Eurasian grouping has historically limited itself to forging a consensus on fighting extremism, terrorism, separatism and transnational threats. The organization, unlike NATO, has never engaged in actual military, anti-terrorist or even peacemaking operations. Indeed, the SCO is not codified as a “Collective Security Treaty,” unlike both the Warsaw Pact - Article 4 - and NATO - Article 5. Such obligations do not exist in any of the twenty-six articles of the SCO Charter, and the members have no legal duty to defend one another against military aggression by non-member countries.
On the other hand, the SCO’s non-interventional approach toward regional and international crises is very important. Unlike the Warsaw Pact and NATO, which have been active in regional and international conflicts and crises even outside Europe and North America, the SCO has not taken any action in this regard. A clear example of this was the SCO’s silence and inaction in the face of the three crises of Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014), and Syria. In all three crises, in which the Russian Federation, as a founding and primary member of the SCO, intervened directly militarily, the organization’s approach was passivity or silence.
India’s membership in the SCO is an important deterrent factor to the organization’s transformation into an anti-hegemonic and anti-American bloc in the framework of an “Eastern NATO”.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis is another prominent example of the differences between NATO and the SCO. Although Russia is a member of the SCO, all the member states are free to deal with it independently, and there is no pressure from the SCO to take a certain position. On the contrary, NATO members are expected to follow NATO policy.
The last and important point is India. Among the nine main members of the SCO and the three observer members, no country has a high-level strategic partnership with the United States. India upgraded its membership in the SCO in 2017, coinciding with Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States and the development of U.S.-India relations into a strategic partnership.
Therefore, India’s membership in the SCO is an important deterrent factor to the organization’s transformation into an anti-hegemonic and anti-American bloc in the framework of an “Eastern NATO” or “New Warsaw Pact.” Thus, despite the membership of countries such as Iran, Russia and China, as well as the issuing of against the Western world, the organization is not as scary to the Western world as it actually seems.