September 24, 2021

IntelBrief: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization Turns its Focus to Afghanistan

(Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) recently commemorated its twentieth anniversary, with members meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to discuss geopolitical developments and concerns.
  • The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and imminent security concerns may present the SCO with important opportunities for closer involvement.
  • The SCO has an opportunity to boost its image while also helping China promote its narrative about being a responsible regional power.
  • There are still myriad obstacles that could hinder the SCO from helping to stabilize Afghanistan, including the growing prospect of regional instability caused by spillover violence. 

Recently the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) commemorated its twentieth anniversary and convened its twenty-first Meeting of SCO Council of Heads of State in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The SCO is a multilateral security-focused forum co-led by Russia and China. Additional members include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan; in 2017, India and Pakistan acquired full membership status and just recently, Iran was recently accepted as the SCO’s eighth full member. Other countries, like Afghanistan, Mongolia, and Turkey enjoy observer status. Still, the primary focus of the gathering was recent events in Afghanistan. Despite its stated goals of fostering regional cooperation on security and counterterrorism, and organizing routine joint exercises, the SCO has been criticized and dismissed for lacking teeth and for simply being a platform for China and Russia to challenge Western-dominated security partnerships rather than strengthening regional security. But some experts and analysts suggest the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and imminent security concerns, may present the organization with important opportunities to boost its profile. Many structural and historical tensions exist between member states—some that a Taliban-led Afghanistan may exacerbate.  

In his remarks, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the start of the process for Iran to acquire full membership status in the SCO. This comes on the heels of a fifteen-year process of Iran’s bid for SCO membership status—an endeavor that has faced serious obstacles, including UN sanctions. Still, Iran’s inclusion this year did not necessarily come as a surprise, especially given Tehran’s improved bilateral relationships with both Beijing and Moscow over the past several years. The relationship between China and Iran was solidified by the twenty-five-year comprehensive strategic partnership signed between the two countries last year. However, it is worth noting that due to technical and legal processes, Iran’s new membership status in the SCO can take up to two years to complete. Even so, this is likely perceived as an important diplomatic win for Iran, as well as an opportunity for the country to secure economic deals that can bring some relief from U.S. sanctions. For example, on the sidelines of the SCO, Iranian president, Ibrahim Raisi, and Tajik President, Emomali Rahmon, agreed to an annual bilateral trade target of $500 million—a tenfold increase from present day exchange levels of $57 million. 

For the SCO, the inclusion of Iran as a full member is critical to its goal of countering potential security challenges stemming from Afghanistan. One of the sideline meetings that garnered the most attention was between Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan—crucial players in a post-U.S. withdrawal Afghanistan. While it’s unlikely that all SCO member states will recognize the legitimacy of the Taliban—as exemplified by Tajikistan’s vocal criticism of the current regime in Kabul—Beijing and Moscow have both adopted a pragmatic stance recognizing the need to work with the Taliban to safeguard their security, political, and economic interests.

Indeed, the SCO’s primary focus since its founding has been focused on security and stability in Eurasia—primarily through multilateral counterterrorism engagements via the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), founded in 2002 to combat terrorism, separatism, and extremism. As such, the key focus of this year’s SCO summit was the situation in Afghanistan, as the U.S. withdrawal creates both opportunities and challenges for SCO members. Members fear that spillover violence from Afghanistan will destabilize the region and that the country may again become a safe haven for terrorist organizations. In addition, if the SCO and its leadership—Russia and China—will be instrumental in supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan, the organization will likely shed some of its image as a toothless entity and help China promote its much-desired status as a responsible regional power. Beijing’s propaganda apparatus and government officials have been quick to criticize the U.S. withdrawal and argue that Washington needs to take responsibility for the ensuing chaos. Other incentives to stabilize Afghanistan, especially for China, include the prospect of connectivity—like linking Afghanistan to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—and potentially reaping the economic benefits of natural resource extraction—Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth is estimated between $1-3 trillion—though these are more medium to long-term goals in nature. 

There are still myriad obstacles that could hinder the SCO from playing its desired role in stabilizing Afghanistan. While China has pressed the Taliban to commit to prohibit training and funding for what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) perceives as terrorists in exchange for economic assistance, there is no guarantee that such a deal will materialize. The Taliban may change its stance, or simply be unable to contain every individual and organization that Beijing deems a threat. In addition, given the recent Pakistani Taliban attacks on Chinese nationals, it is clear that regional instability will embolden terrorists beyond those in Afghanistan. Moreover, there are clear tensions caused by an Islamic Emirate on China’s western border next to Xinjiang, presenting a long-term conflict of interest between China’s relationship with Islam and the Taliban’s commitment to governing based on sharia. Lastly, there are geopolitical concerns between the two Eurasian hegemons that could undermine cooperation efforts. While Sino-Russian relations are at an all-time high, there is evidence of increased Chinese power-projection in Central Asia under the guise of counterterrorism—a posture that infringes on Russia’s perceived traditional sphere of influence. Instability and terrorism emanating from Afghanistan may further incentivize China to continue down this path, appearing to contradict the US ambition of challenging Chinese influence and focusing resources on geopolitical competition through the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is clear that the marriages of convenience between SCO members are not without their troubles—especially now that the United States no longer has a military presence in the region that serves as a common foil.