Uzbekistan’s 2012 withdrawal from the CSTO reflected not only dissatisfaction with Moscow
but also a willingness to draw closer to China as a strategic partner. This does not necessarily imply the perception of a reduced threat from China. It may be that states in the region are adjusting to the inevitable: China will dominate the region economically, even as Russia remains the most pugnacious outside power there. The SCO’s official statements would suggest it is an anti-Western and in particular an anti-American organization. In 2006, the United States sought to become an observer country but was rejected. The 2005 SCO summit issued a statement calling for NATO and the United States to set a timetable for withdrawing their military presence from SCO -member territory. Official Chinese coverage of the event interpreted the statement as calling on the United States to cease security cooperation in Central Asia so the SCO could “safeguard” the region. But these statements square neither with the broader foreign policies of the member states nor with the actions and capabilities of the SCO as an institution. They reflect the wariness toward the West of the organization’s two heavyweights, China and Russia, but not the studiously multivector foreign policy of Kazakhstan or the intensely flexible foreign policy of Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan has maintained a U.S. military presence since 2005, while Tajikistan is increasing its cooperation with the United States as the combat-troop withdrawal in Afghanistan draws nearer. Uzbekistan recently reengaged with Washington after six years of keeping its distance. But not even Beijing and Moscow have lived up to the SCO’s confrontational rhetoric. Russia helps significantly in the resupply of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and China has aided U.S. efforts there in more quiet ways. That poses two questions: How will the SCO grapple with the changed security environment in Central Asia after the U.S. combat-troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014? And will its anti-Western pronouncements lead to concrete actions? Currently, the SCO is ill equipped to live up to aspirations of regional collaboration, much less lofty goals of safeguarding Central Asia. The SCO has held regular “peace missions,” military exercises that combine the armed forces of some or all member states, although the vast majority of forces are from China and Russia. These have been notable as the first opportunities in decades for Chinese forces to practice operations outside China’s borders. The exercises also allow China and Russia to showcase military equipment that they hope other member states will procure. But until recently such joint training exercises have been beset by troublesome language barriers. The language problem reportedly now has been remedied, so it will be worth observing future exercises to evaluate the extent to which they serve as effective joint training to combat what the SCO terms the “three evils”: terrorism, separatism and extremism.