In Between East and West

Alliance Redefined – Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Changing Landscape of Eurasian Geopolitics

September 5, 2013

        The Soviet Union did not lose the Cold War; it was the United States who lost the Soviet Union. After the Soviet disintegration, it was America who felt a huge hole of nostalgia in her heart while the U.S. remained an important global power to new Russia. Historically, the U.S. has built its unprecedented prosperity through strategically countering its prime enemy of each time; first it was the British Empire, then the Soviet Union after the World War II, and today the honorable seat of recognition seems to be occupied by China. America is renowned to put intolerably immense pressure on the second world power of contemporary time, measured either in military, political, or even economic terms[1] and this traditional strategy has secured its safe position as a dominant global power.  


        When the young nation of isolationism was transformed into a world-reaching superpower at the first half of the 20th century, America has thrived through its strategic formation of alliances. The thinking of allies and foes is so endemic to American strategic calculus and it still predominantly shapes America’s grand strategy across the world, from Europe to Middle East to the Asian-Pacific. Although today’s American eyes are more focused on Islamism, global terrorism and China, Russia still remains as a prime source of American paranoia.[2]  Particularly, a growing influence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in a greater Eurasian region (primarily stretching from Russia to Central, South and East Asia but also loosely embracing Middle East) has triggered emotional responses from Washington, D.C. Some American analysts see the SCO as an “Eastern NATO” or revival of the Warsaw Treaty Organization, while others alarm that the SCO has been increasingly becoming an anti-American alliance led by China and Russia.[3] Viewing through a traditional lens of power politics and alliance game, these claims seem to be legitimate especially when the American request to be “Observer Member” of the SCO was rejected. However, my argument is that such a shallow view of “you are either with us or against us” is not only anachronistic but also inaccurate in the context of today’s international affairs. Through examining the changing nature of alliance in the contemporary world politics, this article aims to provide new perspectives on the recent development of the SCO and also to clarify some of the misunderstandings and misperceptions associated with the organization.



Photo: Stratfor


        First and foremost, the conventional concept of alliance is clearly outdated and it must face a drastic revision in today’s rapidly globalized world. Historically, alliance has developed as a chief instrument of security in the realm of international relations, aiming to consolidate relatively small powers to counter the large and powerful. Like Switzerland (Swiss Confederation), there were several sovereign states founded as a result of a well-integrated alliance with a single aim of mutual security while cultural diversity and societal divergence remained within. Traditional alliance, either bilateral or trilateral, was formed upon a principle of sovereign equality and mutual cooperation, with a specifically predetermined imaginary enemy. In this sense, the traditional alliance can be described as a zero-sum alliance since gain of one-side (either the allied side or the enemy side) is automatically translated into loss of the other. Then in the early 20th century, an innovative approach of collective security alliance emerged, crystalized in the inception of the League of Nations and later the United Nations. Although the collective security system represented a major breakthrough in international affairs, it remained almost same as the traditional alliance because the collective security alliance still aimed at eliminating, or deterring, a nation state of rogue nature either within or outside the alliance. The dichotomy of allied nations and foe (the rogue one) remained unchanged. And then, the Cold War division made the collective security system (for example, the UN) almost irrelevant and the era was once again back to the historical “you are either with us or against us” alliance through a world of fragmentation led by NATO and WATO. Nonetheless, the Cold War alliances must be clearly distinguished from the previous alliances for its unequal sovereign hierarchy. For the NATO side, the U.S. was unchallenged leader of alliance whilst the Soviet Union also maintained its predominance over all its allies. The principle of sovereign equality was almost non-existent and any action taken by allying members against the will of the “big boss” was severely penalized. Even today, such structure of unbalanced alliance (one-side disproportionally dependent on the other) persists, notably exemplified by the U.S.-Japan security alliance where the Washington has a say to everything while Tokyo’s role is nothing but a silent obeying. In the end, all of the aforementioned alliances are similar, since their single most important aim is to deter a foe nation, either within or outside the alliance membership.


        In today’s world of increasing interdependence and of growing influence of non-state actors, the alliance has come to enter an entirely new age. The age of the zero-sum alliance is over and present day is defined by the emergence of plus-sum alliance. The plus-sum alliance is an alliance that:

  • Aims to deter and counter actors of transitory nature such as terrorist groups and transnational criminal networks, and does not target any nation-state as imaginary enemy.
  • Has a structure where efforts of individual member are summed up to the final outcome (like border control), while the collective power of deterrence and influence of prominent members remain limited.
  • Provides a function of regional policing through their daily collaborations rather than global military operations of limited period (such as NATO airstrike).
  • Targets to tackle issues (mainly regional but also global ones) rather than confronting specifically predetermined nation-state.
  • Facilitates internal harmony among members and regional powers rather than countering external powers.





        The SCO remains largely under-researched organization; yet, all of its official documents and contemporary analyses highlight that it is founded primarily to coordinate border control efforts in the Eurasian region, to contain religious extremism (of Islamism, particularly), to counter international terrorism, and to suppress ethnic separatism. Thinking in a traditional framework of zero-sum alliance, it is understandable that the U.S. sees the SCO as a disturbing anti-American league. However, a careful examination of their activities and organizational structure reveals that it is more of a regional policing organization rather than a globally-aspiring military institution.


        Furthermore, Washington has tendency to see any organization that embraces Russia and China, the two great powers who resist American unipolarity, as anti-American league. Either the SCO or BRICS Summit, it is renowned fact that America has extraordinary fear to be excluded from any forum at any coroner of the world; and any forum that does not invite the “World Leader” is seen to be a nest of anti-American conspiracy. Therefore, it is no surprising that the U.S. has begun to label the SCO as something against American interest. Yet, I argue that Americans simply need to grow out of their endemic paranoiac thinking harnessed during the Cold War period. The SCO is neither Eastern NATO nor league of anti-Americanism. The Japan Institute of International Affairs also analyze that it is not the SCO per se that has a nature of anti-Americanism, but rather American unfriendly behavior of each member (Russia and China primarily, but also including deteriorated U.S.-Uzbekistan relations in 2005 and Iran’s participation in 2006 in the SCO Summit)[4] that presents the organization as anti-American league. Nevertheless, it is obvious that America alone cannot bring prosperity to Central Asia and greater Eurasian region. Hence, it is America that who needs a regional organization of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism more than anybody to reestablish functioning border and pertaining security in the Eurasian region. While it is understandable that American request to be observer was rationally dismissed,[5] coordinated activities of the SCO certainly coincide with American interests in the world and even facilitate American exit strategy from Afghanistan.


        The SCO is indeed not a NATO-like military alliance, but it rather resembles the plus-sum alliance of the European Union where its establishment aimed at facilitating regional interaction and strengthening border control.  The SCO begins to resemble the EU more and more when we take into account its prominent role as regional coordination body, particularly to bridge interests of the two most influential regional powers: Russia and China. Before the official inception of the SCO in 2001, the precursor Shanghai Five was initiated in 1996 as a regional mechanism to settle border disputes among Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, and Tajikistan.  From its organizational history, it is evident that the activities of the SCO have largely focused on regional policing and border control. The power vacuum left by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and traditional Chinese ignorance towards underdeveloped Western provinces together aggrandized a risk of Eurasian core becoming nest of religious extremism, ethnic separatism and international terrorism, all of which have posed dire threat to political independence and territorial integrity of Russia and China as well as other Eurasian states. Particularly in the 1990s, the Eurasian region has suffered from a detrimental absence of regional organization that brings together diverse interests of neighboring nations. Therefore, just like the EU has dissolved the long standing rivalry between Germany and France, the SCO’s importance also lies in building mutual trust between Russia and China as well as other member states. Yet unlike NATO, divergent military interests of Russia and China prevent it from growing into a comprehensive security alliance, and this dissonance is expected to continue in the long run. For example, Russian request to recognize South Ossetia and support its military operations in Georgia amid the Russia-Georgia War of 2008 was not welcomed at the SCO’s 2008 Summit and the SCO as organization refrained from expressing support to the Russian military endeavor.[6] This Russian diplomatic failure presented a salient case that, despite American paranoia, the SCO is not a monolithic security alliance that aims to augment its influence in the world.





        In summary, the SCO is more similar to the EU rather than NATO in terms of its principle, history, and organizational structure. It does not aim to pool conventional forces to counter military threat or specifically targets to undermine American interests in the region. The SCO is a regional organization formed by plus-sum alliance to counter shared non-state threats such as extremism, terrorism, and separatism that undermine mutual trust in the Eurasian region and erode political foundation of nation-state. Therefore, a hasty conclusion to define the SCO as an anti-American military league entails no legitimate theoretical foundation or supporting evidence. As exemplified in American operations in Afghanistan, it became even more evident that military power must be clearly distinguished from policing power. An American delusion that the mightiest power of the world can conquer any contemporary threat to global, regional and national security utterly entailed a series of failures that exposed the outdated nature of superpower thinking. In this sense, the SCO presents a salient example of evolutionary metamorphosis that redefines principle, value and organizational meaning of alliance in the 21st century.[7] Certainly, the idea of state-focused zero-sum alliance and non-state focused plus-sum alliance is simplified classification with various limits. Yet, the emergence of the SCO as plus-sum alliance presents a changing nature of alliance in the Eurasian geopolitical landscape, and its development invites further scholastic efforts to capture the ongoing transformation.



[1] In the mid-1980s when the decline of the Soviet Union was apparent, U.S. attention was chiefly drawn to the “over-prosperity” of Japan whose economic miracle was built on its advantageous geographical position, highly skilled labors and preferential currency rate. Fearing the “rerise” of Japan, the U.S. made a series of attempts to reform Japanese economic structure that was believed to be harming American economy of that time. Currency rate was drastically modified, voluntary restriction on Japanese exports were demanded, and today Japan finds itself still stuck in the recession created by these adjustments made by foreign request rather than internal initiative.

[2] Russia as well as China, Cuba, Iran, and Israel, is still set as priority target of American intelligence community. RIA Novosti, ロシアと中国は依然、米国の主要な諜報ターゲット(Russia and China remain as major intelligence targets),’ August 30 2013,

[3] Bailes, Alyson JK, et al. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2007.

[4] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 平成18年度外務省委託研究報告 我が国のユーラシア外交上海協力機構を手がかりに―(Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan Outsourced Research Report 2006 Eurasian Diplomacy of Our Nation –A Clue from Shanghai Cooperation Organization), March 2007.

[5] If Russia or China requested a membership to the Organization of American States, the demand would be certainly dismissed by the U.S. since neither of Russia and China is in the Americas. Powerful American presence in the forum is also easily expected to hinder the SCO’s institutional development, therefore, it is understandable that their request was rejected in political sense.

[6], Russia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Moscow's Lonely Road from Bishkek to Dushanbe, September 2 2008, accessed on

[7] For instance, its expansion towards Middle East embracing Iran as a partner member shows the SCO’s another possibility to be an energy alliance, which would be also a disturbing development for the West. However, regarding Russian reluctance to (literally) fuel energy-hungry China whose national ideology has been rapidly shifting towards expansionalist, the alternative of being energy alliance with military backup also seems very unlikely.   


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