America's global strategic position has just been further challenged and eroded. The China-sponsored Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was joined by Afghanistan in mid-June at the 2011 SCO Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan's new capital.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, with its six original members, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, was founded in 2001 in Shanghai. Today, the SCO is a robust political and military organization that works year-round at many levels, from high-powered summits to foreign and defense minister meetings. It is also aimed at creating a "common security sphere" in and around Central Asia.
The SCO, once maintained it had no plans for expansion, is changing its course. Mongolia, Iran, India and Pakistan are all its "observers" now, with Belarus and Sri Lanka as its "dialogue partners." Moreover, although SCO claims that it has no plans to become a military bloc, its key members' emphasis on "increased threats of terrorism, extremism and separatism" is calling for a full-scale cooperation of armed forces.
With Afghanistan becomes its observer and then further down the line a full member, the SCO's strategy is shifting to be heavily focused on Afghanistan, a state at the heart of the Eurasian Continent where a drawdown of U.S. and NATO troops is in the offing. "NATO's leaving," says Dmitry Kosyrev of Russian International News Agency, "will change the region, but it will not necessarily become safer or more stable."
Central Asia, the region extending from Iran in the west to the Xinjiang region of China in the east and from the Russian steppes in the north to Pakistan in the south, is the true heartland of Euro-Asia in the 21st century. In 1904, Sir Halford Mackinder, the father of geopolitics, predicted that "who rules the heartland rules the world" and "control of the heartland by any one power could be a springboard to world domination." Mackinder's theory was much derided at the time because the heartland of Euro-Asia was divided between then-imperial powers. A century later, however, Mackinder's prediction has finally come true in this reborn heartland of the Eurasian Continent.
The United States has vital interests in this heartland. "The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline project and the mineral and hydrocarbon resources of the Central Asia are important to the U.S.," writes Shrinivasrao Sohoni, advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, "not only for fueling its economy, but also to keep them out of its fast-emerging rival China's reach. Juxtaposed against the Russia, and intervening between Europe and China, this region is also of primary strategic value. It is crucial for the U.S. to position itself in this space in order to retain and protect the option of controlling and drawing on its resources. The other equally important objective is to block China's push into Central Asia and its southwestward initiatives from the Karakoram, through Afghanistan, to the naval and sea port being developed by China at Gwadar, Pakistan, and beyond to the Gulf and the east coast of Africa."
As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization edging toward an eventual merger to counter-balance NATO, many analysts see the deepening collaboration between Russia, China, Iran, and key Central Asian states as a Mackinder geostrategic nightmare for America.
"Not surprisingly," noted Andrei Volodin at Russian Academy of Sciences, "the prospect of SCO enlargement and its growing influence on world politics is hardly welcomed by the Americans, who see these new processes as signs of the growing geopolitical activity of China and Russia."
Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya of Canadian Centre for Research on Globalization has gone one step further, "The chess pieces for a colossal geostrategic project are being put into place and coming together. In Eurasia and beyond a 'Coalition of the Reluctant' has evolved, from what was put together by mutual concerns, into a global counter-alliance. Such a Eurasian alliance would dwarf the U.S. At best, America would become a secondary power like France, Britain, and Germany."
The reemergence of Central Asia as a key region will have significant influence on both world politics and America's global strategy. While the domestic unpopularity of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is understandable, maintaining American power in Central Asia and deploying American forces in this pivotal region, including base-building in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, will serve to protect immediate as well as long-term U.S. strategic and economic interests. To fail to do so will only result in the emergence of new dominate player or players in this vital heartland.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.