Founded in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) now has China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as its full members, with Afghanistan, Belarus, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan as observers, and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey as dialogue partners. The official founding declaration asserted that the main objective of the organization was to combat the so-called three evil forces: international terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism. The organization has been interpreted in a variety of ways since its inception. One group of analysts agree with the views of the governments of the SCO member states that the organization is primarily focused on internal security problems in the region.[i] Most Chinese analysts express the same view that the SCO is a regional organization of non-traditional security.[ii] Western interpretations are quite different, as they argue that the SCO constituted a joint effort by a group of authoritarian states to defend themselves against regime change in the face of a regional democratic trend.[iii]
Most analysts agree that this regional organization is largely a Chinese initiative and that China plays a leading role in the SCO process.[iv] Some analysts suggest that China attempted to enter and to manage this region via a multilateral approach. China is using the SCO for implementation of the “Beijing Consensus” in Central Asia. Since the political values and foreign policy are one of the three sources of the Chinese soft power, the SCO has gradually become the main mechanism or guide for China’s policy in Central Asia. Along with the Central Asian countries the organization includes Russia, which allows to significantly mitigate the perception of China in the Central Asian region as a threat. Also, the SCO provides a good framework for China to cooperate closely in combating terrorism, extremism, separatism and various other cross-border criminal forces. The primary target of the Chinese anti-terrorism campaign is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which advocates for the independence of Xinjiang. From the Chinese perspective, in the framework of the SCO it is of particular importance for China to be able to count on the support of the other nine member and observer states in its campaign against the ETIM. Moreover, China has also been able to draw support from the SCO partners in its efforts to frustrate other conventional or non-conventional security threats and to eliminate or to ease the external factors of disruption to China’s stability and development.[v]
China employs the SCO as a vehicle to expand its influence in its immediate neighborhood where it does not have any solid historical and cultural foundation, as opposed to Russia, which long had Central Asia as a part of Tsarist Russia and later as a part of the Soviet Union for about 200 years. Therefore, China was not generally interested in inviting new members to join the organization because it was more concerned with consolidating cooperation with the existing members, particularly the Central Asian states. Beijing was equally interested in the development of security aspect as well as economic ties. China held great hopes for the ability of the SCO to organize multilateral economic cooperation. Beijing wanted to use the SCO in order to export its products, labor and capital to the neighboring countries. For this purpose China offered a variety of projects: from an introduction of a free trade zone[vi] to the establishment of the SCO Development Bank.[vii] However, all these initiatives were blocked by the other members of the organization. When commenting on the Regulations on Observer States of the SCO in June 2004 Secretary General of the SCO, Zhang Deguang, stated that the priority for the SCO was not enlargement but more substantial international cooperation and development.[viii] As summarized by S. Kushkumbayev, unless clear parameters of the economic interaction within the framework of the SCO are established, Beijing would not be interested in expanding the SCO membership to include the states of South-East Asia.[ix]
Beijing has offered a number of programs on investments into the SCO states from the assets of the organization on a bilateral basis.[x] Other economic projects were not carried out within the framework of the SCO. The crisis of 2014, and the sanctions against Russia considerably damaged the economic situation in Russia and the entire Central Asian region prompting the need for investments. In this light, China immediately suggested the establishment of the Silk Road Fund. All these factors have a positive impact on the fact that China, relying on the SCO as a base platform, put forward a new initiative, the creation of the “New Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st century Marine Silk Road” in 2013. At the moment, the initiative is called “One Belt, One Road”. Consequently, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a regional organization, initially created with the aim to protect itself from excessive economic influence of China, has changed its direction toward the interface with the Chinese initiative.[xi]
The establishment of the “New Silk Road Economic Belt” has solved an issue of the future enlargement of the SCO membership. Based on Russia’s proposal, the SCO leaders passed a resolution on starting the procedures of granting India and Pakistan full membership of the organization at the 15th SCO summit in Ufa, Russia in 2015. Pakistan applied for a full membership in 2006 and India in 2014. There are enough reasons explaining Pakistan’s enthusiasm to become an SCO member. It has strong political, economic and security motivations. Foreseeing that the SCO membership may further strengthen its ties with China, a longstanding ‘all weather’ ally is equally important.[xii] On the other hand, China is happy to see its ally as part of the organization. It understands that the admission of Pakistan alone is unacceptable to Russia. Analysts believe that India’s bid to join the SCO is supported by Russia, as Russian policymakers believe that it would be easier to constrain China’s influence on the SCO with India as a full member.[xiii] As for China, it had no reason to welcome a potential competitor into an organization where it played a leading role until the admission of Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan were admitted to the SCO inciting rivalry within the organization.
The stance reflected in two documents relating the procedure of admitting new members mainly represents a passive Chinese response to the enthusiastic membership requests expressed by some states. It, by no means, implies that the SCO members have a specific enlargement plan in mind, let alone a consensus. A combination of new members and a determination to make the organization a genuinely important and influential bloc is likely to ensure that the further development and expansion of the SCO. The ambition to create a truly dominant organization free of any Western influence may become a reality in the near future. It is quite easy to set up formal multilateral organization. However, whether this organization can or cannot have a real effect on international relations is another matter. In this institutional dimension, China has more freedom to play, since its partners do not treat the issue as a priority. Russia and the Central Asian states understand the utility that the SCO provides to them. This multilateral institution is also helping China and Russia to regulate their interactions in Central Asia. China will not give up its attempt to play the leading role because it has huge stakes riding on it, including its international reputation and credibility.
[i] Aris, S. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: “tackling the three evils”. A regional response to non-traditional security challenges or an anti-Western bloc? Europe-Asia Studies. 61(3), 2009, p.462.
[ii] 余建华. 上海合作组织非传统安全研究 (Yu Jianhua. Studies on the Nontraditional Security of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). Shanghai: 上海社会嗑序言出版社, 2009.
[iii] Cooley, A. The League of Authoritarian Gentlemen. http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/01/30/the-league-of-authoritarian-gentlemen/
[iv] Chung, C. P. China and the institutionalization of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Problems of Post-Communism, 53(5), 2006, pp. 3-14; Guang, P. A new diplomatic model: a Chinese Perspective on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Washington Journal of Modern China 9(1), 2008, pp. 55-72.Yuan, J.D. China’s role in the establishing and building the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Journal of Contemporary China, 19(67), 2010, pp.855-869;
[v] Alyson J. K. Bailes, Pál Dunay, Pan Guang, Mikhail Troitskiy. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization. SIPRI Policy Paper No. 17, pp. 45-58.
[vi]上海合作组织建立自由贸易区可行性分析. 发布时间：2013-12-12 16:14:38作者：吴宏伟文章来源：载李进峰，吴宏伟、李伟主编《上海合作组织发展报告（2013）》，社会科学文献出版社2013年9月第1版。http://studysco.cass.cn/shyj/jjhz/201311/t20131125_880359.html
[vii]上合组织开发银行——中国全面金融外交的新设想. 银行业研究 2014.09.19 第 126 期. http://www.icbc.com.cn/SiteCollectionDocuments/ICBC/Resources/ICBC/fengmao/download/2014/shanghezuzhikaifayinhang.pdf
[viii] Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily), 16 June 2004.
[ix] S. Kushkumbaev .The development of SCO as a regional organization: a potential of expansion. http://kisi.kz/en/categories/geopolitics-and-international-affairs/posts/the-development-of-sco-as-a-regional-organization-a-pot
[x] Wang Haiyan. Regional Economic Cooperation in Central Asia under the Framework of Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Journal of Xinjiang Normal University (Social Sciences). №2. June, 2008.
[xi]中华人民共和国与俄罗斯联邦关于丝绸之路经济带建设和欧亚经济联盟建设对接合作的联合声明（全文）(“Joint statement between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on cooperation in construction of conjugation of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt”) http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/web/ziliao_674904/zt_674979/dnzt_674981/qtzt/ydyl_675049/zyxw_675051/t1262143.shtml
[xii] Song, W. Interests, Power and China’s Difficult Game in the SCO. Journal of Contemporary China, 23(85), 2014, pp.85-101;
[xiii] Roy, M.S. Dynamics of expanding the SCO. http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/DynamicsofExpandingtheSCO_msroy_040411
*Published in the April 2016 No. 4 issue of the “Asya Avrupa: Haber-Yorum” journal.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Azhar Serikkaliyeva graduated from China Studies Department of the Faculty of Oriental Studies in Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in 2008. She completed master education in 2010 by presenting her master thesis namely ‘Chinese strategy of peaceful rising and current sino-kazakh relations ’. She holds a Masters in Area Studies from al-Farabi Kazakh National University. Azhar Serikkaliyeva started doctorate process in 2010 and completed it in 2014 by presenting her PhD thesis ‘Chinese social and economic activity at the SCO’. During academic career she has published more than 20 scientific p