The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) should be given more attention as China and Russia increasingly turn their attention to Central Asia. The two regional hegemons have used the SCO as a platform to balance and coordinate their interests in the Central Asian region. As its primary initiator, the SCO constitutes China’s most important policy tool for regional security in its Western neighborhood.
For Russia, which has co-led the organization, the SCO is a well-established format for Sino-Russian-Central Asian cooperation, which can potentially be used to promote its plans for a Greater Eurasian Partnership. The SCO is also of strategic and political relevance for its Central Asian members, which lack alternative inclusive cooperation platforms.
The SCO evolved from an ad hoc cooperation to address immediate security concerns which appeared as a consequence of the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Since then, the SCO member states established problem-solving mechanisms and processes, and developed a broader approach to regional governance. To a large extent, form and content of the SCO have been defined by Chinese foreign policy principles and priorities.
After the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991, a power vacuum emerged in the Eurasian space. The existing security and economic architecture dissolved and new structures had to be put in place. In this situation, the SCO, and the informal multilateral cooperation process preceding it (“Shanghai Five”), filled a gap. What first started off as a mechanism to promote demilitarization and confidence-building measures in border areas developed into a broader process, which helped the participating states (i.e. the post-Soviet states and the two regional hegemons, Russia and China) to define their relationships. During this process, new rules of the game in Central Asia were defined.
Today, the organization is at a crossroads. China’s economic rise has shifted the power balance within Central Asia, as well as within the SCO. Anxious about China’s growing dominance, Russia does its best to counterbalance China’s weight. It has blocked Chinese attempts at deepening economic integration among SCO members and supported India’s entry to the organization in order to dilute China’s dominant position within the SCO.
As a consequence of this imbalance, the SCO could either remain a relevant actor for cooperation in Eurasia or risks degenerating into a symbolic organization. The interviews conducted for this study suggest that this will, in large part, depend on the role that the SCO will be given in the respective foreign policy strategies of its leading member states, China and Russia. Indeed, it has been these two countries‘ commitments that have given the organization its role and significance in the past.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is a multilateral group initially comprised of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It was founded in 2001 and enlarged in 2017 to include India and Pakistan. Since its formation, the SCO has been focused on regional non-traditional security, with counterterrorism being a priority: The fight against the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism has become its hallmark. During the life of the cooperation, however, the organization’s agenda has gradually expanded. Today, themes such as economics and culture are also on the agenda.
The SCO is set up in a way that it can change quickly and is located in a region with a volatile security situation. It is recommended to closely monitor how the SCO develops in the coming years, which will be decisive for its future. This should include efforts to enhance research capacities that seek to better understand relevant developments on the ground. Will SCO capacity for action improve or will it, as a consequence of the enlargement, lose momentum and focus? What are the conflicts and activities the SCO will be engaging in?
Its member states, notably China and Russia, have used the SCO as a locus to formulate common positions and norms. Some security concepts, such as terrorism or cyber security, which they also promote in international forums, are problematic in terms of their implications for human rights and liberal democracy. To be sensitive to differences in policy definitions and approaches and clear about one’s own position will help shape future interactions with the SCO and its member states. As a rather internally-focused organization, the SCO has chosen the UN and to some extent the OSCE as forums to promote, and sometimes actively present, its (foreign) policy positions and norms to a broader public. These efforts will continue as the organization seeks to strengthen its ties with the UN and regional organizations. Having an ongoing and active debate about topics that affect the governance in key policy areas, and the international order at large, is important in the face of the ongoing global power shift.