The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has evolved due to a convergence of great power strategic policies in Eurasia, along with immediate post-Cold War concerns about a potential security vacuum in Central Asia as well as the rise of ‘globalised’ terrorism. Shortly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, one of Russia’s primary foreign policy concerns was to maintain security in its ‘near abroad’, meaning in the peripheral states of the former USSR. At the same time, China was also seeking to improve the security of its borders with Central Asia in order to prevent the importing of the so-called ‘three evils’ (extremism, separatism and terrorism) into China’s far western regions, especially Xinjiang. While also expressing wariness of growing American power in Eurasia, especially once the post-2001 war in Afghanistan commenced, both states were hoping for a ‘peace dividend’, due to the end of the Cold War, which would allow for a pulling back of their forces from their mutual borders.
In the eyes of both the Boris Yeltsin government in Russia and the Jiang Zemin administration in Beijing, there were a limited number of options available for promoting greater security in Central Asia. Neither power was willing or able to increase its military presence in the region unilaterally, nor was the creation of a NATO-like alliance system in the region satisfactory for either government. Beijing was also concerned about being considered an expansionist power in the region and was more open to the idea of creating a security community, as opposed to a formal defence pact in Central Asia. In addition, given Chinese interests in improving economic ties with its neighbours as well as further improving relations with Russia, the Jiang government was seeking a trade dimension to any cooperation agreement.
The SCO, founded in 2001, evolved from the ‘Shanghai Five’ dialogues during the late 1990s which were held to address leftover Sino-Soviet border disputes as well as to promote peaceful political cooperation in Central Asia. The SCO brought together China and Russia along with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There was much emphasis on the organisation being considered a security community as opposed to an alliance-in-waiting, despite Western and especially American concerns. The membership was expanded via a 2016 agreement which allowed former SCO observer states India and Pakistan to become full members in 2017. The inclusion of India in the group has been difficult for China, especially given recent Sino-Indian border tensions that resulted in the Doklam incident near Bhutan in mid-2017. Iran has made little secret of its interest in becoming a full member of the organisation, but although Moscow has been supportive of the move, China has been more focussed on potential Iranian membership due to concerns about Teheran’s still-ambiguous nuclear weapons policies.
Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia are observer states in the organisation in addition to Iran, with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey (the only NATO member also linked to the SCO) as SCO dialogue partners. Turkmenistan, the sole former Soviet Central Asian republic which is not an SCO member, does periodically send representatives to SCO events as ‘guests’, but has demurred, due to the country’s commitment to neutrality, from applying for full membership. SCO meetings have also included guest delegations from the United Nations, ASEAN countries and the Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In 2004 a permanent SCO Secretariat was established in Beijing, with a Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS), based in Tashkent, acting as an information repository on regional security threats, especially in regard to terrorist organisations. In recent years, the SCO has been willing to increasingly engage the UN as well as regional regimes such as the African Union (AU) in sharing data about global terrorist threats.
From a hard-security viewpoint, the mandate of the SCO has shifted considerably in the past decade both for internal and external reasons. Border security, while not completely off the organisation’s agenda, has been eclipsed both by fears of regional terrorism and transnational crime, as well as looming great power concerns as relations between the US and Russia remain strained. One of the SCO’s initial tasks was to develop Eurasian security to protect its members from non-state security threats including terrorist organisations, ranging from local groups within member states to more globalised entities such as al-Qaedaand later the Islamic State (IS). The creation of the SCO also filled what was a looming security vacuum created after the fall of the USSR, without either Russia or China assuming a completely hegemonic role. However, despite numerous assertions of mutual goodwill and support for the SCO’s development, there are noticeable differences in the two great powers’ perceptions of the group’s policy trajectory, a factor which may affect how the SCO evolves as a security regime in the coming years.
Moscow under Vladimir Putin still views itself as the ‘big brother’ in Eurasian affairs and has been far more supportive of the idea of the SCO becoming a more formal security actor, even to the point of eventually counter-balancing the West. Since 2005, Russia has been supportive of military cooperation via the SCO, including various ‘Peace Mission’ joint military manoeuvres featuring member state armed forces. China was initially reluctant to engage too heavily in these operations, but in recent years military cooperation between the two states has become considerably closer, as attested by the ‘Vostok-2018’ Russian military exercises in September of this year, which included more than three thousand personnel from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Russia’s diplomatic isolation since the 2014 Ukraine crises has meant that Putin’s government has continuously looked east, including to fellow SCO members, for diplomatic support, but sometimes with mixed results. In the cases of the Russian conflict in Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea and Russian-led conflicts in eastern Ukraine since 2014, the responses from other SCO governments, including Beijing, have been muted at best.
China has taken a much more holistic view of the SCO, especially in recent years, viewing the organisation not only as a security mechanism but also as a potential platform from which to create a more multifaceted Eurasian community. Both Russia and Central Asia have factored heavily into the development of land-based trade routes connected to the overall ‘Belt and Road’ initiative (BRI). For example, the ‘dry port’ facilities at Khorgos in southern Kazakhstan have been a centrepiece of the BRI and a potential hub for mass shipping between Asia and Europe. Although the Putin administration has supported the BRI, there is nonetheless some uneasiness in Russian policy circles as to whether China is seeking to use its growing economic power to rebuff Moscow’s influence in Eurasia gradually. Russia has also been less supportive of calls from the Xi Jinping government for an eventual SCO free trade deal.
At the most recent SCO leadership summit held in Qingdao in June 2018, there was continued support expressed for the fighting of the ‘three evils’ as well as calls for a negotiated settlement of conflicts, including those in Afghanistan and Syria. The isolationist foreign policies of the Donald Trump administration have also provided a greater window of opportunity for the SCO to provide its own alternative policies. For example, the Qingdao meeting included calls for a more open global economy in contrast to Trump’s protectionism, as well as offering support for the continuation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal from which the Trump government has walked away. Despite these policies, there remains the problem of the SCO’s future evolution, and whether the group will remain a security community or solidify into a more formal organisation, especially considering the still-chilly Russian relations with the US and Europe and growing signs that Sino-American relations are experiencing a downturn. Despite these questions, however, the SCO’s sheer size and potential influence ensure that it cannot be counted out by those seeking to understand ongoing shifts in global security.