Backgrounder: Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was established in 2001, has grown into a significant regional organization in Eurasia and is gaining more and more attention from member states and observers worldwide. This backgrounder aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the SCO’s history, strategic motivations, and prevailing trends, as well as its function and significance in current geopolitics.
Although the Shanghai Cooperation Organization of Eurasia has expanded its agenda to include extensive security and economic initiatives, it remains to be seen whether the bloc’s members are capable of developing and putting into action unified policy.


China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an intergovernmental organization that was established in Shanghai in 2001. The organization’s goals and agenda have since expanded to include increased military and counterterrorism cooperation as well as the sharing of intelligence.

It was initially established as a forum for building confidence to demilitarize borders. The SCO has also increased its focus on regional economic initiatives like the integration of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and the China-led Silk Road Economic Belt, which was recently announced. While some experts claim that the group has established itself as an anti-U.S. bulwark in Central Asia, others contend that tensions among its members effectively prevent a SCO from being strong and united.

What is SCO?

Initially coordinated as the Shanghai Five of every 1996, the association added Uzbekistan in 2001 and renamed itself the Shanghai Collaboration Association. With a population of 1.5 billion, or a quarter of the world’s total, the six member states encompass three-fifths of the Eurasian continent. The SCO includes six dialogue partners, four observer nations, and two brand-new acceding members—India and Pakistan.

The organization’s charter states that it serves as a forum for promoting cooperation in education, energy, transportation, politics, trade, the economy, and culture as well as for strengthening confidence and neighborly relations among its member nations.

The secretariat in Beijing and the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, are the two permanent headquarters of the SCO. Promoting cooperation on security-related issues, specifically to combat the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism, is one of the organization’s primary goals.

Consensus-based decisions are adopted by the organization, and the fundamental principle of non-aggression and non-interference in internal affairs must be upheld by all member states.

The SCO has limited regional influence for a young organization. The SCO and its main organizational bodies, according to senior fellow and Hudson Institute director Richard Weitz, are “chronically underfunded and have limited powers to take decisions independently of their member governments.”

Part states’ propensity for seeking after “miniature plans” additionally subverts bunch union and sows doubt, says Matthew Crosston, teacher and overseer of the Global Security and Knowledge Studies Program at Bellevue College.

The SCO has expanded its mandate to include joint security and economic development programs in recent years despite these difficulties. In 2014, China facilitated the alliance’s Tranquility Mission, its biggest military practice as far as the number soldiers included, in excess of 7,000, and high level weaponry conveyed. Initiatives to strengthen economic and energy cooperation, including the establishment of a bloc-wide development bank, are additional organizational priorities.

(Picture Credit: Council of Foreign Council)

What role does the SCO play in Afghanistan?

Although the SCO, as a group, has little influence in Afghanistan, the group sees religious extremism, terrorism, and drug trafficking as serious threats to the region. Its neighbors share the apprehension that unsteadiness in Afghanistan will spread past its boundaries. At the 2012 SCO summit in Beijing, Afghanistan was elevated from an SCO contact group to full observer status, allowing Kabul to participate in SCO counterterrorism initiatives.

With the presence of the Taliban and neighborhood aggressors lined up with oneself broadcasted Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and the drawdown of NATO powers, the landlocked country’s security circumstance stays a first concern at SCO gatherings. New Afghan pioneers President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah have moved more noteworthy SCO cooperation in reconstructing endeavors, yet the association has had little contribution to date.

In any case, some SCO part countries have escalated two-sided commitment with the country. China, specifically, has looked to assume a bigger part in balancing out Afghanistan to safeguard its significant ventures. China is currently Afghanistan’s largest SCO investor, with projects like the $3 billion contract to develop the Aynak copper mine, which has been delayed numerous times.

Beijing hopes that a stable Afghanistan will have a “spillover” effect on China’s Xinjiang autonomous region, which is currently in a state of turmoil. Russia, as well, partakes in different respective endeavors with Afghanistan, including the arrangement of weapons to its military, counternarcotics drives, and its own venture projects. The Soviet Union and Afghanistan were at war from 1979 to 1989, but Russia is now interested in Afghanistan’s safety.

According to Raffaello Pantucci of the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Moscow views the Central Asian members of the SCO as a buffer zone between Russia and Afghanistan. As a result, Moscow chooses to strengthen broader regional security to prevent Afghan instability from spreading to Russian borders. Additionally, significant investments have been made in Afghanistan by Central Asian partners like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

It is unclear whether the SCO will expand its role in Afghanistan in spite of these bilateral initiatives. The association’s thin activity is to a limited extent because of the obstructivism by individuals who like to handle security issues at the respective level, and erosion and doubt between individuals keep the SCO from shaping a bound together strategy on security issues in Afghanistan.

Experts point to the bloc’s lack of political will and limited economic capacity [PDF] to assume a military role. However, Western powers may come to appreciate the Eurasian organization, as Weitz writes, if members of the SCO could effectively contribute to Afghan prosperity and security.

Does the SCO foster economic cooperation among member states?

In recent years, economic cooperation has emerged as one of the organization’s most pressing objectives. The SCO Development Strategy was approved by member states at the Ufa summit in Russia. It prioritized strengthening cooperation in finance, investment, and trade over the next ten years. Beijing has pushed the association to zero in on monetary collaboration with recommendations like sending off an improvement store and a streamlined commerce zone.

Pantucci claims that numerous of these initiatives have previously been “met with skepticism” [PDF]. Despite Russian concerns about China’s growing influence in former Soviet satellites, Central Asian member states, in need of infrastructure and energy investments, have responded to these overtures.

A few SCO part states — quite Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan — have a portion of the world’s biggest stores of oil and petroleum gas, driving interest in extended energy collaboration among individuals. At a June 2006 highest point, Russian President Vladimir Putin required an “energy exchange, combination of our public energy ideas, and the making of an Energy Club.

During that meeting, member states discussed promoting regional development through preferential energy agreements and creating a “unified energy market” for oil and gas exports. In any case, the plans never appeared because of veering intrigues [PDF] between energy customers and energy makers. Uzbekistan increasingly requires its energy resources for domestic development and consumption, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s economies remain weak, and Kazkhakstan and Russia are the dominant energy exporters.

China is looking to tap energy resources to meet its growing demand. Julie Boland, a former Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution, claims that members “prefer to keep national control over their production, supply, and consumption mechanisms and agreements.

However, regional energy cooperation takes place outside of the SCO’s purview. Russia has reached agreements to construct gas pipelines with several of its neighbors in Central Asia. Similar to China’s energy diplomacy, it is bilateral. For instance, the Focal Asia-China Gas Pipeline comprises of numerous lines, both finished yet under development, running in excess of 1,100 miles through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to China’s Xinjiang Uighur Independent Locale.

As part of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt, Beijing also promised a $16.3 billion fund to integrate the region and revive old trade routes. Energy deals between Beijing and Moscow are also on the rise, even though China’s flurry of activity has been uprooting Russia’s traditionally dominant influence in the region.

One aspect of the economic exchanges among SCO members is energy cooperation. In 2010, China proposed establishing an inter-SCO Development Bank as a regionalized, smaller version of the World Bank and IMF. Moscow has been able to block the establishment of the SCO Development Bank for years due to the consensus-based decision-making procedures of the SCO.

Moscow was concerned that the organization would cede complete control to Beijing, the SCO’s dominant financier, if it did so. However the last report from the 2015 Ufa highest point didn’t address the situation with the bank, there are signs that Russia might be more ready to help out China pushing ahead. Sarah Lain of RUSI writes that “Russia appears willing to accept some loss of status in favor of China” within multilateral bodies in order to benefit from closer ties with China.

(Picture Credit: Shutterstock)

How will membership expansion affect the SCO?

Amplification brings the two dangers and prizes. Until now, the SCO still can’t seem to settle the development of its participation, in spite of utilizations from India, Iran, and Pakistan. At the heads of state summit in September 2014, the SCO overcame all legal obstacles to expansion, and India and Pakistan began the process of joining at the summit in Ufa in July 2015.

Belarus, a previous exchange accomplice, was likewise moved up to onlooker state, and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal were presented as new discourse accomplices.

Beijing keeps up with that SCO extension would “imbue new power into the gathering’s future turn of events and lift its impact and allure in the worldwide field.” India and Pakistan’s inclusion in the bloc is seen by Moscow as an opportunity to boost the bloc’s political and economic potential as well as its capacity to confront pressing regional issues.

In the meantime, smaller SCO members see India and Pakistan’s inclusion as an opportunity to diversify and establish new partnerships because they are worried about being squeezed by the interests of two superpowers.

In the mean time, some region specialists say that presenting new individuals — incorporating those with laden respective relations like India and Pakistan — to an association that has been reprimanded for inefficacy is probably not going to bring about more prominent efficiencies or union.

Alexander Cooley, a professor at Barnard College, warns that the SCO will become “a symbolic organization rather than a vehicle for any kind of substantive regional integration or cooperative problem solving” as a result of expansion.

Some experts claim that the still-young group can benefit from collective gains despite the potential drawbacks. The prospects for a SCO Development Bank may improve as the two countries of South Asia join forces. New Delhi, quick to put resources into Focal Asia, would be a wellspring of significant funding and infuse life into aggressive framework and energy improvement plans.

India, the largest democracy in the world, could also give the group, which has traditionally been thought of as a group of authoritarian governments, more legitimacy. “while expansion may hinder the organization’s ability to act decisively, it will give the SCO the opportunity to revolutionize itself into a more comprehensive institution capable of connecting and integrating a broad swath of Asia,” write Elizabeth C. Economy and William Piekos of CFR.

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