The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: A Central Asian Forum to Rival the West?

Lucrezia Rossi (DCU Brexit Institute)

The origin of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) dates back to 1996, when China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan signed an international agreement known as Group of Shanghai (or Shanghai Five), whose major purpose was to guarantee security in Central Asia. As a matter of fact, to overcome the border tensions that existed amongst them, the five States opted to promote reciprocal trust, the principle of good neighbourliness, and, mainly, to fight regional terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism. A second purpose of the Organisation was to make the competition between Russia and China in Central Asia cooperative rather than competitive. Neither Russia nor China was (or indeed is) willing to let the other to be the only regional power in Central Asia.

In 2001, Uzbekistan joined the Group of Shanghai, which subsequently became the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as we know it today. While initially the goals of the SCO remained mostly the same, it later developed further and growing cooperation in other fields such as education, economy, and environment. Since then, the SCO has seen its membership increase as it welcomed India, Pakistan and, as of 15th September 2022, Iran. Other than these permanent member states, the SCO also sees the participation of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar as dialogue partners, together with Armenia, Cambodia, Azerbaijan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Turkey. Finally, Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia take part in the SCO work as observer members.

To better understand the relevance of the SCO in today’s world, it is necessary to have a look at its numbers and data: gathering 40% of the world’s population and counting for 30% of the world GDP, the SCO is the largest regional organisation and it is likely to grow its influence in the future, not only in Central Asia, but also globally. Although its members declared that the SCO is not meant to be anti-western, being a regional organisation based in Central Asia implies that none of the Western countries belongs to it. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the US asked to join the SCO as observer in 2005 and that this request was denied. Additionally, the involvement of both India and Turkey within the SCO is relevant: while the first is a member of the Quad alliance (along with Australia, Japan and the United States), the latter is a member of NATO. Finally, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is being monitored by the West in light of its willingness to propose a new model of international relations, where multipolarism should replace the western uni-/multi-lateralism. Indeed, yet another reason that pushed Russia and China to cooperate in Central Asia was (and still is) avoiding any further US/Western presence in the region. The western presence in the region has indeed become important in the early ‘00s, when, following the 9/11 events, Uzbekistan hosted US military bases on its territory to help Washington fighting terrorism. As terrorism is amongst the “Three Evils” the SCO is supposed to tackle, the US presence in the region – at that time – did not represent a threat to Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia. To better fight terrorism, the SCO’s members created, in 2002, the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), a permanent body responsible for leading activities against terrorism and monitoring data and information. Furthermore, the SCO organised multiple joint military exercises over the years.

During the most recent summit of the SCO, held in Samarkand on 15th and 16th September 2022, all eyes were on the attitude of both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi towards Vladimir Putin. If on one side Russia’s attendance at the summit was intended to demonstrate that Moscow is not as internationally isolated as the US and the EU would like it to be, on the other side India and China made clear that the war in Ukraine should not last any longer, due to the great crisis that is hitting the world as a whole. In this regard, the SCO’s summit in Samarkand has been extremely significant as it showed that also those countries who claimed themselves neutral with regard to the conflict in Ukraine, have now stated that the sooner the war ends, the better. As for Russia, this turning point can be considered an alarm bell: if India and China (whose foreign policy is based on the principle of territorial integrity) will no longer be neutral, this may represent a first step towards Russian isolation on the international stage.

Finally, a last item on the SCO summit agenda concerned the situation in Afghanistan; on this Mirziyoyev – the leader of Uzbekistan – described the necessity to help Afghanistan to overcome the crisis it is facing as a moral obligation. Such a statement clearly demonstrates that the SCO is eager to increase its influence and presence in Central Asia, taking advantage of the void left by the US in the region itself.

Clearly, the SCO has evolved over the years from being a minor regional organisation to be a major international forum, a place to deal with the main international topics. In this regard, the SCO is getting closer and closer to setting itself up as an alternative to the western multilateral fora. Born as an organisation set to solve border disputes amongst its members, the SCO widened its scope creating the RATS and, lately, paying more attention to subjects that have a global impact such as climate change, energy and economic cooperation, and the war in Ukraine. Although the outcome of the war is still uncertain, the role played by Xi and Modi in “chiding” Putin demonstrates that the SCO has become an alternative forum where – contrary to the western fora – dialogue can still happen.

In conclusion, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has seen considerable growth in its geopolitical relevance over the years, whether due to the increasing number of members, the changing international circumstances, or both. What is clear, so far, is that the SCO might become (if it is not already) a major competitor to the western multilateral system.

The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.


Image credits: Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

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The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the REBUILD Centre Blog.