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Mainstream, VOL L No 27, June 23, 2012

An Overview of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

Wednesday 27 June 2012, by Kriti Singh


With the determination to make Central Asia a nuclear-free zone and accepting the “Declaration on Building a Region with Lasting Peace and Common Prosperity”1 the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), under the banner of the Shanghai spirit, is on the verge of completing eleven years of its existence. The SCO is a complex and dynamic organisation that marks the altering trend of the 21st century political alliances, and it advocates for the regional organisations to multiply, to become more multifunctional and devote themselves in whole or part to security goals.2
The genesis of the SCO began with the establi-shment of the Shanghai Five on April 26, 1996. The key members of the Shanghai Five were China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Later on with the addition of Uzbekistan in 2001, the Shanghai Five became Shanghai Six. Finally on June 15, 2001, the ‘Declaration of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’ was signed by the key members. Hence came into existence the permanent intergovernmental international organisation, ‘Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’.

Today, the key members of the complex SCO are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Observer States are Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan. The Dialogue Partners are Belarus, Sri Lanka and Turkey. And the Guest Attendances are Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Turkmenistan.
The main objectives of the SCO are, firstly, to strengthen the mutual confidence and good-neighbourly relations among the member countries. Secondly, to promote effective cooperation in politics, trade, economy, science technology and culture. In addition to this, an efficient collaboration is sought in the areas of education, energy, transportation, tourism, environmental protection and other fields. Thirdly, to make joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region, moving towards the establishment of a new, democratic, just and rational political and economic international order.3

A word on its principles. The SCO abides by the following basic principles: firstly, adherence to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations. Secondly, respect for each other’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Thirdly, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, mutual non-use or threat of use of force. Fourthly, equality among all member states; settlement of all questions through consultations. Fifthly, non-alignment and no directing against any other country or organisation. Lastly, opening to the outside world and willingness to carry out all forms of dialogues, exchanges and cooperation with other countries and relevant international or regional organisations.4

The reasons behind the making of the SCO were, firstly, to ease the prolonged tension between Russia and China over border issues. The matter took a different dimension after the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of newly independent Central Asian republics like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which now shared their borders with China and Russia respectively. In order to maintain stability in the region and as a confidence building measure, the Shanghai Five signed the Shanghai Agreement on Confidence Building in the Military Field in the Border Areas. This was followed by the Agreement on Mutual Reduction of Military Forces in the Border Areas in 1997. Secondly, issues like ‘terrorism, separatism and extremism’ were a common menace for this region, and a joint intergovernmental network and coordination was the need of hour. Thirdly, another reason binding the member countries was the need of economic cooperation in the region, given the abundance of natural resources in the area and growing demand for it.

The following table represents the basic data of the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, 2010.5 Moreover the SCO member-states occupy a territory of around 30 million 189 thousand square kilometres, which makes up three-fifths of the Eurasian continent, and have a population of 1.5 billion, which makes up a quarter of the planet’s population.6

Coming to its achievements, one of the notable features of the SCO is that on the regional platform it has able to extend its influence with its own unique indigenous approach followed by its speedy advancement in the region and across. Moreover it provides a distinctive platform to showcase and understand the security concern of the Asian region. In addition to this, the SCO advocates joint operations against the threats or main evils: terrorism, separatism and extremism. With the passage of time, the SCO has increased its participation in the region with various activities like military cooperation, intelligence sharing, counter-terrorism drills, and intensified focus on Afghanistan,.

Country Area (sq km) Population GDP (US $ b.) GDP Real Growth Rate (US $) Military expenditure (US $ m.)
China 9,596,961 1,338,300,000 $5,926,612,009,750 10.5% 121,064
Kazakhstan 2,724,900 16,323,000 $149,058,911,551 7.3% 1,502
Kyrgyzstan 199,951 5,448,000 $4,616,164,825 -0.4% 202
Russia 17,098,242 141,750,000 $1,479,819,314,058 4.3% 58,644
Tajikistan 143,100 6,879,000 $5,640,410,959 6.5% ——-
Uzbekistan 447,400 28,228,000 $38,981,605,338 8.5% ———

Highlighting the accomplishment of the SCO, Chinese President Hu Jintao, at a recent joint press statement (published by Xinhua), show-cased several of its achievements. Firstly, Hu Jintao commended the joint participation of the SCO members in promoting regional peace and common stability. Secondly, he pointed at the essence of the new transnational relationship pattern developing in the region. A relationship which is committed to the development of good-neighbourly and friendly cooperation and to enhance mutual trust and coordination in the region. One noteworthy remark which was emphasised by Hu Jintao was: ‘The SCO members have worked together to seek common ground and development while accepting differences under the banner of the Shanghai spirit that highlights mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, negotiations and respect for diversity.’7
In more than a decade-old journey of the SCO, the following are a few noteworthy milestones. On the security front, the SCO established the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in 2004 after the convention “On fighting with terrorism, separatism and extremism” in 2001. Its centre is in Tashkent city in the Republic of Uzbekistan.8 On the economic front, in 2009 the Business Council of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was created. The prime objective of this non-governmental body was to bring together the most influential members of the business communities of the six countries. The aim was to boost economic cooperation, establish direct links and dialogue among business and financial circles of the SCO member states, assist practical promotion of multilateral projects determined in 2003 by the heads of government in the Programme of Trade and Economic Cooperation.9 On October 26, 2005, the Interbank Consortium of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was established. The main aim of the IBC is to support regional economic cooperation.10

Talking about the criticism of the SCO, the SIPRI Policy Paper on SCO states that “the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has remained one of the world’s least-known and least-analysed multilateral groups. It makes little effort itself for transparency and is only patchily institutionalised in any case…. Outside its participant countries, the SCO has attracted mainly skeptical and negative comment: some questioning whether it has anything more than symbolic substance, others criticising the lack of democratic credentials of its members and questioning the legitimacy of their various policies.” Extreme views on the nature of this organisation often accompany the lack of accuracy by many commentators. Some describe the SCO as a paper tiger while others suspici-ously eye it as a counterweight to the NATO. At the SCO’s five-year mark, a few authors questioned whether it was a nascent military alliance.11

Another critical view about the SCO by the CFR Senior Fellow, Evan A. Feigenbaum, is that “it is hard to point to concrete achievements in many of these areas—except on the basis of bilateral or non-SCO agreements and under-standings.” Experts also suggest that the SCO, held back by internal divisions, is not as cohesive as some believe. In view of S. Frederick Starr, Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and a Professor at Johns Hopkins University, the “fundamental asymmetry” of the SCO is that “China recognises the right of Central Asian states to make their own decisions... Russia does not.” This dynamic was highlighted in August 2008 when Central Asian members and China refused to unconditionally support Moscow during Russia’s conflict with Georgia.12

To conclude, the driving philosophy for the SCO is the so-called “Shanghai spirit”. It has a long way to go and all reasons to stay. It was a strategically calculated historic step taken in the uncertain backdrop of the rise of China, reorganisation of Russia and emergence of newly independent states of Central Asia.13 And after more than a decade of its existence, it continues to tackle challenges like terrorism, separatism, extremism, transnational organised crime, regional instability and drug trafficking. Moreover it is spreading its influence on other countries and international organisations also. The future comes loaded with numerous challenges and opportunities. The real question is: what strategies India should adopt so that it too plays a vital role in the SCO?

1. ‘Shanghai Organisation’s summit: diplomacy is the only solution’, Voice of Russia,
2. ‘The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’, SIPRI Policy Paper No. 17, by Alyson J.K. Bailes, Pál Dunay, Pan Guang and Mikhail Troitskiy
3. ‘Brief introduction to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’,
4. ‘Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of China.
5. Data collected from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, World Bank Data, CIA, The World Factbook.
6. ‘Brief introduction to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’,
7. ‘SCO achieves numerous accomplishments in past decade, Hu says’, People’s Daily. June 8, 2012. Online.
9. The Business Council of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation,
10. The Interbank Consortium of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation,
11. ‘Ten Years of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: A Lost Decade? A Partner for the U.S.?’ by Julie Boland, 21st century defense initiative policy paper, Brookings.
12. ‘The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’, by Andrew Scheineson, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR),
13. ‘Ten Years of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: A Lost Decade? A Partner for the U.S.?’ by Julie Boland, 21st century defence initiative policy paper, Brookings.

The author is a freelance journalist.

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