Russia and Eurasia

The First Ten Years of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)

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Ten years after its establishment on June 15, 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), successor to the original Group of Five (Shanghai Five), is still in a state of flux. Its continued existence though has resulted in it becoming largely entrenched in the political-economic landscape of Central, South and East Asian countries [1].


sco_logoThe SCO acts as a regional security organization, whose members include China, Russia and the four Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), covering an area of 30 million square kilometers with a population of 1,455 billion people, or one quarter of the world’s total population. It is governed from Beijing and it operates in a highly diverse political environment. Its activities are highly diverse. It also serves as a forum for maintaining relations with other major Asian countries in various spheres. It has accepted a few new members since 2001. Mongolia has held observer status since 2004, and India, Iran and Pakistan became also observers the following year. Diplomats from Afghanistan and Turkmenistan regularly attend its conferences as guests, while Belarus and Sri Lanka are also now affiliated with the organization as dialogue partners. In recent years the SCO has developed relations with regional and international institutions, such as the European Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the association of South East Asian Nations, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and others. The SCO has also an observer status at the UN General Assembly [2].

The SCO is more than an instrument for the consolidation of political and economic relations of its member states; the organization represents a Chinese attempt to create a system of regional cooperation that it can use to further its foreign policy objectives in its neighborhood. As it operates in an area with amble room to engage in strategic maneuvers, the SCO is seeking ways to enhance its already considerable sway by admitting new members, discussing how to deal with the war in Afghanistan and developing energy cooperation. These issues continue to be high on its current discussion agenda. The future will demonstrate whether or not it will have to adopt an operational plan agreed upon by both Russia and China in order to fulfill its ambitious program. The delicate balance of interests between Moscow and Beijing significantly affects the group’s ability to act in a concerted fashion and an incisive way.

  • Origin and mission

The Shanghai-based inter-governmental body has continually sought to expand on its founding purpose since its establishment ten years ago. It has proved its ability to effectively act as more of an inter-regional cooperation mechanism than the Group of Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) ever did. Although the Group of Five’s work basically hinged around strengthening border security, the SCO soon put forth a more comprehensive and integrated form of collaboration. Its Charter of Establishment, signed as a treaty in 2002 in St. Petersburg, and the nature of the organization as defined under international law, detailed its prerogatives, the main ones being the maintenance of security and stability in spheres of political, economic and cultural relations between its members [3].

Combating terrorism, separatism and fundamentalism – threats shared by individual countries – are objectives high on the agenda of the SCO. This was demonstrated in 2004 with the establishment of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), which became a permanent body aimed at developing common strategies in these areas. There are also coordination programs in the spheres of trade, technology, tourism, transport and energy. These activities are funded internally, which helps to ensure the dominance of China and Russia, the two wealthiest countries within the group. They continue to be the main financial contributors to the organization (it is estimated that Beijing and Moscow have donated funding amounting to $900 million and $500 million, respectively). The summit held in Tashkent in June 2004 saw the establishment of a General Secretariat for the organization, which, in addition to the RATS, has fostered greater institutional development of the SCO as a whole. As a result, the organization is now equipped with coordination and representation mechanisms, enabling the organization to function during intervals between meetings and the various forums organized by its constituent groups [4].

  • Obstacles to enlargement
The accession of new members continues to remain one of the most controversial issues the SCO executive faces. Many countries, each having their own unique features and interests, wish to negotiate their accession to the organization on terms which best suit them. The status within the organization can vary: full Member, Observer (created in 2008), Dialogue Partner and Guest Attendance. However, the SCO has not added one full-fledged member since its establishment in 2001. Only Mongolia has a real opportunity of being granted full membership status any time soon.


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*Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 2 | No. 2

** Richard Rousseau is Professor of International Relations at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku and contributor to Global Brief, World Affairs in the 21st Century.

© Copyright 2011 by CESRAN

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