Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO): A Real Force for Change?

By Sarah Lain

Inside the SCO. Photo: Raff Pantucci

Nestled in an area of Beijing populated by restaurants and shops identifiable mostly in Cyrillic, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) headquarters is housed in the old Japanese Embassy. It has the look of an in-progress refurbished building with plastic still covering the carpet. The member states’ flags flutter proudly outside the prominent entranceway, and an enormous gate surrounding the building is guarded attentively.

Since its inception as the Shanghai Five in 1996, the organisation’s main focus has been to stamp out the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism. Currently, the member states of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and (since 2001) Uzbekistan hold annual summits, at which they discuss matters of security, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and plans for joint military exercises. However, the exact substance of what goes on within the headquarters’ walls is not entirely clear. There are few visible members of personnel inside and a laid-back atmosphere prevails. Most significant strategic discussion-making appears to take place at the summits in regional capitals rather than at the Secretariat itself. This has left the SCO open to accusations of inefficiency and a lack of concrete action on its objectives. The organisation’s representatives announce actions and strategy in vague terms. But the SCO is not valueless. In light of the drawdown from Afghanistan, it has the potential to do much more to secure stability in the region.

Consensus as a Balancing Force

One of the most publicised cornerstones of the SCO’s cooperation is the joint military exercises, usually dubbed ‘Peace Missions’. These exercises do not always include all members. In August 2013 only Russia and China held joint military exercises in the Russian Urals. This was organised within the framework of the SCO, but certain press reports described it more within the context of improved Sino-Russian bilateral relations. This reflects another accusation levied against the SCO: that it is a tool used by Russia and China to exert their influence in the region. Russia and China have certainly led the way on a number of SCO initiatives. At the end of 2013, the SCO set up a new ‘anti-terrorist unit’ with a specific view to examine how the internet facilitates terrorist activity. This concern was raised in direct response to domestic attacks carried out in China by the country’s Uighur minority. Although this appears to embody an example of China utilising the SCO as a platform to address its own domestic issues, the SCO does officially work on the basis of consensus. Therefore, unless overt pressure tactics had been exerted by China in this instance, the SCO members must have agreed on the validity of the threat outlined and the action taken. It would be difficult for China to force its way on the issue unless all members agreed on China’s stance.



Other ‘Peace Missions’ have been more multilateral in character. In June 2012 joint military exercises were conducted in Tajikistan. Participants included Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. As is often the case, however, Uzbekistan refused to participate in these military exercises. This reflects the most significant challenge to the SCO.

A Forum for Discussion

Tensions between certain member states, most notably Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, have meant the main observable output for the SCO is to provide a platform for dialogue. This is certainly one of the successes cited by the SCO Secretariat. One could argue that the SCO’s ability to help lower instability between the Central Asians to border skirmishes between themselves is a victory in itself, although it is not clear if SCO discussions have directly led to the de-escalation of any tensions. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have a particularly complicated relationship. Uzbekistan’s opposition to Tajikistan’s construction of the Rogun Dam, Uzbekistan’s visa regime, the mining of the border and disagreements over Samarkand and Bukhara have been obstacles to fruitful discussion. This presents a challenge to collective action, particularly given the consensus-based decision-making required. In June 2012, not only did Uzbekistan refuse to attend the military exercises in Tajikistan, involving all the other member states, but also refused Kazakhstan’s troops and equipment from transiting through Uzbekistan to Tajikistan for the exercises. The SCO has provided a forum in which the relevant parties can discuss such issues. During the recent 31 July SCO Council of Foreign Ministers held in Dushanbe, representatives from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan met to discuss their bilateral relations, including cross-border cooperation. It remains to be seen whether this will have a concrete effect on the various issues between the countries.

The question of Afghanistan

The most relevant and substantive question for the SCO to address and cooperate on is Afghanistan. There has been little detail so far on whether the SCO has a real plan for filling the security void left by the drawdown of NATO forces to take place this year. In April 2014 at an SCO summit in Tajikistan, there were reports that member states discussed the idea of creating “mini buffer-states” in Northern Afghanistan in order to prevent any overspill of instability or terrorism into the region, which would represent the most concrete collective plan the SCO has devised so far. China and Russia will also conduct border security exercises in Afghanistan in 2014. The SCO has discussed counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics cooperation on Afghanistan. Although the current uncertainty over Afghanistan’s future government has stalled decision-making, this is a key area in which the SCO could fulfil its original role of combating the three evils. The SCO’s effectiveness will depend on how quickly it can work towards implementation of a plan once decided.

RATS Council Meeting, Tashkent,2014. Photo:

RATS Council Meeting, Tashkent, 2014.

What is clear is that the member states are engaging at some level with the SCO, even with the internal tensions that exist between member states. In spite of Uzbekistan’s resistance to joint military exercises, it does house the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure in Tashkent. Education is encouraged through the SCO University, which creates a network of student exchanges and scholarships between existing educational institutes in each member state. All member states have committed to a 2011-2016 counter-narcotics strategy. SCO observer states, in particular Pakistan and India, have expressed a keen desire to join as full SCO members. There is no doubt Russia and, to a greater extent, China are dominant players in the organisation, but this is in part necessary for it to organise itself. The SCO could be truly effective, but it first needs to view itself as capable of acting to dispel rumours that it is simply a talking shop. The headquarters should do more to articulate and communicate the organisation’s strategy and action plans – something not particularly apparent during a recent visit to the Secretariat. The SCO’s cautious approach to instigating real change is of concern given the imminent security concern facing it, particularly from Afghanistan.


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