What is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)?

Introduction

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), or Shanghai Pact, is a Eurasian political, economic, and security alliance, the creation of which was announced on 15 June 2001 in Shanghai, China by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan; the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Charter, formally establishing the organisation, was signed in June 2002 and entered into force on 19 September 2003.

The original five members, with the exclusion of Uzbekistan, were previously members of the Shanghai Five group, founded on 26 April 1996. Since then, the organisation has expanded its membership to eight states when India and Pakistan joined SCO as full members on 09 June 2017 at a summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The Heads of State Council (HSC) is the supreme decision-making body in the SCO, it meets once a year and adopts decisions and guidelines on all important matters of the organisation. Military exercises are also regularly conducted among members to promote cooperation and coordination against terrorism and other external threats, and to maintain regional peace and stability. The SCO is the largest regional organisation in the world in terms of geographical coverage and population, covering three-fifths of the Eurasian continent and nearly half of the human population.

Criticisms of the SCO include that it is used by member states to shield each other from international criticism regarding human rights violations.

Refer to Warsaw Pact, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

Background

The Shanghai Five grouping was created 26 April 1996 with the signing of the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions in Shanghai, China by the heads of states of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan.

On 24 April 1997, the same countries signed the Treaty on Reduction of Military Forces in Border Regions in a meeting in Moscow, Russia. On 20 May 1997, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chinese leader Jiang Zemin signed a declaration on a “multipolar world”.

Subsequent annual summits of the Shanghai Five group occurred in Almaty, Kazakhstan in 1998, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in 1999, and in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2000. At the Dushanbe summit, members agreed to “oppose intervention in other countries’ internal affairs on the pretexts of ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘protecting human rights;’ and support the efforts of one another in safeguarding the five countries’ national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and social stability.”

In 2001, the annual summit returned to Shanghai. There the five member nations first admitted Uzbekistan in the Shanghai Five mechanism (thus transforming it into the Shanghai Six). Then all six heads of state signed on 15 June 2001 the Declaration of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, praising the role played thus far by the Shanghai Five mechanism and aiming to transform it to a higher level of cooperation.

In June 2002, the heads of the SCO member states met in Saint Petersburg, Russia. There they signed the SCO Charter which expounded on the organisation’s purposes, principles, structures and forms of operation, and established it in international law.

In July 2005, at the summit in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, with representatives of India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan attending an SCO summit for the first time, the president of the host country, Nursultan Nazarbayev, greeted the guests in words that had never been used before in any context: “The leaders of the states sitting at this negotiation table are representatives of half of humanity”.

By 2007 the SCO had initiated over twenty large-scale projects related to transportation, energy and telecommunications and held regular meetings of security, military, defence, foreign affairs, economic, cultural, banking and other officials from its member states.

In July 2015 in Ufa, Russia, the SCO decided to admit India and Pakistan as full members. Both signed the memorandum of obligations in June 2016 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, thereby starting the formal process of joining the SCO as full members. On 09 June 2017, at a summit in Astana, India and Pakistan officially joined SCO as full members.

The SCO has established relations with the United Nations in 2004 (where it is an observer in the General Assembly), Commonwealth of Independent States in 2005, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2005, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation in 2007, the Economic Cooperation Organisation in 2007, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2011, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in 2014, and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in 2015, African Union in 2018.

The SCO is widely regarded as the “alliance of the East”, due to its growing centrality in Asia-Pacific, and has been the primary security pillar of the region. In 2017, SCO’s eight full members account for approximately half of the world’s population, a quarter of the world’s GDP, and about 80% of Eurasia’s landmass.

Organisation

The Council of Heads of State is the top decision-making body in the SCO. This council meets at the SCO summits, which are held each year in one of the member states’ capital cities. The current Council of Heads of State consists of:

  • Arif Alvi (Pakistan).
  • Sooronbai Jeenbekov (Kyrgyzstan).
  • Emomali Rahmon (Tajikistan).
  • Xi Jinping (China).
  • Ram Nath Kovind (India).
  • Shavkat Mirziyoyev (Uzbekistan).
  • Vladimir Putin (Russia).
  • Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (Kazakhstan).

The Council of Heads of Government is the second-highest council in the organisation. This council also holds annual summits, at which time members discuss issues of multilateral cooperation. The council also approves the organisation’s budget. The current Council of Heads of Government consists of:

  • Mukhammedkalyi Abylgaziev (Kyrgyzstan).
  • Kokhir Rasulzoda (Tajikistan).
  • Abdulla Aripov (Uzbekistan).
  • Imran Khan (Pakistan).
  • Li Keqiang (China).
  • Askar Mamin (Kazakhstan).
  • Mikhail Mishustin (Russia).
  • Narendra Modi (India).

The Council of Foreign Ministers also hold regular meetings, where they discuss the current international situation and the SCO’s interaction with other international organisations.

The Council of National Coordinators coordinates the multilateral cooperation of member states within the framework of the SCO’s charter.

The Secretariat of the SCO is the primary executive body of the organisation. It serves to implement organisational decisions and decrees, drafts proposed documents (such as declarations and agendas), function as a document depository for the organisation, arranges specific activities within the SCO framework, and promotes and disseminates information about the SCO. It is located in Beijing. The current SCO Secretary-General is Vladimir Norov of Uzbekistan, appointed to the office of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Secretary-General in January 2019.

The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), headquartered in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is a permanent organ of the SCO which serves to promote cooperation of member states against the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism. The Head of RATS is elected to a three-year term. Each member state also sends a permanent representative to RATS.

The official working languages of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation are Chinese and Russian.

Membership

  • Member States:
    • China: since 26 April 1996.
    • Kazakhstan: since 26 April 1996.
    • Kyrgyzstan: since April 1996.
    • Russia: since April 1996.
    • Tajikistan: since 26 April 1996.
    • Uzbekistan: since 15 June 2001,
    • India: since 09 June 2017.
    • Pakistan: since 09 June 2017.
  • Observer States:
    • Afghanistan:
      • Afghanistan received observer status at the 2012 SCO summit in Beijing, China on 06 June 2012.
    • Belarus:
      • In 2008, Belarus applied for partner status in the organisation and was promised Kazakhstan’s support towards that goal.
      • However, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov voiced doubt on the probability of Belarus’ membership, saying that Belarus was a purely European country.
      • Despite this, Belarus was accepted as a Dialogue Partner at the 2009 SCO Summit in Yekaterinburg, and after applying in 2012, was granted observer status in 2015.
    • Iran:
      • Iran has observer status in the organisation, and applied for full membership on 24 March 2008.
      • However, because it was under sanctions levied by the United Nations at the time, it was blocked from admission as a new member.
      • The SCO stated that any country under UN sanctions could not be admitted.
      • After the UN sanctions were lifted, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced its support for Iran’s full membership in SCO during a state visit to Iran in January 2016.
    • Mongolia:
      • Mongolia became the first country to receive observer status at the 2004 Tashkent Summit. Pakistan, India and Iran received observer status at the 2005 SCO summit in Astana, Kazakhstan on 05 July 2005.
  • Dialogue Partners:
    • The position of Dialogue Partner was created in 2008.
    • Armenia.
    • Azerbaijan.
    • Cambodia.
    • Nepal:
      • Nepal was granted dialogue partner status at the group’s 2015 summit in Ufa, Russia.
    • Sri Lanka:
      • Sri Lanka was granted dialogue partner status at the group’s 2009 summit in Yekaterinburg.
    • Turkey:
      • Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance, was granted dialogue partner status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) at the group’s 2012 summit in Beijing.
      • Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stated that he has discussed the possibility of abandoning Turkey’s candidacy of accession to the European Union in return for full membership in the SCO.
      • This was reinforced again on 21 November 2016, after the European Parliament voted unanimously to suspend accession negotiations with Turkey.
      • Two days later, on 23 November 2016, Turkey was granted the chairmanship of the energy club of SCO for the 2017 period.
      • That made Turkey the first country to chair a club in the organisation without full membership status.
      • As of 2021, the Turkish government has not applied for SCO membership.
  • Guest attendances:
    • Multiple international organisations and one country are guest attendances to SCO summits.
    • Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
    • Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
    • Turkmenistan.
    • United Nations (UN).

Future Membership Possibilities

In June 2010, the SCO approved a procedure of admitting new members. Several states additionally participate as observers, some of whom have expressed interest in becoming full members in the future. The implications of Iran joining the organisation has been given much thought academically. In early September 2013 Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan said during his meeting with his Chinese counterpart that Armenia would like to obtain an observer status in the SCO.

Meanwhile, in 2012 Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, East Timor, Nepal and Sri Lanka applied for observer status within the organisation. Egypt and Syria have also submitted applications for observer status, while Israel, Maldives, Ukraine, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia have applied for dialogue partner status. Bahrain and Qatar have also officially applied to join the SCO.

Turkmenistan has previously declared itself a permanently neutral country, which was recognised by a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, thus precluding its membership in a military alliance like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Activities

Cooperation on Security

The SCO is primarily centred on its member nations’ Central Asian security-related concerns, often describing the main threats it confronts as being terrorism, separatism and extremism. However evidence is growing that its activities in the area of social development of its member states is increasing fast.

At SCO summit, held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on 16-17 June 2004, the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) was established. On 21 April 2006, the SCO announced plans to fight cross-border drug crimes under the counter-terrorism rubric.

In October 2007, the SCO signed an agreement with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, to broaden cooperation on issues such as security, crime, and drug trafficking.

The organisation is also redefining cyberwarfare, saying that the dissemination of information “harmful to the spiritual, moral and cultural spheres of other states” should be considered a “security threat”. An accord adopted in 2009 defined “information war”, in part, as an effort by a state to undermine another’s “political, economic, and social systems”. The Diplomat reported in 2017 that SCO has foiled 600 terror plots and extradited 500 terrorists through RATS.

Military Activities

Over the past few years, the organisation’s activities have expanded to include increased military cooperation, intelligence sharing, and counterterrorism.

Military exercises are regularly conducted among members to promote cooperation and coordination against terrorism and other external threats, and to maintain regional peace and stability. There have been a number of SCO joint military exercises. The first of these was held in 2003, with the first phase taking place in Kazakhstan and the second in China. Since then China and Russia have teamed up for large-scale war games in 2005 (Peace Mission 2005), 2007 and 2009, under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. More than 4,000 soldiers participated at the joint military exercises in 2007 (known as “Peace Mission 2007”) which took place in Chelyabinsk Russia near the Ural Mountains, as was agreed upon in April 2006 at a meeting of SCO Defence Ministers. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov said that the exercises would be transparent and open to media and the public. Following the war games’ successful completion, Russian officials began speaking of India joining such exercises in the future and the SCO taking on a military role. Peace Mission 2010, conducted 09-25 September at Kazakhstan’s Matybulak training area, saw over 5,000 personnel from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan conduct joint planning and operational manoeuvres.

The SCO has served as a platform for larger military announcements by members. During the 2007 war games in Russia, with leaders of SCO member states in attendance including Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin used the occasion to take advantage of a captive audience. Russian strategic bombers, he said, would resume regular long-range patrols for the first time since the Cold War. “Starting today, such tours of duty will be conducted regularly and on the strategic scale”, Putin said. “Our pilots have been grounded for too long. They are happy to start a new life”.

On 04 June 2014, in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, the idea was brought up to merge the SCO with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. It is still being debated.

Economic Cooperation

Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are also members of the Eurasian Economic Union. A Framework Agreement to enhance economic cooperation was signed by the SCO member states on 23 September 2003. At the same meeting the Premier of China, Wen Jiabao, proposed a long-term objective to establish a free trade area in the SCO, while other more immediate measures would be taken to improve the flow of goods in the region. A follow up plan with 100 specific actions was signed one year later, on 23 September 2004.

On 26 October 2005, during the Moscow Summit of the SCO, the Secretary General of the Organisation said that the SCO will prioritise joint energy projects; including in the oil and gas sector, the exploration of new hydrocarbon reserves, and joint use of water resources. The creation of the SCO Interbank Consortium was also agreed upon at that summit in order to fund future joint projects. The first meeting of the SCO Interbank Association was held in Beijing on 21-22 February 2006. On 30 November 2006, at The SCO: Results and Perspectives, an international conference held in Almaty, the representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Russia is developing plans for an SCO “Energy Club”. The need for this “club” was reiterated by Moscow at an SCO summit in November 2007. Other SCO members, however, have not committed themselves to the idea. However, during the 2008 summit it was stated that “Against the backdrop of a slowdown in the growth of world economy pursuing a responsible currency and financial policy, control over the capital flowing, ensuring food and energy security have been gaining special significance”.

At the 2007 SCO summit Iranian Vice President Parviz Davoodi addressed an initiative that had been garnering greater interest and assuming a heightened sense of urgency when he said, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a good venue for designing a new banking system which is independent from international banking systems”.

The address by President Putin also included these comments:

We now clearly see the defectiveness of the monopoly in world finance and the policy of economic selfishness. To solve the current problem Russia will take part in changing the global financial structure so that it will be able to guarantee stability and prosperity in the world and to ensure progress.
The world is seeing the emergence of a qualitatively different geo-political situation, with the emergence of new centers of economic growth and political influence.
We will witness and take part in the transformation of the global and regional security and development architectures adapted to new realities of the 21st century, when stability and prosperity are becoming inseparable notions.

On 16 June 2009, at the Yekaterinburg Summit, China announced plans to provide a US$10 billion loan to other SCO member states to shore up the struggling economies of its members amid the global financial crisis. The summit was held together with the first BRIC summit, and the China–Russia joint statement said that they want a bigger quota in the International Monetary Fund.

At the occasion of Bishkek summit June 2019, Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan also gave a statement to build a market of local currency instead of US Dollars among the members of SCO.

Cultural Cooperation

Cultural cooperation also occurs in the SCO framework. Culture ministers of the SCO met for the first time in Beijing on 12 April 2002, signing a joint statement for continued cooperation. The third meeting of the Culture Ministers took place in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on 27-28 April 2006.

An SCO Arts Festival and Exhibition was held for the first time during the Astana Summit in 2005. Kazakhstan has also suggested an SCO folk dance festival to take place in 2008, in Astana.

Summits

According to the Charter of the SCO, summits of the Council of Heads of State shall be held annually at alternating venues. The locations of these summits follow the alphabetical order of the member state’s name in Russian. The charter also dictates that the Council of Heads of Government (that is, the Prime Ministers) shall meet annually in a place decided upon by the council members. The Council of Foreign Ministers is supposed to hold a summit one month before the annual summit of Heads of State. Extraordinary meetings of the Council of Foreign Ministers can be called by any two member states.

Analysis

Relations with the West

The United States applied for observer status in the SCO, but was rejected in 2005.

At the Astana summit in July 2005, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq foreshadowing an indefinite presence of U.S. forces in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the SCO requested the US to set a clear timetable for withdrawing its troops from SCO member states. Shortly afterwards, Uzbekistan requested the US to leave the K2 air base.

The SCO has made no direct comments against the US or its military presence in the region; however, some indirect statements at the past summits have been viewed by Western media outlets as “thinly veiled swipes at Washington”.

A European Parliament researcher expressed her view that “institutional weaknesses, a lack of common financial funds for the implementation of joint projects and conflicting national interests have prevented the SCO from achieving a higher level of regional cooperation”.

Geopolitical Aspects

There have been many discussions and commentaries about the geopolitical nature of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Matthew Brummer, in the Journal of International Affairs, tracks the implications of SCO expansion into the Persian Gulf. Also, according to political scientist Thomas Ambrosio, one aim of SCO was to ensure that liberal democracy could not gain ground in these countries.

Iranian writer Hamid Golpira had this to say on the topic: “According to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s theory, control of the Eurasian landmass is the key to global domination and control of Central Asia is the key to control of the Eurasian landmass….Russia and China have been paying attention to Brzezinski’s theory, since they formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2001, ostensibly to curb extremism in the region and enhance border security, but most probably with the real objective of counterbalancing the activities of the United States and the rest of the NATO alliance in Central Asia”.

At a 2005 summit in Kazakhstan the SCO issued a Declaration of Heads of Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which addressed their “concerns” and contained an elaboration of the organisation’s principles. It included: “The heads of the member states point out that, against the backdrop of a contradictory process of globalisation, multilateral cooperation, which is based on the principles of equal right and mutual respect, non-intervention in internal affairs of sovereign states, non-confrontational way of thinking and consecutive movement towards democratisation of international relations, contributes to overall peace and security, and call upon the international community, irrespective of its differences in ideology and social structure, to form a new concept of security based on mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and interaction.”

In November 2005 Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated that the “Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is working to establish a rational and just world order” and that “The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation provides us with a unique opportunity to take part in the process of forming a fundamentally new model of geopolitical integration”.

The People’s Daily expressed the matter in these terms: “The Declaration points out that the SCO member countries have the ability and responsibility to safeguard the security of the Central Asian region, and calls on Western countries to leave Central Asia. That is the most noticeable signal given by the Summit to the world”.

A 2010 analysis in American Legion Magazine said that “Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao… has concluded that the United States is manoeuvring ‘to preserve its status as the world’s sole superpower and will not allow any country the chance to pose a challenge to it.'”

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