Asia and Eurasia
Modern Approaches of China to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

The SCO is the main experimental and practical area for China’s concepts of a new international order, and it is also a model for it. The main concepts proposed by China are reflected in the practice of the SCO, and in a certain sense, it can be said that it is the prototype for the new international order envisioned by China, writes Valdai Club expert Zhao Huasheng.

Last year (2021) the SCO marked its 20th anniversary, for which the SCO Dushanbe Summit dedicated a lengthy statement to summarise 20 years of SCO activities as well as its future plans.

China is one of the main founding countries of the SCO, and the fact that this organisation was founded in Shanghai, China, and named after it, reflects the particularly close historical ties between China and the SCO, of which China is proud. There is no doubt that it is China’s established policy to promote the development of the SCO, and China has been serving as one of the strongest drivers of the SCO’s development.

The SCO plays an important role in China’s diplomacy. Its membership includes three major countries: China, Russia and India, covers Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and West Asia, as well as almost all regions which share land borders with China (including Mongolia, an observer state of the SCO). Meanwhile, the SCO is a very important mechanism for cooperation between China and Russia in its neighbouring regions, especially in Central Asia. This status and function of the SCO is unique to China and cannot be replaced by any other mechanism. Over the years, China has launched a number of new cooperation platforms and mechanisms related to the region, the most important of which is the Belt and Road Initiative, proposed in 2013. In terms of positioning, scope and functions, the Belt and Road is very different from the SCO, and it will not replace the SCO. China is promoting economic cooperation through the Belt and Road initiative and the SCO in parallel, making them functionally complementary and mutually reinforcing. In July 2020, China established the China-Central Asia 5+1 foreign ministers’ dialogue, which has been held twice. The second dialogue was held in Xi’an, a city in northern China, in May 2021. The creation of this mechanism may have been influenced by other countries. In recent years, many countries have established 5+1 dialogue mechanisms with Central Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea, the United States, India, Italy, and the European Union. In this context, China feels the need to establish a similar mechanism with the Central Asian states. Of course, it also reflects a growing recognition of Central Asia as a specific region in whole.

China’s SCO policy has a clear continuity and stability, but it has also developed and evolved. Over the past few years, the international environment for both China and the SCO has changed significantly. China’s national power has continued to growth, its international influence has increased, and China has become more proactive in international politics. At the same time, China has come under heavier international pressure, with the US treating China as its greatest strategic adversary, adopting a containment policy towards China, promoting the Indo-Pacific strategy targeting China, and forming the US-British-Australian AUKUS military bloc, and China’s security situation has deteriorated. The original international order is shattered, a new East-West division is being formed, the atmosphere of the new Cold War is strong, and the world faces an uncertain future.

Against this backdrop, China has attached greater importance to the SCO’s function in international politics, paying more attention to the SCO’s international political role and viewing the SCO’s status more from the perspective of international politics. In other words, China has been upgrading the SCO’s positioning, increasing its functions from the regional to the international level, and driving the SCO to play a greater role, not only in regional but also in international affairs, making it an important factor in shaping international politics. The SCO embodies a number of China’s basic international political concepts, such as opposing hegemony, unilateralism, the cold war mentality, bloc politics, unilateral sanctions, adherence to the UN Charter, adherence to international law, support for multilateralism, promotion of multipolarity, and so on. Through the SCO, China’s vision has become a collective consensus and a voice and force with greater influence in the world, which can be heard more widely and have a greater impact on the building of the international political order.

The SCO is the main experimental and practical area for China’s concepts of a new international order, and it is also a model for it. The main concepts proposed by China are reflected in the practice of the SCO, and in a certain sense, it can be said that it is the prototype for the new international order envisioned by China. The membership of the SCO is very diverse; it includes among its members world powers and small countries, countries of different religions and civilisations, countries with different political systems, (including what the West considers authoritarian and democratic countries), so that within the SCO one can find almost all types of state relations, including relations between large countries, relations between large and small countries, and relations between countries with different religions and political systems and political cultures. China believes that the concepts it proposed such as a new type of great power relations, a new type of international relations, and a new security concept, have been practicing within the SCO, proving their feasibility and serving as an example of successful Chinese diplomacy. The “Shanghai Spirit”, namely “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diverse civilisations and the pursuit of common development”, is universal and should become the spiritual basis for the construction of new international relations.

It can be sensed that China is placing more emphasis on the SCO’s function safeguarding the political security of its member states, hoping that the SCO will become a barrier against external interference in the internal affairs of its member states, prevent a “colour revolution” from happening in the regions, and maintain regional political and social stability. This perception was reinforced by the massive riots that broke out in Kazakhstan in January 2022. The Kazakhstan riots can be said to have been a political kaleidoscope, which started as a simple popular protest in a small city over a gas price hike, but then exploded into a massive riot and armed insurrection, in which large crowds of people of all social identities involved. There are ordinary demonstrators, vandals, political opponents, terrorists, and faceless elements from abroad, and it has too many protagonists. The riots, which at one point put state power in Kazakhstan at risk, showed the great threat that unrest can have on the political and social stability of Central Asian states. This event showed once again that when large-scale popular demonstrations occur in Central Asian countries, they can easily turn into violent activities, resulting in a large number of deaths and injuries, and can quickly turn from demonstration to riots, developing from street vandalism to attacks and the occupation of government institutions, and possibly even an overthrow of state power. This has happened repeatedly in Central Asia, such as the unrest in Kyrgyzstan in March 2005 and April 2010, the Andijan events in Uzbekistan in May 2005, the Osh conflict in Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, and the Zhanaozen riots in Kazakhstan in December 2011.

The riots in Kazakhstan have sharply demonstrated the great destructiveness and danger of political unrest for Central Asian countries and regions. After the riots broke out, the Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message to President Tokayev, indicating his firm opposition to external forces creating unrest in Kazakhstan and staging a “colour revolution”, and expressing his willingness to do everything possible to provide the necessary support to Kazakhstan. Later, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China is ready to increase cooperation with Kazakhstan in law enforcement and security sectors, as well as bilateral cooperation in anti-interference to maintain the security of the political systems and governments of both countries.

China’s attitude toward the riots in Kazakhstan has important implications for policy change. Previously, China had been used to viewing such disturbances as an internal matter, usually staying out of the way and choosing the role of a bystander. Now China is changing this traditional approach to a new policy, which can be called constructive engagement, i. e. when there is a volatile situation in neighbouring countries and when they need it, China could provide help in order to steer the situation in the right direction as much as possible, while respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and international law. Constructive engagement is especially necessary when the turmoil and chaos have an extraterritorial background and also threaten national and regional security. This is also a result of China’s growing awareness of its responsibilities and capabilities as a major power. This policy of China could naturally be applied to its policy for the SCO.

Some Western media have interpreted foreign minister Wang Yi’s “willingness to expand law enforcement cooperation with Kazakhstan” expressed to his Kazakh counterpart on January 10 as a sign that China is preparing to send troops to Kazakhstan just like the CSTO. This is an imagination. Sino-Kazakh law enforcement cooperation is not new because of the Kazakhstan’s riots but has been going on since at least 2012. In all subsequent joint statements or declarations between China and Kazakhstan there are contents on strengthening and expanding law enforcement cooperation. Law enforcement cooperation is an important part of security cooperation. China and Kazakhstan are neighbours which share a border of more than 1,700 kilometres. In a complex security environment, there are not only terrorist, extremist and separatist forces, but also transnational organised crimes such as the illegal trafficking of guns and ammunition, drug trafficking, illegal immigration, cyber-crimes and economic crimes. Therefore, law enforcement cooperation is imperative. This is not a unilateral demand of China, but a demand shared by both sides. 

Since the establishment of the SCO, security and the economy have been on the basic agenda of the SCO and have been major pursuits of China’s SCO policy. This has not and will not change. The objectives of China’s security cooperation include two aspects, security in China’s Xinjiang on the one hand and regional security on the other. In recent years, the security situation in Xinjiang has improved and no serious terrorist attacks have occurred, but terrorism, extremism, and separatism cannot be are eradicated easily, it will persist for a long time and may fester rapidly under certain conditions, so China will not lower its vigilance against it. In this respect, China’s security needs are long-lasting. The security of Xinjiang is inseparable from the security of neighbouring regions, especially Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. 

After the Taliban regained power, the question of whether Afghanistan will continue to pose a security threat to neighbouring countries was raised anew. It is clear that the security problem is unlikely to disappear quickly, which includes the export of terrorism and extremist forces, drug trafficking, illicit trafficking in guns and ammunition, refugees, etc., but there is no definite answer as to whether it will increase or decrease in magnitude. In terms of relations between the Taliban and terrorist organisations, there is both the question of the Taliban’s policy, such as whether it is willing to break up with all terrorist organisations, not just some of them, and the question of whether the Taliban is capable of exercising effective control over terrorist organisations on its territory.

China is the biggest driver and the most enthusiastic promoter of SCO economic cooperation, which is natural, since it is the largest economy in the SCO and its economic output is more than twice as large as that of the other member states combined. China had a high vision of SCO economic cooperation, such as the establishment of an FTA and creation of the SCO Development Bank, but these ideas failed to materialise, mainly because other member states were not prepared for it and feared possible economic domination by a strong Chinese economy, and because a higher-level integration mechanism already exists in some SCO members, namely within the Eurasian Economic Union. Last year the SCO decided in the Dushanbe statement not to build a supranational economic community. Now China is focusing on promoting trade and investment liberalisation and facilitation in the SCO, strengthening connectivity, dovetailing and the parallel development of the Belt and Road with the development strategies of member states and the Eurasian Economic Union, and strengthening new facets of cooperation beyond traditional areas such as the digital economy, green energy, low-carbon projects, artificial intelligence, information communications, modern agriculture, cross-border e-commerce, etc. At present, China’s is emphasizing on cooperation with member countries in the fighting against the COVID-19 and its consequents, and helping countries recover economically after the epidemic. China also strives to optimize the trade structure with member states, stimulates more products from member states entering the Chinese market. Now more and more products from SCO countries can be seen on the Chinese market, especially food, agricultural products and seafood from Russia, and agricultural products and fruits from Central Asian countries. China provides the most financial support for SCO economic cooperation. In 2018 it established the first instalment of a special loan of RMB 30 billion equivalent within the framework of the SCO, and will soon launch the implementation of the second instalment of the special loan, the amount of which has not yet been announced. 

The long-standing problems of the SCO are of not-so-high efficiency, weak capacity for coordinated action, lack of a capacity for crisis response, and less-than-ideal implementation of the agreements of multilateral economic cooperation. These are the things that China wants to improve.

A new issue facing the SCO at this stage is the relationship with the Taliban government. Afghanistan was an observer state of the SCO, and since the early days of the SCO, Afghanistan had been invited to participate in almost all major SCO events, and the SCO established the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group as a special mechanism for dialogue between the SCO and Afghanistan. The dramatic changes in Afghanistan in August 2021 have made the SCO face a completely different Afghan government and Afghan issue. The essence of the issue for the SCO is whether it will be an opportunity to solve the Afghan problem once and for all or yield a new sore spot for the SCO. China has adopted an active policy toward the Taliban government and hopes that through contacts and communications with the Taliban regime, it will guide Afghanistan in the direction desired by the SCO, such as compelling the Taliban government to pursue a tolerant domestic policy, drawing a clear line with terrorist organisations, and being friendly with neighbouring countries. China’s goal is to try to deal optimally with the new possibilities which appeared in Afghanistan and pursue the best possible outcome amid the changed situation. At current stage, the Taliban government has not been recognised internationally yet, and some SCO members have tense relations with the Taliban. China thinks that it is possible for the SCO to engage with the new Afghan regime through the platform of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group. Relations with Afghanistan are of great significance to the future development environment of the SCO. Iran is likely to be admitted as a full member of the SCO this year. After that, Afghanistan will be the only non-SCO member in the region, except for Turkmenistan, which has a policy of neutrality. Afghanistan is located at the crossroads of Central Asia, South Asia and West Asia. In the future, if Afghanistan can be integrated into the SCO, the security and economic cooperation framework of the SCO will be integrated into the whole of Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and West Asia, but if it cannot be integrated, Afghanistan will be an isolated island among the SCO countries and become a bottleneck that blocks the big connection of the regions. What will eventually happen to Afghanistan remains unknown.

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict is the most serious international conflict since the end of the Cold War. It will have a huge and far-reaching impact on all of international relations and the world situation, and will also greatly change the international geopolitical environment. The SCO will also be in this new international environment; however, it will not cause serious problems. This is because China and other SCO countries have not participated in the sanctions against Russia initiated by the United States and Europe. They all maintain normal relations with Russia, and there have been no differences or contradictions among SCO countries due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The Russia-Ukraine conflict will not change China’s basic policy of developing the SCO. Moreover, it will make China attach even greater importance to regional cooperation and solidarity.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.