June 15, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). While the organization was originally established for the purpose of border line demarcation and counter-terrorism in Central Asia, the game and cooperation between the two major powers, China and Russia, have dominated the SCO for 20 years. Analysts point out that China no longer needs the SCO to act as a bridge for economic development projects due to its growing economic power and the smooth progress of international projects such as the Belt and Road and the Asian Investment Bank. The contradictions within the SCO are also becoming more pronounced, in addition to the China-Russia game, and the India-Pakistan conflict, making the organization increasingly exist only as a formality.
Talking about the “feelings and tacit understanding” of the cooperative organization
When it comes to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Chinese news reports are often full of official words such as “deep friendship” and “close cooperation”, as well as scenes of leaders taking pictures and signing treaties, but otherwise there are few details.
There is not a single developed Western country in the SCO, and Turkey, a “dialogue member,” is the only NATO member. The organization’s predecessor was the Shanghai Five, a regular meeting mechanism developed by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 1996 to resolve the border demarcation issue after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and was officially announced in Shanghai in June 2001 when Uzbekistan joined the Five.
The relationship between Russia and China, a former superpower and a rising superpower, has always been complex and paradoxical, and the various tug-of-war and games of the past 20 years have been reflected everywhere in the framework of the SCO. Although it has been 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s position as the big brother in Central Asia is still intact, with its military presence in several Central Asian countries and the establishment of a military alliance called the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 2002 with countries that almost coincide with the SCO.
In an interview with the Voice of America, Wang Peng, a special researcher at the Center for Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and World Affairs at the Communication University of China, described the development of the SCO as the result of “sitting down and talking”: “At the beginning, we talked together, the border issues had problems in the past, we sat down and talked together, we didn’t blow our beard and glare, we talked slowly. We sat down together and talked, didn’t blow our heads off, took our time, and the border was solved. Later, we found that there were other problems. We sat together to talk, talk out of feelings and tacit understanding. After we finish talking about the border issue, then we engage in economic cooperation and security cooperation, like a snowball rolling bigger and bigger.”
Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, feels that the biggest role SCO has played is to consolidate the influence of China and Russia, especially China, in Central Asia.
He told the Voice of America, “The most obvious result of SCO is that it has made the elites of the Central Asian countries realize that China and Russia, especially China, are the uncompromising leaders of the region. No other small country has such a position, not Uzbekistan, not Tajikistan, not Kyrgyzstan. Anything they do in the international arena has to take the position of China and Russia into account. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Uzbekistan is a good example of this, which is clearly a consequence of the power exerted by China and Russia.”
Cooperation and Tug-of-War in the Face of Economic Power Disparity
In contrast to the initial border demarcation and joint military exercises, the economic development projects under the SCO framework did not come with the same clarity and immediacy. The contrast in economic power between Russia and China has had a very subtle impact on the cooperation and tug-of-war between the two sides.
At the beginning of SCO in 2001, Russia’s GDP was about $306.6 billion, while China’s GDP at the time was $1.3390 trillion, almost four times more than Russia’s. By 2016, China’s GDP had reached $11.23 trillion, while Russia’s GDP in the same year was $1.277 trillion, about one-tenth of China’s and basically the same as China’s GDP in Guangdong province. For a long time, China has been Russia’s number one trading partner, while Russia struggles to squeeze into the top ten among China’s trading partners.
Russia is wary of China’s dominant position in the SCO in the face of a rising China. At the SCO meeting in 2003, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao proposed the gradual establishment of a free trade zone as a long-term cooperation goal, which was not reciprocated by Russia. Over the years, China has also repeatedly proposed the establishment of an SCO Development Bank and Development Fund, both of which were rejected. Similarly, Russia’s attempts to get China to accept the Russian-led “Eurasian Economic Union” were rejected by China, and the two sides could not come to terms.
In 2014, the year of international political strife, Russia was subjected to economic sanctions by Europe and the United States for invading Ukraine and annexing the Crimea region, and was kicked out of the G8. That year, oil prices plummeted, the Russian ruble was devalued rapidly and the economy was hit hard. On May 21 of the same year, Russia and China signed a huge $400 billion, 30-year gas supply contract, which was hailed by the Chinese news agency Xinhua as the “Russian-Chinese honeymoon wedding ceremony”.
The deal comes after a decade of negotiations between Russia and China, and despite the secrecy surrounding the price, analysts say Russia was so desperate to sign a deal with China that it eventually made large concessions to reach the agreement. Russia, which is severely isolated by the Western world, has gained a new market in China, although it may lose European consumers.
Wang Peng believes that SCO played a role in the signing of the agreement between Russia and China to promote mutual trust: “You do this work to sign this contract, whether it’s to build a road, to build an oil pipeline, a gas pipeline, both sides have to do an evaluation. Evaluation of what? The first one is, I and the other side of this friendly relationship, I can maintain how many years. If we just use each other’s relationship, we are two or three years, three years later, the contract is torn, war, who dare to sign this contract. So, there is SCO, with its 20 years of such subtle influence, over there Yeltsin to Putin, this side of Jiang, Hu to Xi three generations of leaders, shaped their perception of their own country and each other, the basic expectations of regional security, and is a stable positive expectations.”
Slow progress on “docking with the alliance” without real action
In November 2016, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang renewed his proposal to establish an SCO FTA. This proposal has become extremely unfeasible due to various thorny issues arising from the Central Asian countries already joining the Russian-led economic union. Kazakhstan, which joined the WTO in late 2015, faces technical problems with taxation, and pro-Russian Kyrgyzstan does not support it. 2018 saw Li re-introduce an FTA in Tajikistan, which has yet to be implemented.
But since Chinese leader Xi Jinping proposed the Belt and Road construction in 2013, the stormy international situation and the Belt and Road project’s strides westward have led China to focus more on bilateral cooperation.
“The Belt and Road is now an international project, much larger than the SCO. China’s development ambitions have leapfrogged the SCO.” Cohen added: “While China is still pushing for an FTA and a bank for SCO, these things can be fully realized through the Belt and Road and also the ADB, which are China-led projects. China already has a number of FTAs at home and elsewhere, and now it doesn’t need to go through the SCO.”
In May 2015, when Chinese and Russian leaders met, they agreed to dovetail China’s Belt and Road project with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union and to use the SCO as a platform for the so-called “Belt and League docking.”
However, in the following years, there were hardly any concrete actions and measures regarding this “Belt and Road” docking. The answer to the question of what and how to dovetail seems to be nowhere to be found. In contrast to China’s Belt and Road project, Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union is in decline.
In a 2017 article for Foreign Policy, Nargis Kassenova of the Davis Center at Harvard University noted that the Eurasian Economic Union has 39 major projects in the pipeline, including a highway linking western China and Western Europe, a high-speed rail link from Moscow to Kazan, and a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border crossing. and the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad. According to Casanova, the progress of these projects has been slow, and it is doubtful how much the Eurasian Economic Union has played a role. The so-called docking is merely a verbal endorsement by Russia and China of each other’s economic interests in Central Asia, with no concrete action in substance.
China and Russia invite India and Pakistan to join the alliance to stir up new hatred
In 2017, Pakistan and India, two heavyweight South Asian neighbors with long-standing feuds, formally joined the SCO at the same time. By now, the SCO has eight member states, accounting for about 25 percent of the world’s GDP, 45 percent of its population and 23 percent of its territory, of which China, India, Russia and Pakistan are all nuclear-armed states, while China and Russia also have veto power in the UN Security Council. The SCO appears to be one of the most powerful organizations in the world at this moment.
Russia began to invite its ally India to join the SCO in 2011, diluting China’s dominance. China was initially adamantly opposed to India’s membership, but then invited its hardcore ally Pakistan to join, a sort of tie with Russia. India has always disliked China’s Belt and Road projects, especially since the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, built jointly by China and Pakistan, passes through Indian Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. in 2018, at the SCO meeting in Qingdao, India was the only SCO member not to support China’s Belt and Road initiative.
Ironically, just a week after India joined the SCO, China and India clashed over China’s road construction in the Tonlang region, and both sides increased their troops separately, setting the stage for a Sino-Indian conflict in 2020.In May 2020, Chinese and Indian troops confronted and clashed at multiple locations along the Line of Actual Control along the Sino-Indian border, resulting in casualties on both sides. In August of the same year, India unsurprisingly withdrew from the SCO military exercises it was supposed to participate in, as both China and Pakistan were taking part in the exercise.
In August 2019, India’s parliament voted by a majority to revoke the federal government’s decision to remove autonomy from Indian-administered Kashmir, sparking massive protests and the harshest military crackdown in India’s 70-year history by the Pakistani population. Uncertainty about the future of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a joint venture between China and Pakistan, has increased significantly.
While official relations between China and Pakistan have been hailed as “old iron” for years, Pakistan’s complex ethnic relations and terrorist attacks have been a constant source of dust. In May 2019, three gunmen raided the Chinese-built, five-star Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar Port, killing at least one person.2021 In April 2021, a suicide attack on the hotel where the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan was staying was narrowly avoided by the ambassador himself, but the attack left four people dead and at least 12 others injured.
At a meeting of national security advisers of SCO member states held on the line in September 2020 because of the epidemic, India angrily refused to continue its participation because the Pakistani representative spoke in front of a controversial map as a backdrop.
Club format still exists Mutual scruples among interested parties
Turkey and Iran are “dialogue partners” and “observer states” for the SCO.
Iran was an observer state as early as 2005, but was denied membership twice, in 2008 and 2010. Although China and Russia maintain good relations with Iran on the surface, Iran’s relations with Tajikistan have caused bad blood because of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, while Iran’s relations with the United States have fallen to a freezing point, making SCO countries wary of Iran’s exclusion to date.
Turkey became a dialogue partner of the SCO in 2012, and in 2016, when the EU froze Turkey’s accession to the EU due to President Erdogan’s harsh crackdown on coupists, Erdogan was outraged that he did not have to hang himself from the EU tree and said he wanted to join the SCO.
China and Russia are superficially welcoming to Turkey, but there are many contradictions behind the scenes. As a NATO member, Turkey’s relationship with Russia, especially its stance on the Syrian civil war, has not been smooth, and the 2015 bombing of Russian warplanes by Turkey has put the two countries on thin ice. Turkey’s ambiguous attitude toward China’s pan-Turkism and its hosting of a number of Uighurs from Xinjiang is a problem for Beijing.
The United States was denied an application to become an observer in 2005. The U.S. is out of step with SCO member states, especially China and Russia, in terms of both ideology and military and economic power, so even if the U.S. were to request observation or dialogue again in the future, the chances of being approved are basically nil.
For 20 years, cooperation and games between the two major powers, China and Russia, have dominated the main process of the SCO. The SCO Energy Club, established in 2013, has been put on hold due to disagreements between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The latest meeting of environment ministers of member states was formally established in 2019, but even the Chinese official media Guangming.com said that “the plans for the measures are not clear on the lead implementation department and specific implementation steps, which makes implementation difficult.
The new epidemic in the past year or so has made cooperation among the already loose SCO countries more and more difficult to synchronize because of differences in epidemic prevention efforts. China and the five Central Asian states have held separate “China+5” foreign ministers’ meetings in 2020 and 2021, excluding Russia altogether. In the long run, it will be difficult for India to fully resolve its conflicts with China and Pakistan, and it may be the first country to withdraw from the SCO. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an international organization that completely excludes Western countries and values, remains resilient, at least formally, despite 20 years of internal conflicts and few accomplishments.