Balancer-in-Chief: China Assumes SCO Chair

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 12

CMC Chairman Hu Jintao

At the June 15 leadership summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the rotating chairmanship of the institution was transferred to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). China has been the driving force behind the SCO’s creation and modest success. PRC officials have pushed the organization to concentrate on countering regional terrorist threats since its creation in mid-2001. Since then, the Chinese have found the SCO a convenient instrument with which to expand their political and commercial influence in Central Asia without alarming Russia, the previously dominant power in the region. Although Moscow and Beijing have differed on which possible new members to admit into the SCO, as well as how much the organization should develop a potential military function, these divergences have been outweighed by their shared interests in promoting regional stability and limiting Western influence in Eurasia. Beijing now has an opportunity to use its one-year chairmanship to impart renewed momentum to the SCO as it enters its second decade.

An Institution Born with Chinese Characteristics

Beijing has been partial to the SCO since its creation. For Chinese leaders, the country has a real sense of stakeholdership in the SCO. Unlike with the G8, the IMF and other longstanding international organizations, which the PRC had little role in creating and had to join on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, Chinese officials have been able to shape the design and evolution of the SCO more than any other country. With the SCO, Beijing has been a “rule-shaper” rather than merely a “rule-taker”—allowing the Chinese to construct the SCO as an institution that reflects their preferred values.

Indeed, Chinese officials rhapsodically describe the “Shanghai Spirit” (Shanghai jingshen) that guides the organization’s work. According to Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, these tenets include “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diversified civilizations and pursuit of common development” (Xinhua News Agency, June 11). Other stated principles underpinning the SCO include “the democratization of international relations … a multipolar world and multilateralism, peaceful resolution of disputes of all countries and regions through dialogue and [opposition to] the use of force or threat of using force and terrorism” (Xinhua News Agency, June 11).

The declaration issued at the June 15 SCO summit in Astana—like previous SCO summit communiqués—called for a multipolar world order (i.e., not dominated by the United States) in which the United Nations (rather than NATO) made all important international security decisions. In stark contrast to the West’s insistence that all NATO and EU members uphold liberal democratic values, the Astana Declaration–like previous collective SCO statements—called on all governments to respect the sovereignty and independence of countries as well as the diversity of their domestic political and social systems [1].

China-Russia Differences

A major constraint acting on the SCO’s growth is its consensus-driven decision-making procedures, which has led Beijing and Moscow to block one another’s proposals to extend the organization’s size or activities. For example, Russian government resistance has delayed Chinese proposals to establish an SCO-wide free trade zone until 2020, since the removal of trade barriers would likely result in less expensive Chinese products displacing Russian exports. PRC businesses have also begun to challenge Russia’s longstanding control over Central Asian energy resources, making gains in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan through the recent construction of oil and gas pipelines.

Perhaps the most interesting issue is whether, under Beijing’s chairmanship, the SCO will finally expand its membership. For the sixth year in a row, the organization has not admitted new full members or formal observers. The current roster of full SCO members includes only those six states that joined the organization at its founding in 2001: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The four observer states (i.e., India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan) have remained constant since 2004. Instead, the organization has resorted to proliferating new categories of external association, producing a confusing mixture of members, observers, “guests,” and “dialogue partners.”

Russian leaders have appeared most eager among the original members to expand the SCO’s geographic scope. For example, Moscow supported India’s recent decision to apply to elevate its observer status to that of a full member. Yet, the PRC blocked this move earlier this year, probably for the same reasons Chinese officials have resisted allowing India to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The Chinese have backed Pakistan’s longer-standing application for full membership, but Russian officials have conditioned Pakistan’s elevation to India’s receiving the same promotion. It appears that whatever friendly feelings Chinese leaders feel toward Pakistan are outweighed by their hostility toward India [2].

The PRC appears to have also blocked Afghanistan’s application, which was supported by the Russian government, to become a formal SCO observer country (China Daily, June 2). Although Afghan President Hamid Karzai regularly attends the annual SCO summits as a guest of the rotating chair, he has been eager to increase SCO engagement in Afghanistan to balance the dominant role of NATO, whose members have been critical of Karzai’s leadership. The Russian government has expanded its own ties with Karzai now that NATO has announced its intention to reduce its presence in the country. Yet, PRC leaders have been more reluctant to become identified with his government’s fight against the Taliban [3]. Chinese businesses have deepened their investments in Afghanistan, but, unlike Russia’s strongly anti-Islamic leaders, China’s flexible diplomacy in Sudan and Libya suggests that PRC political leaders might try to work out a deal with the Taliban should it return to power.

Institutional Reassurance

On balance, however, the SCO generally benefits from these Russia-China tensions because the institution reassures the other members about their interests and activities in Central Asia. The organization provides an institutional arena in which Beijing and Moscow can manage their differences within a structured framework. Even more often, it helps them cooperate to pursue common interests in promoting regional stability, suppressing Islamic extremism, constraining Western influences and reassuring local allies.

A recent area of cooperation has been how Beijing and Moscow have sought to use Iran’s interest in becoming a full SCO member to induce Tehran to be more cooperative about its nuclear activities. At Astana, both Presidents Hu and Medvedev pressed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to resume talks with the international community about constraining his country’s controversial nuclear program, which many governments suspect has covert military objectives (VOA News, June 15). Beijing and Moscow previously colluded to impose a rule that no country can become a full SCO member if it is subject to UN sanctions. China and Russia have joined the other UN Security Council members in imposing four rounds of sanctions on Iran for its refusal to obey earlier UNSC resolutions calling on Iran to cease enriching uranium or engaging in other sensitive nuclear activities until it satisfies international suspicions that some of its nuclear projects have included weapons-related research.

While pursuing these objectives, PRC policy makers have been careful not to antagonize Russia’s leadership, particularly by giving the impression that China is eager to displace Moscow’s predominance in Central Asia, a region strategically vital to Russia. By characterizing its activities as SCO rather than PRC projects, Beijing manages to reduce fears of PRC domination. For example, by giving loans through the SCO rather than directly, China dampens Russian concerns about the PRC’s growing economic activities there. In any case, Russia and China both benefit from having the SCO as a form of reassurance to Beijing as well. Moscow’s support for the SCO demonstrates to Chinese policy makers that Moscow recognizes Beijing’s legitimate security role in Central Asia despite Russian efforts to expand the CSTO’s military activities in Eurasia.

The Central Asian governments also like how the SCO includes both China and Russia and is therefore not dominated by a single great power—a condition that gives them more room to maneuver. Despite the possible emergence of a Sino-Russian condominium, China’s balancing presence presumably reduces fears of external subordination and gives them more room to maneuver. Conversely, another reason for the SCO’s popularity among Central Asian governments is that the organization allows them to multilaterally manage Beijing’s growing presence in their region, backstopped by Russia, rather than deal with the China colossus directly on a bilateral basis. Most Central Asian leaders considered the PRC less an alternative great power patron to Russia than a supplementary partner that could assist them in moderating Moscow’s predominance in the region as well as furthering their economic development.

Beijing’s SCO Challenges

The PRC’s chairmanship is unlikely to do anything to weaken this reassurance function. In his main speech at the Astana summit, President Hu Jintao advocated four priorities for the SCO’s development (Xinhua News Agency, June 15). The first was to expand general consultation, cooperation, and trust among members on the basis of consensus, which reserves the veto power of China and other SCO governments over the organization’s major decisions. This principle is widely supported among SCO leaders.

Hu’s second priority is to improve SCO security cooperation and capabilities against the “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism, as well as narcotics trafficking and other transnational crime. Yet security cooperation is already the SCO’s strong suit and it is questionable whether Beijing would achieve any major improvements over current arrangements. Human rights groups already complain that SCO governments have eagerly adopted Beijing’s excessively broad definition of terrorism, treating peaceful advocates of political change, religious freedom, or regional autonomy as potential terrorists under the PRC-exported “three evil forces” concept [4]. The SCO Regional Antiterrorism Structure (RATS) in Tashkent is already the organization’s most important standing body (contrasted with the episodic summit meetings and military exercises as well as the only other permanent institution, the SCO Secretariat, which has primarily administrative functions) [5]. The RATS’ activities, such as the exchange of counterterrorist intelligence and personnel among SCO members, have reportedly contributed to disrupting hundreds of terrorist plots (Global Times, June 16). Where China might have some impact is shaping the SCO’s newly adopted 2011-2016 Anti-Drug Action Program, though counternarcotics has traditionally been of most concern to Russia.

President Hu described the SCO’s third priority as expanding trade, investment, and other economic cooperation by, among other means, promoting regional integration and developing the region’s energy, transportation, and telecommunications infrastructure. China’s economic ties with other SCO members have expanded enormously in the past decade, but this growth would likely have occurred even if the SCO had not existed. China’s trade with SCO members has risen from $12 billion in 2001 to $90 billion in 2011. The PRC is the largest trading partner of Kazakhstan and Russia, and the second largest of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (Xinhua News Agency, June 14).

Hu’s fourth priority—enhancing cultural, educational, and other “people-to-people exchanges”—would definitely overcome a long-standing SCO weakness. From its origins, the SCO has been primarily a top-down driven project with little popular support (or opposition). Strengthening such ties would also help China compensate for its major weaknesses in the SCO space: its limited soft power assets. Russian language and culture dominate the other SCO countries, which all had been part of the Soviet Union. Promoting Chinese culture has also become a major general goal of the PRC’s foreign policy in recent years.

Beijing’s greatest challenge will be to consider how the SCO’s role may need to change as NATO withdraws from Afghanistan. The Astana summit called for a “neutral” Afghanistan and stressed the necessity of promoting the country’s economic development, but the summit did not announce new initiatives to promote those goals. Despite their unease at having Western troops in Central Asia, Chinese analysts note that the impending NATO military withdrawal increases the terrorist threat to Central Asian countries that are already challenged by the potential spread of the chaos in the Arab world to their own societies (People’s Daily Online, June 17). Some PRC analysts believe these developments could also affect their own country’s security and stability, China’s regional energy and economic interests, and “enhance the likelihood of terrorist acts in southwestern China” (Xinhua News Agency, June 7). Chinese policymakers will need to consider the risks of constraining the SCO’s support for the Afghan government against the Taliban when it is not evident that the other regional players—including Pakistan, Iran, and even Russia—have the will and capacity to fill the security vacuum that could ensure stability following the Western troop withdrawal.


[1] “Astana Declaration of the 10th Anniversary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation,” SCO website, June 15, 2011,
[2] The material for this paragraph came from an interview with a senior official in a SCO member government responsible for its policy toward the SCO.
[3] Richard Weitz, “The Limits of Partnership: China, NATO, and the Afghan War,” China Security, No. 16 (2010).
[4] “Implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Kazakhstan: A Parallel NGO Submission by Human Rights in China,” June 3, 2011,
[5] “SCO Secretariat in Brief,” SCO website, 2011,