The Lessons China Taught Itself: Why the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Matters

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 11

CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping chairs the 18th Meeting of the Council of Heads of Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Qingdao

China’s changing political landscape and the recent accession of India to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) marks the beginning of a new chapter for one of China’s first self-founded multilateral groupings. First established in June 2001 by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s initial activities were primarily focused on security, namely combatting the “three evils”—terrorism, separatism, and extremism (Shanghai Cooperation Organization, June 15 2001). This year’s leader-level summit marks the first instance in which Indian Prime Minister Modi will join the grouping as a full member, introducing a democratic counterweight into an organization historically dominated by China, and to a lesser degree, Russia.

Despite this unique constellation of actors, Western onlookers have frequently discounted the relevance and importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Council on Foreign Relations, October 14 2015). Highlighting internal dissent between China and Russia, few tangible outcomes, and an under-emphasis on strengthening economic partnerships, critics of the organization paint the grouping as ineffectual. Largely absent from previous outcome-focused Western analyses is a close look at the lessons that China itself has learned on advancing its geostrategic interests through multilateral organizations.

A review of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s activities reveals that China perceives the organization as a blank canvas to hone its own approaches to leading on the international stage. Chinese official newspapers and netizens have described the organization as a forum for China to explore and implement a new model of international relations. Moreover, official releases from the SCO itself acknowledge the need for the group to continue refining coordination and organization mechanisms, indicating that China’s strategy for engaging the organization is evolving as the SCO’s issue set expands in scope. Thus, the current value of the SCO is as a forum for China to define and articulate its interests, shape the focus of international institutions based on its own domestic priorities, lobby its neighbors to adopt its approach, and codify those views within an internationally legitimate multilateral process.

Creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization was preceded by the Shanghai Five, which was created in April 1996 by all SCO founding member states, excluding Uzbekistan. The Shanghai Five’s initial mandate was limited in scope and focused on the demilitarization and clear delineation borders within the region (Xinhua, June 21 2016). Thus, China’s initial step into this multilateral grouping was driven by a strategic necessity stemming from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the need for clear territorial boundaries, rather than a broader plan to imbue Eurasia with multilateralism.

From its first days, the SCO positioned itself as an organization premised on learning from the past. At the SCO’s founding ceremony CCP Chairman Jiang Zemin stated, “facing profound lessons…each country’s people fervently hopes that humanity is able to take a step towards peace and development.” (Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 22 2001). In its early stages, the SCO remained primarily focused on counterterrorism activities. The intense focus on this issue set was motivated by China’s need to elicit cooperation from Central Asian states in its campaign to stem Uyghur separatism. Given the high population of Uyghur citizens in other SCO member states, garnering law enforcement cooperation from Central Asian countries (many of whom might have been sympathetic to the Uyghur’s plight) was viewed as an important step in safeguarding China’s domestic security by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials.

Broadening the SCO’s Aperture

As time passed, and China’s grip on the security situation in Xinjiang tightened, Chinese officials advocated the expansion of the SCO’s mandate. In 2004, official SCO documents began to increasingly emphasize the “further development and deepening of the SCO cooperation on trade, economic, investment” (Shanghai Cooperation Organization, September 23 2004). These preliminary discussions served as a precursor to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. By 2006, the SCO was highlighting the role of information and communications technology (ICT) in its forward planning documents, and openly acknowledging that ICT could cause “serious damage to the security…and non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states” (Shanghai Cooperation Organization, June 15, 2006). Despite the gradual broadening of the SCO’s activities, at its core, the organization remained a regionally-focused grouping, which it acknowledged itself in its Fifth Anniversary Declaration (Shanghai Cooperation Organization, June 15 2006).

Many external observers have describe the global financial crisis of 2008 as a turning point for China’s view of its place in the world. The SCO reflected this shift, as it began to broaden what had been a narrow regional agenda. That year, the organization issued formal guidance on how external states could accede as dialogue partners, acknowledged the importance of the SCO’s work to develop an international legal framework for ICT standards, and promoted deepening relations between the SCO and other multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations (UN) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (Shanghai Cooperation Organization, August 28 2008).  The SCO’s work on ICT is particularly noteworthy, as it both presaged and proceeded in concert with an evolution of Chinese rhetoric on ICT standards into a robust defense of “cyber sovereignty.” The complementary nature of China’s work in the SCO with its work in other multinational fora is underscored by its repeated efforts to use the United Nations as a means to legitimize and extend China’s illiberal ICT governance norms across new domains (China Brief, June 5).

Despite this expanded vision for the organization’s work, few concrete developments and new economic instruments emerged from China’s increased efforts (Russia in Global Affairs, August 8 2007). Onlookers attributed this to Russia’s distaste with former Soviet republics moving closer into China’s economic orbit (Carnegie Moscow Center, June 23 2017). Increasingly, China’s own goals for deepening financial ties with Central Asia came into conflict with Russia’s security-centric priorities for the organization.

China’s Changing Perception of its Role in the World

As China’s perception of its own role in the world evolved, its expectations for regional engagement shifted as well. The Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Party Congress marked the beginning of Secretary General Xi Jinping’s tenure and a sharp shift in how China perceived itself within the existing international order. As Xi has centralized power and his policy priorities have become paramount within the CCP, China’s foreign policy objectives have changed accordingly. Chief among Xi’s initiatives is to “unremittingly strive” for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, the centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (Xinhua News, October 18 2017). The practical implications of Xi’s pledge to achieve this “great rejuvenation” (伟大的复兴) are not straightforward, but it may be most appropriate to envision it as an effort for China to return to what it views as its rightful role as a leader within the region.

The foreign policy implications of the great rejuvenation are evident in China’s expanding economic engagement with countries on its periphery. China initially attempted to achieve these enhanced ties through the auspices of the SCO (The Diplomat, December 5 2013). Despite that process’s lack of tangible outcomes, with the introduction of the Belt and Road Initiative, China was able to build on the framework of bilateral engagement with individual SCO member states to shape the group’s receptiveness towards Chinese investment. In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a landmark speech announcing the initiative at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University. Focusing heavily on the historic links between imperial China’s dependence on the Silk Road and modern China’s need to expand regional economic cooperation, President Xi delineated China’s past and future engagement with Central Asian states.

As China has realized success with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in its bilateral dealings with SCO member states, China’s Foreign Ministry is increasingly linking BRI to the upcoming work of the SCO itself. Indeed, a key deliverable for the 2018 SCO Summit was the “strengthening of ties” between the SCO countries and the Belt and Road Initiative, which, “have been closely related…from the very beginning” (Xinhua News, June 9 2018).

India’s Accession

Although China has succeeded in gaining Russian support for the Belt and Road Initiative over the past five years, India’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization introduces another actor, one that is keen to check China’s ambitions for regional hegemony. At the 2018 meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Foreign Ministers, India refused to endorse the Belt and Road Initiative, highlighting a fissure between the members (Shanghai Cooperation Organization, April 24 2018). Despite this public split, both China and India have used the 2018 SCO Qingdao Summit to highlight regional cooperation rather than competition (Narendra Modi, June 9 2018).

Although India’s inclusion will undoubtedly limit China’s free reign to use the SCO as a forum to garner legitimacy for its more controversial political positions, broadening the SCO’s aperture could position the organization as a more credible voice in the international community. However, on controversial issues such as ICT standards, India could constraint the SCO’s ability to forcefully advocate for Beijing and Moscow’s preferred positions at the United Nations. In contrast to the SCO’s 2017 Astana Declaration, the 2018 Qingdao Declaration notably declined to endorse the SCO’s 2015 ICT standards submission to the United Nations (Shanghai Cooperation Organization, June 9 2017; Shanghai Cooperation Organization, June 10 2018).

China’s Role as a Leader of Multilateral Institutions

Altogether, the 2018 Qingdao Declaration totals two thousand more words than the SCO’s 2017 Astana Declaration and includes references to issues as diverse as infectious diseases, e-trade, Afghanistan’s peace process, the Syrian Civil War, international trade barriers, peace on the Korean Peninsula, disarmament and nonproliferation, state sovereignty, counterterrorism, drug-trafficking, anti-corruption efforts, and a host of other topics (Shanghai Cooperation Organization, June 10 2018).

That China’s Foreign Ministry was able to lead multilateral negotiations on such an array of issues demonstrates their bureaucrats’ attention to detail, diplomatic deftness, and desire to influence policy outcomes on a broad range of matters, many of which may not produce tangible impacts for years to come. By building multilateral support for emerging issue sets that remain underdiscussed within developing countries, China is benefitting from a “first mover” approach to international relations, where it is able to set the parameters and define success on matters that will be of critical importance to future generations.

As China’s own domestic priorities, clout within the international community, and approach to engagement with pre-existing international organizations shifted, its approach to the SCO evolved as well. The case study of the SCO’s engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative demonstrates that, when stymied multilaterally, China will use bilateral mechanisms to generate support for its own priorities. Furthermore, although the expansion of the issues included in SCO communiques demonstrates diplomatic agility on the part of China’s Foreign Ministry, if the organization focuses efforts too broadly, then it runs the risk of losing its ability to prioritize high-impact issues.  

In the years to come, it remains to be seen if China itself will adhere to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s pledge to advance this “new type of international relations” defined by equality among all states and domestic political non-interference, or if China’s own “great rejuvenation” will impinge upon those in its periphery. What is certain is that China’s engagement in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has taught Beijing valuable lessons on how to form, shape, and engage “new models” of international organizations.

Abigail C. Grace is a Research Associate with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She recently served as a Special Assistant on staff at the National Security Council.


[1] For examples of such discourse, see People’s Daily, July 10 2015; China’s Communist Party News, June 16 2016; and Baidu Zhidao, December 18 2013.