The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Georgian Crisis

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 17

The Russian invasion, occupation, and dismemberment of Georgia represent the greatest challenge if not crisis to confront the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In American commentary on the SCO there has been a consistent tendency to view it as essentially or even merely an anti-American organization that Moscow and Beijing dominate for their own purposes. Admittedly Russo-Chinese relations are a pillar of the SCO but neither is it primarily or exclusively an anti-American organization even if it has been used to attack U.S. policy in the past. As the recent SCO summit on August 28 revealed in Dushanbe, its members regard it primarily as a vehicle for regional security in Central Asia, a region of increasing importance in world affairs and one of vital security interest to Russia, China, the smaller Central Asian members, and even possibly the observers: India, Pakistan, Iran, and Mongolia.

Thus, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s failure to get the SCO to proffer its unconditional support for Moscow can be seen as an important development in both regional and global affairs. Certainly the SCO’s refusal to support the dismemberment of a sovereign Georgia and the ensuing independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia contradicted Russian expectations. Perhaps more importantly, this refusal also showed the limits to Russo-Chinese partnership, which, though robust, is not by any means an alliance [1]. Indeed, the SCO’s unity, no matter how fragile it might be, is the only sign of organized resistance to Russia’s military intervention in Georgia. Even though China opposed moving the 2014 Olympics from Sochi and thus signaled a grudging acceptance of the Russian military operation, its refusal to accept and support the ensuing political reorganization of the Caucasus represents a rebuff to Russian expectations. But there were signs in the wind that this kind of reply to Russia might be in the offing.

Kyrgyzstan, president of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and Kazakhstan both refused to support the Russian military operation before the SCO summit. Instead they either maintained an ambivalent silence or called for negotiations. China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao called on both sides to exercise restraint that the Foreign Ministry began at the conflict’s outset and continued right up to the summit’s eve by expressing “concern,” or even “serious concern” about the costs of fighting [2]. This is not to deny that China is happy to see the deterioration of Russo-American relations, but it probably does not want those relations to reach an impasse and erupt a new Cold War, which Moscow appears intent on inciting. At the same time this deterioration in Russo-American ties has in the past invariably strengthened U.S.-China ties, a development Beijing can only welcome since economic ties grow and pressure on Chinese domestic policies declines, especially if Russia is going to conduct unilateral policies that are inimical to Chinese interests [3]. China may also benefit as well if prospects for a trans-Caspian pipeline or the Nabucco pipeline to Europe disintegrate in the wake of this invasion, leaving China as the only currently standing customer for Central Asian oil and gas other than Russia. Then China might stand to increase its ability to obtain more energy from Central Asia.

However, there are compelling reasons for both China and Central Asian governments to refrain from supporting the dismemberment of Georgia and the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. This invasion coincided not only with the Olympics but also with a renewed upsurge in low-level violence in Xinjiang indicating that this province is by no means calm. Indeed, Xinjiang’s Party Secretary Wang Lequan warned on August 12 of a life and death struggle with terrorism. Thus unrest in Xinjiang (as well as Tibet) along with foreign demands for alteration of the form of government there and Beijing’s policies will undoubtedly continue for a long time. It has long been true that the external reaction to the unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang as well as to Taiwan’s anomalous situation have heightened China’s sensitivity to the issues of its territorial integrity and secessionism. It should not be forgotten that one of the three evils for which members of the SCO are obliged to cooperate is secessionism and terrorism. The third, religious extremism can also plausibly be invoked by China as a response to the unrest in Xinjiang. Since it responds to this pressure by strongly asserting that its integrity is not open to question by anyone and that all three provinces’ issues are exclusively China’s internal affair, any forcible attempt to redraw a state’s boundaries on the grounds of coming to the assistance of oppressed ethnic or religious minorities triggers a very reserved, if not negative Chinese response. Clearly Beijing worries that such activities, e.g. Russia’s unilateral recognition of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence will constitute precedents that can then be used to pressure it or even attack it in order to force it to yield sovereignty in Xinjiang, Tibet, or Taiwan. This is a major reason why it adopted so reserved an attitude toward the Russian war in Georgia even before the SCO summit on August 28 that failed to recognize Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence and why that summit failed to support Russia’s actions

Moreover, it is likely that the simultaneous occurrence of this upsurge in violence with the Georgian crisis will intensify both Chinese and Central Asian resistance to Russian claims that it has the right to intervene, even with force, on behalf of its supposed citizens who are being oppressed in Central Asian states. Central Asian governments all have minority and border issues that can be used to create a pretext for intervention along the lines of Russia’s action and in many of those cases the minority population in question is the Russian population that immigrated there in Soviet and Tsarist times and is now being subjected to increasingly strong state pressures for assimilation or to leave and surrender their social and economic elite positions in Central Asia. Therefore all those states are acutely sensitive to the claims made by Russia in this crisis. Moscow’s new overt claim to a sphere of influence in Central Asia and of the concurrent and concomitant right to undertake such intervention to defend its “citizens” from discriminatory policies unilaterally under Article 51 of the UN Charter (the clause pertaining to self-defense of states and their legitimate right to defend themselves against attack) can only unsettle states who resist the doctrine of such intervention which they see as a landmine placed underneath their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence. While Central Asian states clearly depend on Moscow and solicit its attention and material assistance; they cannot associate themselves with its unilateral pretensions to a right to undermine their sovereignty and integrity whenever it chooses to do so.

At the same time neither can China support a doctrine of intervention and of unilateral rearranging of sovereign states’ territories on the grounds of the mistreatment of ethnic or religious minorities for similar reasons. Though China has long maintained that how it treats its Muslim minorities is strictly an internal affair that admits no foreign interest, in fact this is no longer the case. Xinjiang and its implications have for some time been a driver of foreign policy and influenced by the latter’s requirements. The intersection of this new violence with the Georgian crisis can only sharpen the contradictions in China’s policy and in its relations with Russia in Central Asia. And in time, it may turn out to be the case that another of the casualties of the Russian invasion of Georgia is the SCO’s drive toward genuine cohesion and unity of purpose.


1. Stephen Blank, “Moscow’s Strategic Triangle In a time of Transition” Journal of East Asian Studies, XXI, NO. 1, Spring-Summer, 2008, pp. 99-144; Richard Weitz, China-Russia Security Relations: Strategic Parallelism Without Partnership Or Passion, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2008

2. Open source Committee, OSC Analysis, “China—Beijing Projects Balance on Russia-Georgia conflict,” Open Source Committee, Foreign Broadcast Information Service Central Eurasia, (Henceforth FBIS SOV), August 12, 2008; Gregory L. White Andrew Higgins, Andrew Osborn, “China’s Unease With Russian Actions Strains Ties,” Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2008, p. 8

3. Hong Kong, Ming Pao Online, in Chinese, FBIS SOV, August 20, 2008

4. Michael Richardson, “Diversion Ahead,” South China Morning Post Online, August 25, 2008

5. Lindsay Beck, “China Warns Of “Life and Death” Battle With Terror,” Reuters, August 13, 2008