The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has intensified its focus on regional economic initiatives like the China-led Silk Road Economic Belt and the Russia-lead Eurasian Economic Union. At the Ufa summit in Russia, the member states adopted the SCO Development Strategy, which included bolstering finance, investment, and trade cooperation as a priority in the next ten years.
While Russia remains sensitive to China’s expanding influence into the former Soviet satellite states, the Central Asian member states are in need of infrastructure and energy investment and have been receptive to Beijing’s proposal to focus on economic cooperation through proposals such as launching a development fund and a free-trade zone. Russia is acutely aware that it cannot and will not try to compete with China’s growing global economic influence, even if it is pushing into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan have proposed expanding the energy cooperation among members, establishing a unified energy market for oil and gas exports. While some experts say the organization has emerged as an anti-U.S. bulwark in Central Asia, others believe frictions among its members effectively preclude a strong and unified SCO. This may be true, specifically as India and Pakistan, long-time rivals, join the membership roster, because the SCO adopts decision made by consensus and all member states must uphold the core principle of non-aggression and non-interference in internal affairs. Crosston points out that a penchant for China and Russia pursuing micro-agendas is also likely to undermine group cohesion and sow mistrust.
However, a recent study conducted on the SCO’s voting record has shown that the foreign policy of the SCO is mixed. On one hand, the overall member and observer states have been increasingly voting in similar ways across all voting forums since 1992, when the post-Soviet member states were all admitted to the United Nations. As the voting patterns become increasingly similar, the risk for an individual state of committing itself to closer cooperation is reduced; it is simply less likely to find itself in a vulnerable outlier position or be forced to compromise on important policy preferences. Hansen points out that continued convergence in this way suggests, all things being equal, that the SCO will find it still easier to widen and deepen its foreign policy cooperation and even to allow observer states to join the group as full members. On the other hand, the slowing down of the process of convergence indicates that the member and observer states have reached a line that a least some of them will be reluctant to cross. This includes a mixed pool of core preferences on human rights, nuclear development, or weapons technology. This will likely continue to evolve and possibly become contentious with the addition of Pakistan and India, whose membership seems to have been driven by China’s fear of a new wave of terrorist attacks by Uighur separatists or ISIL fighters in Zinjiang or elsewhere in China . Russia remains a leading outlier: the growing influence of China may cause Russian policy makers to hesitate before committing to a closer cooperation or to future SCO enlargement, as what is good for China is not necessarily good for Russia.
Through the SCO, China has largely benefited from offering the Central Asian states an alternative to Russia. As Grieger points out, China has significantly expanded its trade with, and investment in, the Central states. It has established a diplomatic and strategic foothold in the region, which allows it to gradually dilute Western influence. It has been able to pursue resource security interests but has been cautious not to enter into energy or mining competition with Russia. In energy matters, Chinese and Russian interests are often complementary as Russia relies on oil exports and China’s economy greatly depends on external energy sources.
China and Russia will continue to be skeptical bedfellows in the coming years despite opportunities. While their interests may overlap economically and in the security of their overlapping regions, neither is known for being particularly trustworthy of each other. This hurdle will be hard to overcome. China will continue to need trade agreements with the United States. This could leave Russia as the odd man out with increasing Western sanctions. China’s alliance with Russia could prove contentious for Western investment, so Russia will need to play well with China in a true partnership over the next decade or else it will risk being squeezed out of any global power economically.
The continued rise of China and resulting dilemma in relations between Russia, China, and the Central Asian states within the SCO could cause regional schisms. China’s economic rise could threaten to move Russia out of the seat of power while sanctions are increasingly piled on. China’s influence in areas like Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and others continues to grow through investments and industry. If SCO membership becomes weighted in China’s favor through this increasing influence, Russia could find themselves out in the cold and their agendas out of favor in the SCO.
What about the rest of the membership of the SCO? According to Beaten Eschment, an analyst at the Research Center of East European Studies at the University of Bremen, there is no unified Central Asian perspective. The countries’ interests are all pointedly different: Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are economically and militarily dependent on Russia; Turkmenistan, while not a member of the SCO, is trying to stay as neutral as possible like Mongolia. Uzbekistan is pursuing its own policy that bounces between Russia and China at the same time, while Kazakhstan, the biggest and militarily and economically strongest country in Central Asia is a complete Russophile, but is afraid that Russia will try to annex their northern territories after the situation with Crimea in Ukraine. These small concerns may give China the advantage in setting the SCO’s priorities so that the smaller members seek to limit Russia’s influence on their borders.
What links all of the SCO members is the rejection of Western-dominated institutions, whether it is the United States, United Nations, World Bank, NATO or other structures. The SCO see itself as a forum against the US-global order. Its approach tends to be comprehensive and not based only on military power, but also in China’s belief of economic ties and soft power. The SCO’s non-interference principle could establish a new modus operandi for international organizations. Unlike the United Nations or NATO, the members of the SCO have chosen to stay out of violent conflicts within its member states, such as when violent conflict between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan broke out in 2010. The members of the SCO stayed largely passive despite their ability to pull joint forces together that could intervene. This allows member states to avoid getting pulled into costly wars that could be to the detriment of all member states and to the organization as a whole.
While it will likely remain semi-ignored by Western media, the SCO will continue to make great strides in its development and growth. Alignment of Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, and China creates the largest block of anti-Western sentiment in history. It could provide a counter balance to Western organizations’ influence not only in the Central Asian region but even from the edges of Europe all the way to the Pacific. China views this expansion as absolutely necessary to compete in a global market. If the SCO is to have real weight in the international arena and become a truly prestigious organization that is able to rival NATO, it requires additional members and revenue streams. President Putin suggested that China and Russia should “enhance coordination in international and regional affairs [so as to counter Western influence].” Prospects are good that Russia and China will continue to prioritize working on large multilateral projects in transportation, energy, innovative research and technology, agriculture, and the peaceful use of outer space. If the SCO can expand its membership and momentum on these priorities, Western organizations may soon find themselves facing an unexpected competitor with the resources and intent to box them out of markets and contain United States influence on the global stage.