Stanley's blog

What is the SCO?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has, to the surprise of many, emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Central Asia.

The ‘Shanghai Five’, founded in 1996, became the SCO in 2001. Its members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan are Observers. Belarus and Sri Lanka are ‘Dialogue Partners’. Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, ASEAN and CIS are guest attendees.

The Council of Heads of State is the top decision-making body and meets annually and the Council of Heads of Government is also meets annually. The Council of Foreign Ministers meets regularly. A small Secretariat is in Beijing.

The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), headquartered in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, promotes cooperation over the three evils of terrorism (including cross-border drug crimes), separatism and extremism.

The SCO is primarily security-related, but its economic, social and cultural development activities are increasing. Joint energy projects (including the oil and gas sector, the exploration of new hydrocarbon reserves, and the joint use of water resources), have been the priorities of economic cooperation.

An Inter-bank SCO Council has been set up to fund joint projects. China has agreed to make a loan of US$10 billion to help the economies of SCO members. The 2009 summit took place together with the first BRIC summit.

The SCO signed an agreement in 2007 with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, (CSTO) to broaden cooperation on issues such as security, crime, and drug trafficking.. The CSTO was established in 2002: its members are Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Where is the SCO going?

The SCO insists that it has no plans to become a military bloc, but the increased terrorist, extremist and separatist threats could require a full-scale involvement of armed forces. Members may not join other military alliances or other groups of states, while aggression against one member would be regarded as an aggression against all. SCO’s activities now include increased military cooperation, with joint military exercises, and intelligence sharing.

The last two years have underscored fundamental differences between Moscow and Beijing’s strategic priorities in the region as well as diverging attitudes towards developing the SCO’s economic projects and non-security functions.

At the fifth annual SCO summit, held in Shanghai in 2006, the United States was castigated through an SCO declaration insisted that determining Central Asia’s future was up to the states in the region, and not outside powers.

The organization has gradually built an alternative to the western military, political, and economic alliances that have sought partnership with Central Asian states. The fear of the SCO becoming a military counterweight to NATO is unlikely in the short-term, but the SCO does provide a political and economic counterbalance to US interests.

The SCO sent a monitoring delegation to the 2005 Kyrgyzstan parliamentary elections and its findings conflicted with those of the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This marked the SCO, and particularly China, as becoming an organization, seeking to protect the region from foreign political influences as well as external security threats.

The organization promotes trade, military and security cooperation, but it is also developing a geopolitical dimension.

The SCO’s development is influenced by its members’ different views of the US, and the potential threat that Russia and China are to their own sovereignty. China and Russia do not fully trust each other as geopolitical partners. Kazakhstan’s economic strength means that it aims to have many international partners and sometimes to exert its independence from Russian and Chinese influence.


It is too soon to forecast the future role of the SCO. Much will depend upon intra-member relations, particularly between China and Russia. Hopefully, it will cooperate closely with the OSCE.

The fear is that the organization will become a player in the balance of power’ games we are seeing develop in Asia. Let’s hope that eventually there will be a realization what such games did to Europe.

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  1. Does the Shanghai Cooperation Organization matter?

    Does China matter? Yes. So a multipolar alliance, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, led by China and Russia must matter a great deal.

    In fact the committee of experts who reported this year on NATO’s strategy for the future refer to the SCO. The committee recommended that NATO should explore the possibility of new regional subgroups if there is interest among countries in doing so; moreover NATO could forge more formal ties to such bodies as the African Union, the Organization of American States, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation.

    It would be a pity if the beginnings of a global security architecture – such as NATO and the SCO – were to be discouraged. NATO meets in November to finalise its new strategic concept.

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