The SCO as a Rising Master of the Heartland
No. 1 2012 January/March
Vitaly Vorobyov

A senior research fellow at the Center for East Asia and SCO Studies at the Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He is also Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.

How to Elevate the Most Promising Organization in Eurasia to a New Level

In the second decade of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s existence, its six founding members (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) ask themselves conceptual questions. Many people believe that the SCO is going through an internal crisis, although views of its depth differ. Is it really time for the organization to choose a vector and a model of development for the long-term future? Should the SCO seek a classic implementation of the integration idea in a globalizing world? Is it possible to implement the integration potential in a different way? There is a wide range of opinions on these issues, but whatever the extreme positions, the main assessments of the first decade of the SCO’s existence (the organization turned 10 years old in 2011) can be summarized as follows.

Those who viewed the SCO as a prototype of a new alliance with a strong anti-Western, especially anti-American, orientation describe the outcome of its first decade as a failure. Indeed, one can take the emergence of this organization at the turn of the 21st century as one of the results of the Soviet Union’s collapse. However, neither the basic postulates of the SCO, nor its founding documents or, especially, the policies of its members show that their leaders set themselves such a utopian and chimerical goal as trying to glue together fragments of the post-Soviet space and China into a unified political structure.

Others feel annoyed that the SCO has proved unable to establish strict control over political and economic processes within its realm and use coercion mechanisms and quasi-policing functions. This feeling reveals inflated expectations and maximalist demands that have surrounded the organization since its establishment. As a rule, such expectations stem from good intentions and they can serve as catalysts for some initiatives, but more often they transform into discouragement and pessimistic conclusions or, conversely, into hasty activity with low results. It is time to get rid of this emotional and romantic approach.

Still others admit that over its ten years the SCO has gone a long way and become part of the global political context and a serious international factor which major international actors have to reckon with. The SCO, initially viewed as a situational association, has within a short period of time become a diversified organization characterized by internal strength, flexibility and an outward appeal and demonstrating openness and readiness to cooperate with anyone really interested on a transparent and equitable basis. No wonder the SCO has already acquired almost as many external partners of various formats as ASEAN has acquired over the 45 years of its existence. The establishment of the SCO has played a stabilizing role in Central Asia and in many ways has helped to subdue the centrifugal tendencies traditionally inherent to the region, which came to the surface after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

At the same time, experts and analysts see signs of declining internal dynamism, which have emerged in the last two to three years, inertia and growing imbalances between the main cooperation areas.

Objectively speaking, ten years is a very young age for an international organization. So it is only natural that the SCO has faced some teething problems. Their solution requires patient and meaningful efforts aimed, in the long run, to help the organization reach a mature age. In other words, whereas the first decade of the SCO can be described as a period of formation and predominantly extensive growth, including the SCO’s external activities, now it must move on and embark on the path of intensive harmonious development.



The latest SCO summit, held in the summer of 2011 in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, recognized the need for a phase transition. The summit’s documents highlight the importance of a strategy for the foreseeable future. In this regard, I would like to offer some general comments.

First, the notion of “SCO space” is acquiring a non-academic dimension. What does it stand for geographically? Does it stand for the countries that make up the core of the SCO, or for an almost boundless area including observers and dialogue partners, whose number may keep increasing? If we take ASEAN, an organization that is very close to the SCO in terms of principles and objectives, its “space” is unequivocally interpreted as a combination of the territories of its ten member countries located in Southeast Asia. This is where their jointly formulated interests are focused. Partners of ASEAN are scattered on different continents. But these are external partners, and cooperation with them is built differently than that inside the association.

This model can well be applied to the SCO. Its six founding countries are located in the northern, central and eastern parts of the vast Eurasian continent – the present SCO space. It is within its boundaries that the SCO rules, programs and projects are in effect. This space has an outstanding feature – it includes the core of the Eurasian continent (its “heartland” in geopolitical terms), called Central Asia. This region is the main center of attraction of interests and efforts. Of course, the SCO must be attentive to what is going on to the west, the south and the east (in the Pacific region), but interaction with actors outside the SCO space inevitably differs from the intra-SCO logic.

Any enlargement of the core would bring about a new configuration of the space and make cumbersome the original structure of the SCO as a regional organization with a clear-cut area of responsibility. It is important to weigh in advance what additional loads the existing mechanisms can sustain in order to avoid the need for their overhaul, which would require their radical reformatting. This is why the political criteria for membership, set in Tashkent in 2010 and in Astana in 2011, are not enough in addressing the enlargement issue. The SCO must within itself formulate legal, financial and organizational conditions, on the basis of which it would negotiate specific details with applicants for membership. This seems to be the most optimal procedure.

The experience of NATO and the European Union as the well-established international organizations has shown that this process is painful and that it is hard to predict consequences of a hasty enlargement. The SCO can also follow the example of ASEAN, whose original composition was enlarged during the 1990s – without going beyond the frameworks of Southeast Asia, though. This example proves the need for an evolutionary and balanced approach and the inevitability of additional internal tuning.

As regards the SCO’s hypothetical enlargement, it would be wiser to be guided not so much by feasibility assessments that depend on the current situation, as by a pre-defined value of the “critical mass” of the core, which the organization would be able to sustain, avoiding its self-destruction and remaining, at the same time, in the heartland of Eurasia. In other words, can the present SCO core and space expand infinitely and become politically and geographically blurred?

Second, the notion of “cooperation,” which is key in the organization’s name, fully conveys the idea of the SCO as an innovative model of effective interaction, not seeking super-consolidation with the emergence of supranational bodies with directive functions. So far, the SCO has managed to avoid signing documents with reservations, which would have reduced the possibility of their proper implementation. The SCO members, including Russia, apparently are not ready to radically change the existing efficient, albeit slow, mechanism of coordinating their interests, based on consensus decision-making as regards fundamental issues and on voluntary implementation of agreements.

But one might think of a more profound improvement of this mechanism, while showing respect for the self-actualization of the sovereign members. In particular, wider use could be made of a provision in the SCO Charter that allows for the absence of full consensus with regard to individual cooperation projects. Like other major international associations, the SCO could try different-speed interaction where some member-states would focus more efforts on individual issues and projects that would not distract the organization from its main areas of work and that have received general consensus from all member-states. Such efforts would not mean isolation or confrontation. It is felt already now that without such practices the SCO may increasingly show a slowdown effect.

Multilateral SCO projects, economic or humanitarian, could emerge from such bilateral projects which have a potential for involving other participants (Two-Plus formula).

The SCO has a long-term stage-by-stage program for creating conditions for the free movement of goods, capital, services and labor. This vector is in line with global trends. It requires the solution of a multifaceted and difficult task, namely how to reduce to a common denominator different trade, investment and exchange-rate regimes, different production and financial standards, and different ways of doing business. The SCO is only beginning this work. Most likely, it will take on the nature of adaptation to newly formed structures in the post-Soviet space, in Northeast and Southeast Asia. From this point of view, importance should be given not to forced integration but to pragmatic activities, especially as regards the information and transport infrastructure and energy ecology.

There may be doubts that, if the SCO develops according to this scenario, it may resemble a social club, rather than a close-knit team. But to have a well-organized and efficient club is a worthy, and difficult, task.

The SCO’s modernization strategy must be aimed, above all, at solving the problem of how to increase the efficiency of cooperation in all areas and making the organization more efficient, adaptable, mobile, flexible, manageable and stronger.

Third, some people believe that the SCO is a kind of diplomatic cover for a de-facto existing duumvirate of Russia and China, which exercises control over the Central Asian region, and that this region is an arena of Russian-Chinese rivalry for influence. This point of view diminishes the role of countries in the region as independent actors and is a sign of an unrealistic approach in theory and short-sightedness in practice. It also suggests an alarmist idea of Russian-Chinese relations as a continuous confrontation, sometimes overt and sometimes latent.

This point of view, as applied to the SCO, is far-fetched. There is and there will always be an element of competition between Russia and China in Central Asia. It would be strange if things were otherwise, considering the historical affinity between the two countries and Central Asia and their position in today’s globalizing world. However, it is not a clash of interests between Russia and China that is the main driving force behind the SCO. The decisive role in the SCO’s establishment was played by a convergence of their views on the importance of predictability and peaceful development of the general situation in Central Asia, and by their awareness of explosiveness of disunity and dividing lines there.

In a sense, the SCO can be called a product of the formation of a new type of relations between Russia and China, and a tangible embodiment of the Russian-Chinese trustful strategic partnership.

Russia and China make up the backbone of the SCO. Both countries realize that their concerted actions are crucial for the organization. Naturally, this does not rule out nuances in approaches to individual SCO problems. However, equating the ongoing search for a positive balance of Russian and Chinese interests with an incessant tug of war for asserting one’s hegemony would be a biased conclusion that would be contrary to the way the SCO is organized and works. The constructively oriented ideology, dubbed “Shanghai spirit,” does not allow for undivided rule by any state, regardless of its size.

The future of the SCO lies in preserving the compatibility of Russia’s and China’s approaches and interests where it concerns long-term objectives and fundamental principles of the organization’s functioning in all its aspects and dimensions.



Finally, there is one more, external factor that is crucial for building the SCO strategy. This factor is Afghanistan. One should not forget that the SCO emerged as a response to immediate threats of terrorism and drug trafficking, which came from Afghanistan in the late 1990s. The SCO idea was born from a collective demand for a regional coalition to combat them. The countries that established the Shanghai Cooperation Organization were the first to focus world attention on the transnational nature of such threats and on the need for joint global efforts to counter them.

Now the Afghan issue is again returning in its entirety to the agenda. Among major international organizations with a positive image, the SCO is the closest to Afghanistan. Willing or not, the SCO will have to address problems of this turbulent state with an unclear future. But one cannot allow the Afghan load to prove unbearable, to overstrain the SCO, to frustrate its activities and the need for an urgent internal tuning, and to cause irreparable damage to its reputation.

The Afghan agenda requires a special analysis within the organization’s framework and an immediate development of a coordinated policy towards it. In particular, this refers to the issue of granting observer status to Afghanistan. In light of NATO’s decision to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by 2014, such a move should be considered, inter alia, in the context of making contacts with political forces that will dominate Afghanistan after that.

One thing is clear: the SCO cannot and should not become hostage to Washington’s policy and selfish plans. One cannot rule out that the U.S. may use Afghanistan to destabilize the situation in Central Asia and around it. Such actions would undermine, above all, the positions of Russia and China in the region and globally. Considering that Washington may choose such tactics of departure from Afghanistan in order to stay there (including military presence), the SCO could use the Afghan issue to establish ties with the United States. For example, the format of a contact group, already used in the organization, could serve as an autonomous platform for mutual probing and coordinating procedures. Thus an additional resource would be created for postwar settlement in Afghanistan.

As regards the scope and seriousness of provoked threats, the entire range of Afghan problems has long gone beyond regional frameworks and has drawn international attention and concern. The United Nations has long been playing a leading role in the Afghan settlement, and it should continue doing so.

Turkey has recently come out with an initiative on Afghanistan, called the Istanbul Process, which can serve as a starting point for collectively developing a new peacekeeping mandate for the UN in Afghanistan. Another initiative on Afghanistan, Six-Plus-Three, has been proposed by Uzbekistan.

The Afghan factor, which is a serious challenge for the SCO, should be used by the organization to step up its ties with the international community, above all the UN, and to establish contacts with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

* * *

The development of the SCO strategy and the further improvement of the organization could be based on the following three interrelated factors: first, cementing solidarity in the political sphere, with a focus on combining national state interests and those of the SCO; second, broadening the foundations of co-development in the economic field, with emphasis on the SCO’s adaptive capacity; and third, strengthening the feeling of community in the cultural and humanitarian dimension, which has a great potential of “unity in diversity” that is essential for strengthening public support for the SCO.

Russia could contribute to the formation of the matrix of the SCO of the future by showing more initiative. Obviously, this is where experts in SCO affairs could pool their approaches, ideas and proposals.