The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: A Beginner’s Guide


Shanghai Cooperation Organization


The end of this year’s G7 Summit in Canada provoked images of an alliance divided, with key partners airing their grievances in public. The same day, a very different summit was held in China by a wholly different alliance (Putz, 2018).

Covering huge swathes of the Eurasian landmass, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a permanent international organization that focuses of developing security and economic ties between its members (SCO Secretariat, 2017). Having, at various turns, been compared to the BRICS, the EU, and NATO, the SCO remains a comparatively loose association of states with shared economic geopolitical interests in Central and East Asia (Bailes et al., 2007) . The SCO has been frequently accused of attempting to undermine American hegemony in Eurasia by establishing a rival base of security and economic cooperation (Ambrosio, 2008).

The SCO maintains four official objectives: 

1. Strengthening mutual trust and neighborliness among the member states”

2. “Promoting their effective cooperation in politics, trade, the economy, research, technology and culture, as well as in education, energy, transport, tourism, environmental protection, and other areas;”

3. “Making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region;”

4. “Moving towards the establishment of a democratic, fair and rational new international political and economic order” (SCO Secretariat, 2017).

Unofficially, the SCO has been described as seeking to undermine the U.S. hegemony in Eurasia by promoting regional governance structures and empowering rival powers. The clearest demonstration of this proclivity was in the 2005 SCO declaration that a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces in Central Asian nations ought to be brought forward (Ziegler, 2018). It has further been noted that the SCO promotes authoritarian norms within the region, with only one member state embracing a democratic form of government. Others dispute this claim, arguing that the SCO is ‘value neutral’ and merely does not promote the same view of liberalism as in other global governance structures (Ambrosio, 2008).

The SCO can trace its roots to the Shanghai Five Group, which was established in the aftermath of the Cold War in order to promote ‘mutual trust, mutual advantage, equality, mutual consultations, respect for cultural variety and aspiration for joint development’ as set out in the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ (Grieger, 2015).

Since the establishment of the SCO in 2001, the organization has undergone three primary changes. The first transformation comes the enlargement process to include India and Pakistan. The second is the creation of Observer and Dialogue Partner Status countries. The final change has been the shift in economic and military power within the organization from Russia to China, a perception that has been exacerbated by the implementation of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region (Zhang, 2018).

1996: The Shanghai Five is established, consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (Bailes et al., 2007). 

2001: Uzbekistan joins the Shanghai Five, which grows into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (Bailes et al., 2007).

2004: Mongolia is the first nation to be granted Observer Status (Bailes et al., 2007).

2005: Establishment of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in Tashkent (SCO Secretariat, 2017).

2005: Iran, Pakistan, and India are granted Observer Status. The US is denied Observer Status (Bailes et al., 2007).

2008: Dialogue Partner Status is created with the admission of Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Armenia, and Nepal (SCO Secretariat, 2017).

2009: Sri Lanka is granted Dialogue Partner Status (SCO Secretariat, 2017).

2012: Afghanistan is granted Observer Status. Turkey is granted Dialogue Partner Status (SCO Secretariat, 2017).

2015: India and Pakistan are given full Member Status. Belarus is granted Observer Status (SCO Secretariat, 2017).

2016: Chinese President Xi Jinping endorses full membership status for Iran (Lim, 2016).

Lending economic and geopolitical heft, Sino-Russian cooperation is the engine of the SCO and invites comparisons to the Franco-German alliance that drives change within the European Union (Ziegler, 2018). The SCO’s focus on combating terrorism, extremism, and separatism serve these two great powers’  domestic interests, while its organizational structure allows the nations to project economic and military power in the region. As noted in a recent EU research paper, “Russia’s recent more eastward orientation following frictions with the West over Ukraine, and China’s ambitious westward or ‘marching west’ strategy, and its emerging Silk Road Economic Belt project, are also crucial geopolitical and economic drivers behind this decision [to increase regional cooperation]” (Grieger, 2015). Of particular note to observers is Russia’s declining stake in this arrangement. At the SCO’s inception, China was in many ways the junior partner, whereas today shrinking Russian influence in the region has put it at odds with its longtime ally of convenience. Whether the Kremlin will accept this new reality is unclear (Khzmalyan & Sahakyan, 2018).

The Central Asian states that comprise the bulk of the SCO’s membership – namely Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan seek international legitimacy, economic development, and security guarantees from their participation in the bloc (Ambrosio, 2008). Though the SCO does not carry the same legitimacy as other international organizations – even being described as a ‘club of dictators’ by some media outlets (Tisdall, 2006) – membership can give a certain recognition to Central Asian leaders. The emphasis on eliminating separatism again allows leaders to maintain the territorial integrity of their nation states through the prism of multilateralism. Though most of these states belong to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the SCO adds an extra layer to their collective security with the addition of serious naval capacity from China. For Uzbekistan, the sole non-member of the CSTO, this arrangement is even more important. The SCO has also been used as a vehicle through which these nations have secured Russian and Chinese investment in their economies in exchange for political favors and military cooperation (Ziegler, 2013).

Pakistan’s engagement with the SCO is most frequently viewed through the prism of seeking to improve its growing relationship with China. This has allowed Pakistan to reduce its dependence on the US as a security partner, while ensuring long term development through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (Desai, 2017).  As the lone democracy, India’s membership of the SCO seems out of place, especially given its famous rivalries with various member states of the organization. Certain analysts have pointed to a desire to avoid encirclement within South Asia that led the Indian government to seek membership (Desai, 2017).

The growth of the SCO to include a wide range of Observer States and Dialogue Partners has expanded the bloc’s influence throughout the region. It has, however, reduced its ability to create consensus, and frustrated effective decision making. Cooley, for example, argues that the expansion has marked the SCO’s transformation to a merely symbolic alliance over a practical one (Albert, 2005).

The supreme decision making body of the SCO is the Heads of State Council (HSC), which meets annually to decide the guidelines and frameworks of the SCO for the coming year. The Heads of Government Council (HGC) also meets once a year to organize further cooperation, including deciding the SCO’s budget (SCO Secretariat, 2017). Given the presidential nature of the original member states, the importance of the HSC reflects the power held by each nation’s executive.

The SCO possesses two permanent bodies – the Secretariat based in Beijing and the Executive Committee of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), which is based in Tashkent. The SCO Secretary-General and the Director of the Executive Committee of the RATS are appointed by the Council of Heads of State for a term of three years (SCO Secretariat, 2017).

The SCO’s raison d’être has historically been, and continues to be, cooperation within the military and security spheres (Ziegler, 2018). Since the establishment of the RATS in 2005, Desai estimates that the SCO has foiled more than 600 terrorists attacks and extradited more than 500 terrorist suspects (Desai, 2017). This impressive record on security cooperation is matched by cooperation between the conventional forces of the member states. Known as ‘Peace Missions’, joint military exercises under the auspices of the SCO signify the first conducted by non-western powers at the strategic level since the Cold War (Ziegler, 2018). Military drills in 2018 even achieved the rare feat of Indian and Pakistani troops working together (Zhang, 2018). Grieger argues that the ‘main achievement thus far is to have offered its members a cooperative forum to balance their conflicting interests and to ease bilateral tensions. It has built up joint capabilities and has agreed on common approaches in the fight against terrorism, separatism and extremism’ (Grieger, 2015).

While economic cooperation is a key pillar of the SCO, the program of economic projects set out in 2003 has seen little progress. Likewise, the Russian-backed plan to create an SCO ‘energy club’ in 2006 appears to have been shelved, at least in the short to medium term (Grieger, 2015). Despite this questionable record, trade between the SCO nations has grown faster than the global average since the organization’s inception. Economic engagement has, furthermore, developed in recent years largely due to Chinese growth and investment. In the wake of the Financial Crisis, China offered loans of US$10 billion to SCO member states in order to provide economic assistance at the Yekaterinburg Summit in 2009. In the previous decade, China has utilized the SCO as a means to develop its BRI projects, and boost its standing within the organization (Albert, 2015). 

Due to the creation of Observer Status and Dialogue Partner Status, the SCO has clear pathways to membership with a precedent of admission. As such, Belarus, Iran, Afghanistan, and Mongolia may be viewed as potential members. It has long been a strategic objective of Iran to attain full membership of the SCO and is the most likely candidate to be the next member. President Xi’s endorsement in 2016 has made the idea all but inevitable (Lim, 2016). As an alternative forum for dialogue and cooperation outside of liberal norms, the SCO is likely to grow on the fringes by enlisting new Observer States and Dialogue Partners.

The SCO is ultimately hamstrung in its development due to conflicting national interests and institutional weaknesses. Low trust between stakeholders has led to a lack of common funds, which has, in turn led to the failure to implement common projects (Grieger, 2015). While India’s recent inclusion in the SCO does broaden the scope for liberalization in the organization, the subcontinent remains isolated in its democracy and must therefore move cautiously (Desai, 2017). Future conflicts of interest between Russia and China may also grow tensions within the SCO, as China’s economic influence expands into traditionally Russian spheres of interest (Khzmalyan & Sahakyan, 2018).

Albert, E. 2015. “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization”. Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder. Available at: [Accessed: 12/11/18].

Ambrosio, T. 2008. “Catching the ‘Shanghai Spirit’: How the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Promotes Authoritarian Norms in Central Asia”. Europe-Asia Studies. 60 (8).

Bailes, A. Dunay P. Guang P. Troitskiy M. 2007. “The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation”. SIPRI Policy Paper No. 17.

Desai, S. 2017. “India’s SCO Challenge”. The Diplomat. Available at: [Accessed: 12/11/18].

Grieger, G. 2015. “Briefing: The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation”. European Parliamentary Research Service. PE. 564.368. Available at: [Accessed: 12/11/18].

Khzmalyan, E. Sahakyan, A. 2018. “Russia and China Aren’t Full Allies – Yet”. The National Interest. Available at: [Accessed:12/11/18].

Lim, K. 2016. “Iran’s Shanghai Dream”. Foreign Affairs, Snapshot. Available at: [Accessed:12/11/18].

Putz, C. 2018.  “The West in Crisis, the East Rising? Comparing the G7 and the SCO”. The Diplomat. Available at: [Accessed: 12/11/18].

Shanghai Cooperation Organization Secretariat, 2017. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Website. Available at: [Accessed:12/11/18].

Tisdall, S. 2006. “Irresistible Rise of the Dictator’s Club”. The Guardian. Available at: [Accessed:12/11/18].

Ziegler, C. 2013. “Central Asia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and American Foreign Policy: From Indifference to Engagement”. Asian Survey, Vol. 53, No. 3, pp. 484-505. California University Press: Berkeley.

Zhang, Z. 2018. “SCO military drill seeks trust, stability”. China Daily. Available at: [Accessed:12/11/18].

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About the Author

Daniel Rossell-Evans is an intern at ERA Institute. 

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan e-think tank. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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