The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: A New World Power?


The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) intends to promote India and Pakistan to member state status during its annual summit this June, joining China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. This will transform the SCO into a huge regional organization that will cover more than 60 percent of the Eurasian continent, represent over 3 billion people, and include four nuclear power states. While such a development may seem like a threat to the U.S. and NATO, they need not worry just yet.

The SCO was established in 2001, when Uzbekistan joined the Shanghai Five (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan), an SCO precursor organization formed in 1996. The organization has become more inclusive over the years and there are now twelve additional Eurasian states associated with the SCO (Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cambodia, India, Iran, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Turkey). Each country participating in the SCO faces a mix of religious, ethnic, social, and territorial conflicts. The organization targets these issues by focusing on:

  • Strengthening mutual confidence and good relations among its member countries.
  • Promoting effective cooperation in politics, trade and economy, science and technology, culture as well as education, energy, transportation, tourism, environmental protection and other fields.
  • Making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region, moving towards the establishment of a new, democratic, just and rational political and economic international order.[1]

What the SCO promises is political and economic stability through increased cooperation. This is something that the region has not seen in a long time. Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that a “new Silk Road” centered around Afghanistan and consisting of “a web of economic and transit connections [would] bind together a region too long torn apart by conflict and division.”[2]

What the SCO promises is political and economic stability through increased cooperation.

The organization has achieved a lot over the course of its existence. Since its establishment in 2001, the SCO has been involved in a wide range of activities. The organization has held “Anti-terror” and “Peace Mission” joint military exercises since 2002. In 2004, it established the Regional Anti-Terror Structure (RATS) to address regional terrorism. In 2005, the SCO established an Afghanistan Contact Group to cooperate on issues of mutual concern, particularly drug trafficking from Afghanistan.[3]  The organization works on illegal drug control efforts between Russia, the Central Asian states, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2007, it launched a “health train” project to jointly deliver high quality medical assistance to remote areas of the region. At present, the SCO is negotiating plans to build a network of railroad and gas pipeline systems across the Eurasian continent. Consequently, many of the SCO objectives and projects have drawn the other regional states into the organization.

According to the SCO Charter, membership is open for other states in the region that are willing to commit to the principles and objectives of the organization.[4] States may choose to have limited participation as observers or dialog partners. The status of an observer state grants the rights to attend meetings, bring up issues of their concern, and gain access to certain documents,[5] but it does not provide a right to vote or participate in decision making processes.[6] The rights of a dialogue partner are similar those of observer status, but are more limited on a case by case basis.[7] Prior to 2015, Belarus, Turkey and Sri Lanka were the only dialog partners. With the adoption of the Ufa Declaration in 2015, several new dialogue partners were admitted including Cambodia (Memorandum signed on September 24, 2015), Azerbaijan (March 14, 2016), Nepal (March 22, 2016), and Armenia (April 16, 2016[8]). The Declaration also allowed Belarus to become an observer state, joining Afghanistan, Mongolia, and Iran.[9]

The SCO and the West

Many see the SCO as a China and Russia-led counterweight organization to NATO.[10] The reasoning is that China wants to deepen its economic ties and gain political influence with the other SCO member states to further its own global interests.[11] China is actively promoting its New Economic Silk Road high-speed rail infrastructure network across the Eurasian continent. The new railway will begin in Urumqi of China and, on its way to the Iranian capital Tehran, will stop in Almaty (Kazakhstan), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), and Ashgabat (Turkmenistan).[12] In fact, the first Chinese train just pulled into Tehran station in January of 2016. Russia wants to diversify its market for gas, it also wants to preserve its influence on the Eurasian continent, and is suspicious of NATO’s expansion to the East.[13]

China is actively promoting its New Economic Silk Road high-speed rail infrastructure network across the Eurasian continent.

Recently, there has been a strong divergence of the political interests and beliefs between Russia and the West. The events in Ukraine and Syria showed that despite the common belief that the Cold War era was over, the Cold War mindset still exists.[14] SCO’s official website does not comment on Russia’s participation in the Syrian Civil War. Despite the fact that some SCO member states have voiced their discontent and concerns over Russia’s annexation of Crimea,[15] the 2014 SCO Dushanbe and 2015 Ufa Declarations do not contain any criticizing statements about Russia’s actions.[16] Instead, the 2015 Ufa Declaration states that the member states support resolution of international and regional conflicts only by the means of political tools and diplomacy.[17]

In fact the U.S., reluctant to endorse repressive regimes, consciously chose to watch from the sidelines.

For the U.S., the growth and advancement of the SCO means that there is another major political alliance growing strong on the Eurasian continent. Led by China and Russia, the organization has already formalized its relations with the United Nations (2004 and 2010), the Commonwealth of Independent States (2005), the Association of South East Asian Nations (2005), the Eurasian Economic Community (2006), and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (2007).[18] It seems that United States’ SCO policy is one of benign neglect. Despite some claims that in 2005 U.S. had applied to and was rejected by the SCO,[19] the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher, stated in 2006 that the U.S. had not sought membership.[20] In fact the U.S., reluctant to endorse repressive regimes, consciously chose to watch from the sidelines.  In order to better monitor the latest developments in the SCO, in 2009 the U.S. State Department established an Office of Policy, Regional, and Functional Organizations to allow better coordination between agencies, as SCO participants fell under the jurisdictions of three different regional bureaus.[21]

Impediments to the SCO’s goals

The SCO claims to qualify as a new world power and has been taking steps in that direction. The SCO Development Strategy towards 2025 stated that the member nations pledge to consistently take common positions on a wide range of issues of mutual interest in the U.N. and other international organizations.[22] This means that the SCO intends to shape the world’s political agendas. Despite these plans, the SCO is not yet quite there.

First of all, the SCO has trouble developing its own political agenda. For example, in 2012, the Deputy Director of the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure’s (RATS) Executive Committee noted that each SCO country defines terrorism somewhat differently.[23] Consequently, this hampers strategy defining processes and anti-terrorist activities.[24] On top of the political issues, there are ones of institutional origin; some SCO member states have one agency that deals with terrorist and narcotics threats, while others have two separate entities which makes coordination difficult and ineffective, reducing RATS’ ability to conduct counter-narcotics efforts.

Second, the SCO struggles financially. The member states are still negotiating the financial mechanism appropriate for the organization.  The 2013 Bishkek Declaration, 2014 Dushanbe Declaration, and 2015 Ufa Declaration all discussed the avenues to establish the SCO Development Fund and the SCO Development Bank.[25] Overall, the discussion has been going on for more than ten years and has not yielded any practical results. Having a financial mechanism in place is crucial for the SCO, as it would stimulate trade and development throughout the region. The 2015 Ufa summit did yield a ten-year SCO Development Strategy that pledges continued cooperation in efforts to establish joint financial institutions.[26]

Third, the geographic region covered by the SCO is complex. Zbigniew Brzezinski calls it a ‘troubled area’ full of ethnic, religious, territorial, and social conflicts.[27] On top of their internal issues, the SCO members have major bilateral tensions. China has numerous border disputes with its neighbors, including Russia.[28] Then there is the almost 70-year long territorial conflict between India and Pakistan over the Jammu and Kashmir regions. Similar border disputes exist between the Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in the Fergana valley.

Lastly, it is apparent that the SCO faces problems of distrust between its members. There should be no illusions that one can build a major international political institution with no trust between its partners. The presidents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan expressed their concerns about Russia’s ambitions to restore its influence over the Former Soviet States.[29] After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Central Asian states were uncomfortable supporting Russia’s actions, as they were worried about becoming the next Ukraine.[30] Kazakhstan expressed its concerns about its northern territories, adjacent to Russia and densely populated with ethnic Russians.[31] Most importantly, both China and Russia aspire to be the top world power, therefore they do not share a common vision of a new world order.


In 2016, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will celebrate its 15th anniversary. Despite the political and financial challenges, the organization has grown over the past fifteen years, developing its institutional capacity, deepening socio-economic ties with associated states, and expanding geographically. India and Pakistan’s new roles in the SCO might at first glance seem like a major international policy event, possibly changing the current global politics. However the real challenge lies within the core of the SCO itself; there is still much conflict among its members and disagreements on crucial financial decisions. Until the SCO improves trust between its members, formalizes its financial institutions, and starts to implement large scale collaborative development projects, the SCO will remain on the sidelines of driving global politics.

Works Cited

[1] Available at:

[2] Cited in Boland, Julie. “Ten Years of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.” (2011): 29-31, available at:

[3] Protocol on Establishment of the SCOAfghanistan Contact Group between the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, available (in Russian) at:

[4] Charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Art. 13,

[5]Regulations on Observer Status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Art. 7,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Regulations on the Status of Dialogue Partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Art. 2.1.5; once the applicant state receives a status of a Partner, SCO and the concerned state sign a Memorandum. The Memorandum outlines areas in which a state or organization will interact with the SCO,

[8] “Nepal receives SCO dialogue partner status,” 22 March 2016, available at:

[9] Ufa Declaration of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, available at:

[10] “Pax Sinica,” 20 September, 2014, available at:; “Shanghai Co-operation Council emerges as rival to West,” 11 September, 2014, available at:; “China- and Russia-led Shanghai bloc eyes Afghan role,” 7 June, 2012, available at:

[11] “Suppression, China, Oil,” 7 July, 2005, available at:

[12] “China seeking to link Iran to its New Silk Road,” 15 December 2015, available at:

[13] “From cold war to hot war,” 14 February 2015, available at:;

[14] “From cold war to hot war,” 14 February 2015, available at:; “The new cold war: are we going back to the bad old days?” 19 November, 2014, available at:

[15] “Uzbekistan: Rattled by Russian Expansionism, Tashkent Looks East” 8 September 2014, available at:

[16] Dushanbe Declaration, available (in Russian) at:

[17] Ufa Declaration, available (in Russian) at:

[18] Boland, Julie. “Ten Years of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.” (2011): 29-31, available at:

[19] See “Pax Sinica,” 20 September, 2014, available at:

[20] Boucher, R. Testimony of Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, U.S. Department of State, before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, 26 Sep 2006, available at:,B&ContentRecordType=H&CFID=23548910&CFTOKEN=95881001;

Boland, Julie. “Ten Years of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.” (2011): 29-31, available at:

[22] SCO Development Strategy towards 2025, available at:

[23] “Uzbekistan: A Peek Inside an SCO Anti-Terrorism Center,” 25 September 2015, available at:

[24] Ibid.

[25] See SCO Declarations from 2005, 2013, 2014, and 2015. Available at:

[26] SCO Development Strategy towards 2025, available at:

[27] Brzezinski, Zbigniew, Brent Scowcroft, and David Ignatius. “America and the World.” NYC: Basic Books (2008).

[28] ‘China’s territorial disputes,’ 27 August 2014, available at:

[29] “Putin: West wants to prevent the reconstruction of the Soviet Union, but the Russian Federation does not have such objectives,” 20 December 2015, available (in Russian) at:

[30] “Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan supported Ukraine on Crimea,” 6 April 2015, available (in Russian) at:

[31] “Annexation of Crimea has magnified divisions inside Kazakhstan,” 3 May 2015, available at:

About the Author

Mariya Pak is an international policy consultant based out of the Washington metropolitan area. She received her PhD in human geography with a focus on international water management in Central Asia from Oregon State University.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

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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