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The New, Improved Shanghai Cooperation Organization

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China Power

The New, Improved Shanghai Cooperation Organization

China’s ambitious goals for the SCO are helped by the imminent addition of three new members.

The New, Improved Shanghai Cooperation Organization
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

The annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit convened in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on September 11 and 12. As befitting its origin as a regional security organization, the SCO mainly focused on security issues, from counterterrorism to Afghan stability, but also touched on economic cooperation. And in a major step forward in expanding its regional clout, the SCO finalized procedures for taking in new members, with India, Pakistan, and Iran first on the list.

Security issues are at the top of the SCO agenda, and terrorism continues to be the major security concern. Anti-terrorism is, not coincidentally, also a huge point of emphasis for China, the SCO’s de facto leader. In his speech at the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the SCO to “focus on combating religion-involved extremism and internet terrorism.” Xi also said SCO members should set up consultations regarding an eventual “anti-extremism” treaty. Ultimately, Xi wants to see regional players, led by the SCO, handling regional security, thus eliminating the need for extra-regional actors (especially the U.S.) As Xi put it, the SCO members “should take it as our own responsibility to safeguard regional security and stability, enhance our ability to maintain stability, continue to boost cooperation on law enforcement and security, and improve the existing cooperation mechanisms.”

Against the larger backdrop of counterterrorism, Afghanistan’s stability remains a major concern for SCO members. Of all the countries bordering Afghanistan, only one (Turkmenistan) is not an SCO member or observer state (and Afghanistan is an SCO observer itself). Thus, should Afghanistan’s security fall apart in the post-NATO era, the SCO would be on the front lines of the disaster.

Before the summit, China’s ambassador to Tajikistan told Xinhua that “SCO members are determined to turn Afghanistan into a country with genuine peace, stability and development, and [will] make concerted efforts with international community in this endeavor.” But, as with other regional security concerns, the SCO ideally wants to ensure Afghan security without having to rely on outside forces (namely, the U.S. and NATO). During this week’s summit, the SCO members voiced their support for “an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation and reconstruction process” that allows Afghanistan to become “self-reliant.” Given the current disaster unfolding in Iraq, SCO members have good reason to be concerned about Kabul becoming overly dependent on U.S. support.

The SCO also made clear its position on the expansion of missile defense systems . “The unilateral and unlimited strengthening of missile defense systems by any individual state or any group of states will undermine international security and strategic stability,” the SCO declaration read. Expanded missile defense systems are a concern for both China and Russia, who protest the idea of new missile defense systems being set up by neighboring U.S. allies.

While the main emphasis was on security concerns, the SCO summit also encouraged further economic cooperation among its members. Economic integration has become an increasingly large part of the SCO agenda, especially as China promotes its idea for a Silk Road Economic Belt that would include the SCO members and observer states.

Amidst all these ambitious goals — ensuring regional stability, especially preventing terrorist activities; promoting Afghan security; furthering economic integration — the imperative for expanding the SCO becomes clear.  Teng Jianqun of the China Institute of International Studies told CCTV in an interview that “enlargement has become absolutely necessary” for the SCO. The current membership is limited to six: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Given that, it’s easy to dismiss the SCO as a playground for China and Russia’s foreign policy initiatives, but one that doesn’t carry any real clout. However, should the SCO expand, as it is now primed to do, the organization would see a corresponding jump in prestige and influence. As Xinhua put it, SCO expansion would “infuse fresh vigor into the group’s future development and boost its influence and appeal on the international arena.”

The SCO has not expanded since it was officially founded in 2001. Before it can add new members, it must first create a legal framework for doing so — exactly the task before the SCO at this week’s summit. The current requirements for joining require potential members to have observer status in the SCO, which would limit the list of candidates to Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan (Belarus, Turkey, and Sri Lanka are currently “dialogue partners”). Of these, India, Iran, and Pakistan have been tapped for membership; the full process is expected to be complete before the 2015 SCO summit, to be held in Russia.  Despite the new membership, Global Times notes that the SCO’s primary focus will remain on Central Asia.

An expanded SCO will be in a better position to achieve Xi’s vision of becoming the regional security heavyweight. Despite a tendency to see the SCO as a competitor to NATO, Chinese leaders stress that the SCO is something entirely new. In Dushanbe, Xi announced that “SCO members have created a new model of international relations — partnership instead of alliance.” An op-ed in RT by a former Russian deputy foreign minister struck a similar tone, contrasting the SCO with “the rigid discipline that exists within old-fashioned, cumbersome alliances of the previous era, which imposed serious constraints on the sovereignty and freedom of their member states.” By comparison, the SCO was described as “fully in tune with the realities and requirements of the 21st century” — the model for future international relationships. With three new partners added to its ranks, the SCO is now better positioned to truly challenge those “cumbersome alliances” for primacy in shaping regional security.