The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) may be one of the most confusing international groupings in the world. Its membership includes China, Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan, and the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Its member states comprise 40 percent of the world’s population and 20 percent of global GDP. Yet the SCO is often overlooked and misunderstood by analysts in the West, despite the size and influence of its members and an increasing desire for Western democracies to grow influence in Asia. Given its possible role as a platform for changing global norms around human rights and governance, it is crucial that policymakers and human rights practitioners understand how the SCO could bolster authoritarian countries’ efforts at transnational repression.
Policymakers should immediately dispense with any notions that the SCO is an “Asian NATO,” or merely a rogues’ gallery of human rights abusers clubbing together to increase their collective impunity. In reality, there are many fissures within the SCO that complicate such a simplistic view. The power imbalance between China and Russia and the rest of its members has historically been a barrier to greater integration. Members are embroiled in all sorts of disputes, such as China’s border dispute with India and the perennial conflicts between India and Pakistan. At the same time, viewing the organization as a wholly anti-Western collective does not work given that India and Pakistan are both close partners of the United States, and the European Union is Kazakhstan’s biggest trading partner.
Despite these complex dynamics, the SCO is a functioning group that meets, achieves consensus, and takes some action on its aims. While members often clash, they recognize the need for cooperation in specific areas. According to former SCO Secretary General Rashid Alimov, the SCO’s aim is “to build a just polycentric world order, in full conformity with the norms of international law and principles of mutual respect.” Member states work toward this aim through cooperation on issues including organized crime, drug trafficking, terrorism, separatism, and extremism. As of 2018, it had launched 24 anti-terrorism military drills. Chinese government mouthpiece Xinhua describes the aim of such drills is “deepening defense and security cooperation among member states.” Like other regional groups such as the Eurasian Economic Union, the SCO focuses member states’ shared capacities on particular issues, without asking for unnecessary commitments or integration outside of their interest areas. Sovereignty – often shorthand for “turn your back and we’ll turn ours” – is a central tenet of the SCO. This means that attempting to engage with the SCO as a monolith will be unsuccessful.
However, the possibility for the SCO to be used as a vehicle to promote a more authoritarian worldview can be seen in the way the language of Beijing’s policy is paralleled in SCO policy. Combatting extremism, separatism, and terrorism are the fundamental aims of SCO cooperation — as seen in Article I of its charter — and are also the terms used to describe what the Chinese government calls the “three evils.” These are the perceived core threats to social and national stability within China which the government has long used to justify suppression of dissent and oppression of minority groups like the Uyghurs. This gives crucial insight into how Beijing mirrors the language of its domestic policy with that of its multilateral efforts to build regional appeal toward its governance model.
In fact, it has often been reported that Beijing uses the SCO to promote and legitimize its repression of Uyghurs. This poses the risk that a policy framework mandating the mass incarceration of millions could find greater acceptance through cooperation, as China takes on a more leading role in helping other SCO members tackle domestic terrorism concerns, combined with its growing economic, military, and cultural influence. Indeed, some ascribe the entire existence of the SCO to Beijing’s desire to internationalize its domestic issues. The practical appeal of a regional approach to international terrorism – which is an inherently cross-border issue – may lead to a norm creep whereby SCO members come to view Beijing’s approach to terrorism as standard. While the SCO has been around for decades, there is the risk that newer members such as India and future members will see appeal in Beijing’s repressive counterterror methods.
This problem of norm creep necessitates more attention on the SCO, in addition to two additional, equally important responses from democratic states. The first is centering a human rights-first approach in bilateral counterterrorism engagement with SCO members. The second is investment in better knowledge about China.
Spearheading the first approach is challenging – not least because the western-led Global War on Terror largely provided an alibi for Beijing’s counterterrorism methods. To begin to rectify mistakes of the past and to prevent further normalization of Beijing’s approach, countries like the U.S. should ensure human rights are foregrounded in counterterrorism cooperation with countries like India. Guarantees to abide by all United Nations mandates and rules, and to comply fully with international norms should be reinforced, forming a cornerstone of all counterterror cooperation. A human rights-first approach would help counter the legitimation tactics used by China, as well as show a willingness to depart from the U.S.’ own counterterror-related human rights abuses.
A more immediate remedy can also be taken to both prevent norm creep and increase understanding of the SCO. The SCO reemphasizes a critical flaw in Western countries’ approach to China: a lack of knowledge. A key reason why the group is so misunderstood and under-analyzed is because its proceedings largely take place in its official languages of Chinese and Russian. Western democracies like the U.S. and U.K. should take steps to radically increase China knowledge within their international ministries. This means hiring more people with Chinese language skills and experience of studying, working, and living in China. The need for greater understanding of Chinese language and culture has been acknowledged by the U.S. State Department, as well as U.K. think tanks and the U.K. Parliament. Investing in China knowledge will not only increase understanding but also reduce misunderstandings that can lead to conflict where there need not be any.
As various Western powers tilt and pivot to Asia, it is important that they understand its multilateral landscape. This means accepting that many countries in the region do not share the worldview of Western democracies, and picking the right battles to ensure that regional norm changes do not extend to gradual overhauls of the wider international system. Taking the time to understand the regional systems and power dynamics will be far more conducive to building influence than ham-fisted efforts to transpose Western models of governance and rights into countries there. Western democracies cannot expect to march in and fully change the region, but they should at least try to learn its language.