The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: A Successful Model for Regional Cooperation in the Twenty-First Century

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2013-02-19 10:42
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The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) officially came into being on June, 15, 2001, when the heads of state of its member nations, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, signed a joint declaration in Shanghai, China. The SCO ushered in its second decade when the heads of state of member nations gathered in Beijing for their twelfth summit meeting from June 6-7, 2012. The Beijing summit saw the passage of the Declaration of SCO Heads of State on Building a Region with Lasting Peace and Common Prosperity, the Strategic Plan for the Medium-Term Development of the SCO, and 9 other guideline documents that will see the SCO through the next decade. Laying down stronger foundations for the expansion of friendly cooperation between member nations in all fields, these documents reveal the confidence and determination with which SCO members are approaching the organization’s next decade of development. The strategic significance of the Beijing Summit lies in its role as a bridge between what has come before and what will come in the future. For this reason, it represents an important milestone in the history of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. 

The state of international relations has undergone profound and complex changes over the past decade as the world moves towards multi-polarization and countries become increasingly dependent on one another. Despite this, however, non-traditional security threats, such as extremism, terrorism, and separatism, and regional conflicts are also exerting an impact on the contemporary international order. The Eurasian landmass has long been a key region of geopolitical contention, having played host to a number of wars and armed conflicts since the end of the Cold War. In keeping with contemporary themes of development and the will of the various peoples that inhabit the region, the countries of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan came together to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Over the last ten years, the SCO has been committed to maintaining peace and stability in the region through joint efforts to combat extremism, terrorism, and separatism. This has allowed it to become an effective platform for engaging in international exchanges and promoting the realization of mutual strategic trust. Over the past decade, the SCO has also contributed to economic development in the region through the provision of large amounts of funding, advanced technologies, information, and material support. The SCO has become an important constructive force in the geopolitical landscape of Eurasia, playing an exemplary role in developing a new model for regional cooperation, maintaining peace and stability, and promoting development and prosperity. 

There are three reasons why the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has been able to achieve such huge success. 

Firstly, the SCO has boasted a complete framework for dialogue and mechanism for exchanges since its inception. This allows the SCO to serve as an effective platform for the discussion and resolution of regional issues and the coordination of relations between the member nations. The SCO employs a range of mechanisms for regular meetings and exchanges at different levels, including meetings between heads of state and government, meetings between SCO security council secretaries, meetings between the various departmental heads, and meetings between national coordinators of member nations. In addition, the SCO also includes two major permanent organs in the form of a secretariat and a regional anti-terror agency. Since being founded a decade ago, the SCO has adopted more than 100 important documents, including the Charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism. Together, these mechanisms and documents form the core elements and legal basis of a first-rate international organization.

Secondly, the comprehensive strength of the member countries, especially major Eurasian countries such as China and Russia, has provided a strong backing for the preservation of peace and stability in Central Asia. Prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the members of the SCO had already realized the major threat that terrorism poses to regional security and stability. On the basis of this realization, the SCO has established a regional anti-terror agency, signed into effect an anti-terror convention, and held a number of joint military exercises in what has been an effective campaign to curb the activities of terrorists and religious extremists in the region. Given the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Eurasian region, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is well aware that strength alone is not enough to maintain regional security and stability. For this reason, the SCO places a heavy emphasis on the role of soft power. In addition to the strengthening of cultural ties and exchanges between the member nations, the SCO is also a proponent of the “Shanghai Spirit,” whose essence is mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diversity, and common development. The “Shanghai Spirit” is a banner for the times that the SCO has erected in the international community. It is a key factor in bringing member nations closer together, and in boosting the appeal of the SCO externally.  


The construction site of the China-Kazakhstan Horgos International Border Cooperation Center. The China-Kazakhstan Horgos International Border Cooperation Center, which is being built as a joint venture between China and Kazakhstan, is the first center for international border cooperation that China has established in collaboration with a foreign country. The center also serves as a demonstration project for regional cooperation under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. / Photo by Xinhua reporter Yang Lei

Thirdly, the SCO has adopted a new approach to security which is characterized by the pursuit of regional stability. Traditional geopolitical concepts of security revolved around the power politics of survival of the fittest. For centuries, the Eurasian region has suffered greatly as a result of such notions. The SCO has cast out traditional notions of security and abandoned the Cold War mentality in favor of a new approach to security that is characterized by mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, and collaboration. This new approach to security is characterized by its emphasis on cooperative security, comprehensive security, and common security, as opposed to simply emphasizing military security and self-security in the narrow sense. The notion of security has evolved into a much wider concept in the new period of history, stretching beyond military and political considerations to encompass economics, science and technology, the environment, and culture. The core essence of this new notion of security is that it transcends the boundaries of unilateral security, involving the pursuit of common security through mutually beneficial cooperation. This new approach to security is established on the foundation of common interests, a trait that makes it conducive to human progress.  

Despite having achieved a great deal already, the SCO must continue to explore and innovate if it is to play an even more positive role in the midst of intense competition among regional organizations and an unpredictable global environment. At the recently held Beijing Summit, the member nations of the SCO forged agreements with regard to the following four aspects: The first is to create a harmonious region and turn the SCO into a harmonious community; the second is to maintain regional security and stability, and establish sound mechanisms for security cooperation; the third is to promote the facilitation of trade and investment, and push forward pragmatic cooperation in all respects; and the fourth is to strengthen dialogue between member states and expand the global influence of the SCO. Reaching these goals will call for the unremitting efforts of all SCO member states. 

In order to reach its grand goal of creating a harmonious region, the SCO not only needs the support of member governments, but must also draw support from the peoples in these countries by establishing itself as a highly respected organization. The establishment of a committee for good-neighborliness, friendship and cooperation under the SCO will help to promote interactions between the peoples of member states and encourage exchanges and cooperation between cultural NGOs and intellectual groups operating under the framework of the SCO. This approach is conducive to building a stronger foundation of public and non-government support to underpin the development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. 

In regard to regional security cooperation, the SCO needs to keep up the momentum that it has already gained by taking stringent action to close in on terrorist, separatist and extremist activities and root out syndicates involved in drug trafficking and transnational organized crime. In addition, the SCO also needs to focus on other non-traditional security issues, such as environmental security, food safety, and cyber security, comprehensively increase its capacity for organization, action, and rapid response, and strengthen its comprehensive governance over regional security in order to maintain peace and stability in the region. 

Traversing a resource-rich expanse of the Eurasian landmass, the SCO boasts an enormous potential for development. As the SCO continues to grow in strength, a picture of a Eurasian market with incredible potential for development is beginning to emerge. This is a market whose population is estimated to reach 2.8 billion, and whose combined GDP is close to 11 trillion US dollars. Therefore, each of the member states should make the very most of the effective platform provided by the SCO to bring their unique advantages into play, commit to pragmatic cooperation, and work towards the realization of common prosperity. However, the SCO has a great deal to do if it is to reach this goal. The first task is to continue with the development of infrastructure and strive to establish an inter-connected network of rail, road, air, telecommunications, power, and energy links. It is worth mentioning that the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway, which is an important part of the New Eurasian Land Bridge, will transform the layout of the transit network in not just Xinjiang, but China’s entire western region upon completion. The development of an information highway between SCO members will also help to promote economic development of these countries and raise their international influence by allowing for close collaboration in the communications sector. The second task is to remove trade barriers and promote the liberalization of trade and investment so as to allow for the free flow of funds, personnel and information between member states. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.13, 2012)
Author: Research fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies

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