The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Prospects and Opportunities

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Prospects and Opportunities

Policy Perspectives, Vlm 4, No.1



The history of mankind is full of examples of both accord and discord. Humanity has also experienced that cooperation, at all levels, furthers development and results in peace, prosperity and security. Discord or conflict, on the other hand, creates problems and complexities, hampering development and leading even to armed clashes. It is important to note that sustainable cooperation, particularly among neighbors, is possible only if it is comprehensive, i.e. if it embraces all important dimensions of human interaction — economic, social, political and strategic — and takes into account both internal and external factors. Indeed, external factors have gradually gained added significance in the recent past.

Regional cooperation has assumed added importance in recent years. Organizations like the European Union (EU), Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the regional arrangement of Latin American countries, MERCOSUR, are a few notable successful examples of this kind of cooperation. Even in the WTO — a body enjoying the position of reshaping world economic order, the voice of third world countries is now being heard because of collaborative moves from regional alliances and groups of various countries.

The Current State of Cooperation in the Region

Regional cooperation has been present in Asia and Eurasia as well. Countries of this region are part of regional organizations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). However, the level of cooperation is well below potential, whereas the scope of these organizations leaves much to be desired. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), on the other hand, has all important players of the region within its fold. It started with a limited scope. But in the wake of fast paced globalization and a number of regional and global developments in the political, economic and security environment, the organization has extended its purview, under the “Tashkent Declaration” of 2004, to multidimensional issues confronting the member countries at the regional level. The highlight of the Declaration was the organization’s decision to include economic cooperation as an important component in its future program. A protocol for coordination between the foreign ministries of the member states was also signed, and a mechanism for closer coordination on foreign policy issues in the region was outlined.[1] It was also decided that cooperation in the fields of culture and environment would be enhanced.

Building further on the Tashkent Declaration, this year’s annual summit in Shanghai (in June 2006) reiterated the resolve to intensify all-round cooperation and develop “a harmonious region with lasting peace and common prosperity.”[2] Understanding was developed on improving academic and cultural relations, youth exchanges, cooperation in science and technology, bilateral tourism and sports cooperation with multilateral applications. An even more important development at the summit was the development of a vision for international relations. SCO’s vision emphasizes mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation and, recognizing the region’s immense cultural and civilizational diversity, respect for other members’ civilizations, values and models of development. Expressing its concern over interference in other countries’ internal affairs, the SCO summit also called for making the United Nations (UN) a stronger and more efficient body.

Meanwhile, SCO’s own operational and organizational structure has become very strong. In this backdrop, the need for and potential of SCO may be emphasized under the following 10 points:

1. Addressing Unilateralism: Without going into the details of US acts of unilateralism, one can safely argue that a unipolar world does not bode well for peace and stability on the planet. This element alone calls for a sort of counterbalance to the unilateralist sole superpower, and while SCO neither claims to be a military block nor targets any country, it represents a powerful voice in global affairs and can provide, at least, a counterweight balance in the region.

2. Regional Instability: The central, south and west Asia region has been volatile for decades. Through the Afghan war, followed by civil infighting among different Afghan groups, and now the presence of foreign troops led by NATO, stability has eluded Afghanistan. Continued Western pressure on Iran, particularly from the US, ostensibly over its nuclear program, has also increased the volatility of the region. The recent signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal, in particular, may also have long-term ramifications for regional stability. All these factors increase the need for a coordinated and compact regional position on security issues.

3. Balance within the Organization: China and Russia have in the past been entangled in a number of disputes. SCO has helped them to address their disputes peacefully and come closer. The presence of both the powers in SCO will not only help in bringing stability and peace to the region, it also provides a balance within SCO.

4. Potential for Economic and Social Cooperation: With 43 percent of the total world population and over 37 million square kilometers of land mass, two sitting veto powers and four nuclear powers, the geo-strategic, political and economic importance of this region is quite evident.

Though their religions and cultures may be very diverse, the countries of this region share a number of socioeconomic problems and strategic concerns. While China is one of the fastest progressing countries, and both China and Russia are much more advanced in technology, none of the countries of the region have progressed enough to be recognized as developed; all of the SCO countries fall in the category of developing nations. Poverty is widespread and social indicators are not very satisfactory. On the positive side, the region owns unmatched assets in its human and natural resources and there are strong historical linkages among the SCO countries. An immense potential therefore exists for strong regional cooperation.

The Energy Potential: The SCO member/observer countries have vast natural resources, Russia, Iran and Kazakhstan in particular being rich in energy reserves. Given that the region includes the two most populous countries of the world, which are seeing rapid economic expansion, as well as other fast-growing developing economies, including Pakistan’s, the energy needs of the region are projected to increase manifold within the next few years.

While the oil and gas sectors of Russia and Iran are relatively developed and well-maintained, the Central Asian Republics are not in a position to develop untapped reservoirs of energy on their own. They need foreign capital, technology and expertise on a large scale. Unless the relatively well-equipped countries of the region, such as China and Russia, move forward and help them in exploiting these resources, the way will be paved for the involvement of countries from outside the region, which should not be taken as a simple economic phenomenon. Its strategic implications would be far-reaching. Energy is thus an important base for promoting development through regional cooperation in all the sub-sectors, like investments, exploration, extraction, technology, and transportation, whether by road or through pipeline.

5. Infrastructure Development: The physical features of the region are very complex and somewhat problematic, with the Korakoram, Hindukush and Himalayan mountain ranges making physical contact, communications and infrastructure development far more difficult than normal. The tough conditions mean that huge capital resources, cooperation and strong political will are entailed. In order to realize the goal of infrastructure development to foster closer cooperation, it is all the more important to work together for bringing long-term peace and stability to all parts of this region.

6. Terrorism, Extremism and Separatism: The instability caused by the repeated wars in Afghanistan has led to a phenomenon of extremism, which, in turn, has not only paved the way for more foreign involvement, but also hampered the progress and development of the region. A vicious cycle has set in that, as might be expected, discourages investment. The external forces are always keen to use terrorism, extremism and separatism to their own advantage. Non-state actors are also gaining strength in the prevailing environment.

7. Failure of US-led International Coalition in Afghanistan: The post-9/11 US attack virtually destroyed whatever little infrastructure remained intact in Afghanistan. Despite all the tall claims of the US-led international coalition, peace and stability remain elusive in Afghanistan even after the lapse of over five years.

Chaotic conditions prevail all over the country and warlords remain supreme in its most sensitive areas.[3] There are clear indications that the post-9/11 arrangement has strengthened warlords instead of limiting their role. Poppy cultivation is also on the rise.[4] The menace of drug trafficking is flourishing because of continued violence and instability. All the countries of the region need to work closely to address these issues.

8. Foreign Interference: To support its operations in Afghanistan, the US has, since 9/11, established military bases in other countries of the region.[5] Although it has withdrawn from Uzbekistan,[6] it is still maintaining its bases in Kyrgyztan and Tajikistan. While these bases may have been of strategic importance during the operation against Taliban, their continued presence even five years after the war casts a big question mark for the security of the region. It may not be amiss to conclude that, to achieve its long-term objectives, the US is all set to prolong its stay in the region in the name of its war against terrorism,[7] as stability in Afghanistan will put it under pressure to leave the area.[8] If there is no voice of concern, the US will continue to pressure individual countries and use them, willingly or unwillingly, for its objectives. This aspect makes the need all the greater for a combined and strong regional stance on the security and strategic interests of the region.

9. Tension within South Asia: In South Asia, India is the largest country and it is the only way of linking the whole of South Asia. However, comprehensive regional cooperation in South Asia has been hostage to tensions and conflicts, largely due to the unresolved Kashmir issue and India’s quest for strategic domination; India has a tendency to maintain a sort of hegemony over its smaller neighboring countries.[9] India’s border conflict with China was also a cause of tension in the region for a long period. Notwithstanding these problems, India has a vital role to play as far as regional cooperation is concerned. An organization like SCO can indeed play an important role in influencing the Indian attitude towards regional cooperation.

South Asia has assumed greater significance in US priorities too, with the Bush Administration announcing a new strategy[10] towards South Asia as a region “vital to the future of US.” This initiative has led to a formal agreement on comprehensive US cooperation with India in the nuclear field.

The US is trying to get a strong foothold in the area in order to achieve its multiple objectives, including the containment of China as an emerging power; that is by no means a good sign for peace and security in the region. It is perhaps because of this newfound closeness with the United States that India has apparently not given SCO due importance after becoming an observer member. The Indian head of state did not attend the June 2006 summit of SCO in Shanghai, nor was the Indian head of government present at the September 2006 meeting of heads of government. While the importance of India’s participation in SCO cannot be overemphasized, it is uncertain whether it will prefer SCO or its relationship with the US. The countries of the region can simply not ignore this phenomenon.

Moving Forward

The increasing need for a comprehensive approach to development and cooperation calls for a paradigm shift in the approach to international relations, i.e. from the pursuit of national interest at the cost of others to relationships based on mutual respect, mutual interest and mutual benefit. SCO claims to be motivated by this approach to the international order and is therefore poised to play a leading role in future international relations. In view of regional needs and potentials, SCO needs to move simultaneously on many fronts to realize the objectives of long-term, sustainable and multidimensional cooperation. The following points need special attention:

· Presenting a new paradigm for international relations is a great initiative, but continued thinking and closely coordinated work are required to promote the vision and make it truly operational.

· While SCO has decided that it will have immediate consultation on any emergency arising in the region to protect both SCO and its member states, a comprehensive position on issues of vital importance affecting this part of the world, including foreign interference, should be adopted at SCO level.

· The goal of optimal all-round regional cooperation can only be realized if both member and observer states have enhanced opportunities to play active roles. This demands an expansion, particularly in membership, of the organization. To start with, SCO should seriously consider making observer states its permanent members.

· It is beyond doubt that terrorism is an evil force, affecting negatively the peace of the world. So are violence, extremism and separatism. Yet, it is a fact that the present war against terrorism has resulted in more violence and increased terrorism. Instead of following the US line on the war against terrorism, SCO needs to come up with a more balanced and realistic approach towards the whole issue. A comprehensive and clearer definition of terrorism will definitely help in improving the situation and must help in leading to a just world order.

· Drug production and trafficking is a great menace. All the countries of the region are facing its effects in one way or the other. It is, however, wrong to address the issue in isolation, as it has a direct relation with instability and increased violence. A poor law and order situation is always helpful to criminals. Moreover, it needs to be noted that drug trafficking is essentially a demand-oriented problem. The focus at the international level must therefore be shifted to control demand rather than simply curbing the production and supply. SCO should come up with a comprehensive strategy in this regard.

· Considering the importance of the role that the media is playing in today’s world, SCO should work for a strong presence in the global media, voicing its agenda and framework of action to a wider audience. This is particularly important to promote what SCO regards a new norm in international relations.

· Concrete steps should be introduced to tap the potential for greater economic and commercial cooperation among the SCO countries for the region’s prosperity and well-being of the people. Realizing the goal of economic cooperation demands that the Organisation prioritize the building of strong communication linkages. Besides, efforts should be made at a faster pace for closer interaction among the people of the member countries of the Organisation, particularly the academia and intelligentsia, students, artists and sportsmen. In this regard, specific steps will have to be taken in the fields of tourism, culture, education, media, research, and science and technology. The holding of regional fairs, exhibitions, games and other activities, including availability of information at the grassroots level, may be a first step in this direction.

· Presently, the official languages of the organization are Chinese and Russian. With the foreseeable expansion, the possibility of including English as an official language should also be explored.




SCO. 2004, June 17. Tashkent Declaration of Heads of Members States of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Tashkent. (


SCO. 2006, June 15. Declaration on Fifth Anniversary of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Shanghai. (

UNODC. 2006, September 2. “Afghan opium cultivation soars 59 percent in 2006, UNODC survey shows.” Official website of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Kabul. ( press_release_2006_09_01.html) Viewed October 27, 2006.

Manisingh, Surjit. 2005. “India and the US: A Closer Strategic Relationship?” Economic and Political Weekly (May 28–June 04). Hyderabad, India.

[1] SCO, 2004 (the “Tashkent Declaration”).

[2] SCO, 2006.

[3] Warlords even took part in elections. There were 208 complaints where people claimed to be members of “unofficial military armed groups.” (Andrew North, BBC News, August 30, 2005.)

[4] According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, opium cultivation in Afghanistan rose 59 percent in 2006 (UNODC, 2006). UNODC’s Annual Opium Survey for Afghanistan showed the area under opium cultivation reached a record 165,000 hectares in 2006 compared with 104,000 in 2005. In the southern province of Helmand, cultivation soared 162 percent to 69,324 hectares.

[5] Besides US bases in Uzbekistan (now vacated) and Kyrgyzstan, its allies’ troops were also stationed in the region (German troops in Uzbekistan and French troops in Tajikistan). (New York Times, July 26, 2005, “Q&A: US military bases in Central Asia.”)

[6] SCO very rightly asked for a timeframe for eviction of all foreign military presence in the region. Afterwards, Uzbekistan also gave United States six months, the time required under their bilateral arrangement, to evict all the military facilities from the base near its capital.

[7] While its stated objectives are to uproot terrorism and stem the flow of drugs and small arms, control over energy resources of the region is also on its agenda. Lutz Kleveman, author of “The New Great Game: Oil and Blood in Central Asia,” says that the US is “killing two birds with one stone.” Stephen J. Blanks, another expert on Central Asia at the US Army War College’s Strategic studies Institute, argues that “a fundamental objective of the US is to prevent any neo-imperial revival in Eurasia.” (New York Times, Op. cit.)

[8] The concern shown by the SCO in its summit held at Astana in June 2005 is also an indication of such apprehensions.

[9] Besides conflicts with China and Pakistan, India has disputes with Bangladesh over boundary, like divided villages, fencing of high traffic sections and some islands in Bay of Bengal. Its occupation of Sikkim, tension with Bhutan and Burma over Nagaland and Assam separatist, involvement in Sri Lanka’s Tamil problem, interference in Maldives’ affairs and certain issues with Nepal are a proof of its rocky relationship with neighbours.

[10] The stated goals of this strategy are to help India become a major power in 21st century, to assist Pakistan to move towards democracy, feel secure and thus (be at) peace with its neighbours. (Manisingh, 2005)

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