Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Illustration: Henry Wong

Can China’s hopes that Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will offer new model for international relations come to pass?

  • The group’s members now account for over 40 per cent of the global population and it plays an increasingly important economic role across Eurasia
  • But tensions among member states, including China and India, and uncertainty about its future direction may limit its effectiveness on the world stage

China has high hopes that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will come to represent what foreign policy chief Wang Yi has called a “new type of international relations”.

But while the bloc has expanded its role and membership since its formation as Eurasian security bloc in 2001, many diplomatic analysts say it still holds little sway on global issues, including the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Although it has become a key diplomatic tool for China as it seeks to steer regional priorities and increase economic cooperation among neighbouring states, some observers warned that serious disagreements among members – especially India, Pakistan and China – limit its effectiveness on the world stage.

China set up the group in Shanghai along with Russia and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as a way of building trust and easing border tensions in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time its priorities were stated as fighting the “three devils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism.

Since then its role has expanded to include areas such as economics and trade and the organisation now bills itself as the world’s largest regional grouping – covering more than 40 per cent of the global population – after India, Pakistan and Iran became members, with Belarus on track to join this year.

Highlighting the importance China attaches to the bloc, Wang told an event in February to mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of its secretariat in Beijing that the SCO “remains a diplomatic priority”.

China and Russia seek to expand bloc as alternative to Western order: analysts

He described the “Shanghai spirit” as one based on “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for the diversity of civilisations and pursuit of common development, setting an example of a new type of international relations and regional cooperation”.

He went on to say: “All member states should work together to make the SCO bigger, stronger and more solid, so that the SCO can play the role of a ‘stabilising anchor’ amid changes unseen in a century”, according to a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry.

“Noting the accelerated evolution of changes unseen in a century and the volatile and chaotic international situation at present, Wang Yi said that there is a greater need for carrying forward the Shanghai spirit and a cooperation platform such as the SCO.”

Rabia Akhtar, director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research at the University of Lahore in Pakistan, said the bloc’s relevance has “increased over the years” with more countries looking to join.

She said: “Member states can now voice their views on key regional and global issues through the organisation’s platform while getting a buy-in from one an another.

The bloc has seen its economic role expand in the years since its formation. Photo: AFP

“At a time when diplomacy is again taking a back seat, groupings like this must be valued and strengthened.”

She said its role had evolved to focus more on boosting economic cooperation among members and address increasing concerns about issues such as counterterrorism, energy security and climate change.

But Akhtar and other diplomatic analysts pointed to the limits on the bloc’s influence on the world stage

“As of now, the SCO does not have the clout or the capacity to play a critical role in putting out fires in Europe and the Middle East,” she said.

In the case of the Ukraine war – now in its third year – she argued the SCO has been “restricted” from playing any meaningful role given Russia’s membership.

She said the group could still strongly advocate for dialogue between warring parties and “had major stakes” in resolving these conflicts because “the region’s politics of pipelines and corridors could be greatly affected by the war in Europe”.

China’s outgoing EU envoy gets top job at Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

Li Lifan, head of the SCO centre at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said its expansion over the years helped raise its international status and promote regional cooperation, but warned that the grouping has been unable to help resolve the conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine because there were “so many differences” between members.

Amitendu Palit, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies, said: “It certainly has an importance in potential resolution of conflicts in West Asia, the Middle East and the central Asian region.”

But he said that “until now, its role in this regard has been minimal”, again pointing to disagreements between the members.

For instance, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for more collaboration on regional projects, but India has consistently opposed China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative because a key element, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passes through parts of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir that New Delhi claims.

At last year’s SCO summit chaired by India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that while better connectivity would boost trade and foster trust, it was “essential” to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states.

However, in a sign of the internal tensions within the group, theIndian leader also appeared to be targeting another member country, Pakistan when he spoke about cross-border terrorism.

Russia stands ‘united’, Putin tells SCO virtual summit days after Wagner mutiny

Considering these problems, Palit said there was a need for member countries to agree on “core areas and approach conflict resolution processes accordingly” if the regional grouping wanted to be more effective.

Fan Hongda, a professor at Shanghai International Studies University’s Middle East Studies Institute, suggested that the organisation should also further clarify its goals and improve coordination among members.

“There is a lot of uncertainty at a time when the world is undergoing major changes. Unfortunately, the SCO has not demonstrated a trustworthy ability to deal with regional crises so far,” he said.

“The complex bilateral relations between member states and the differences in their respective development demands obviously limit the effectiveness of the cooperation.”

He cited the “quite conflictual” nature of some of the relations among members, and the differences in political systems, values and levels of economic development as being factors that “obviously limit the effectiveness of the cooperation”.

Unfortunately, the SCO has not demonstrated a trustworthy ability to deal with regional crises so far
Fan Hongda

However, the bloc continues to grow and attract global attention, and remains a key prong of China’s diplomatic strategy.

Fan said Beijing viewed it as a “tool to expand its influence and deal with regional problems” in a changing world and had played a leading role in “developing” the group.

Alessandro Arduino, an affiliate lecturer at the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, said that since its establishment in 2001, it has evolved into a “significant platform aimed at challenging Western influence in Asia and the Middle East”.

While the SCO was not intended to be a “Nato of the East”, he said it was aimed at countering the “dominant Western-led international order”.

Arduino said the bloc “advances Beijing’s idea of a multipolar global order”, adding: “Across regions from Tashkent to Tehran, Beijing’s strategic narrative appears to be gaining traction.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping told last year’s SCO summit that members should keep their foreign policies independent, warning against “external attempts to foment a new Cold War”.

“We must resolutely reject any interference in our internal affairs and the instigation of ‘colour revolutions’ by any country under whatever pretext. The future of our development must be held firmly in our own hands,” he said in a veiled swipe at the West.


China announces US$3.8 billion Belt and Road expansion in Central Asia

China announces US$3.8 billion Belt and Road expansion in Central Asia

Arduino said Beijing’s desire to extend its reach from central Asia to the Persian Gulf went beyond leveraging its economic might. It would involve a “charm offensive” and rising security cooperation.

From a geopolitical perspective, he added that the SCO has seen growing interest from the Middle East, having recruited Iran as a full member and with others such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt interested in joining.

This, Arduino said, also aligned with China’s push to foster closer ties with central Asian leaders in recent years.

Akhtar from the University of Lahore added that China’s foreign policy in the broader Eurasian region has been centred on creating stability through regional connectivity and economic integration.

China, she said, would want a “peaceful periphery” so it could advance its economic influence in the region and beyond.

The SCO, which Akhtar called an “important tool of Chinese diplomacy”, enabled China to take on a leadership role, set and steer regional priorities, and share its global outlook with member states.

“It is reasonable to argue that SCO has increased China’s bandwidth in the region, especially in Central Asia, to establish rules that not only benefit it but also attract other regional players,” she said.