Ambition versus Achievement

ZOiS Spotlight 14/2017 by Neil MacFarlane (14 June 2017)

The heads of state of the SCO members at the last summit in Astana, Kazakhstan on 8-9 June 2017. Photo: Russian Presidential Press Office

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) brings together four Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – with Russia and China (and, as of the SCO’s last summit on 8–9 June 2017, India and Pakistan), with a remit of political, economic, and security cooperation. It shares many of the weaknesses of other regional initiatives in the former Soviet space: its remit is broad, its practical achievements modest. To cite three recent examples: the organisation has had no effect on pipelines and energy security, on water management in the Amu Darya and Syr Darya river basins, or on Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to cope with terrorist incursions and ethnic violence. The SCO is an example of the contrast between formal ambition and concrete delivery on collective action problems in Eurasia.

Why? Firstly, the SCO’s remit overlaps with those of other regional organisations—the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Institutional multiplication dilutes the impact of any one body and facilitates forum shopping.

Secondly, the commitment of the parties to effective multilateralism is weak. The smaller states seek to maximise their freedom of action. The Russian Federation prefers bilateral diplomacy to multilateral forums where Russia might be constrained. The same appears to be the case for China. The norm of decision by consensus tends to produce lowest common denominator outcomes. Many states in the region are weak. Credibility depends on capacity to deliver on commitments. The states are therefore not credible partners for long-term cooperation. In other words, it would be surprising if the organisation were a significant practical success.

The more interesting line of analysis is geopolitical. The current Russian leadership is generally assumed to be hostile to inroads by powerful outside states and their institutions into Russia’s neighbourhood. NATO and the EU have been identified as major threats to the security of the Russian Federation. Interventions in Georgia and Ukraine and the construction of multilateral regional institutions as an alternative to direct integration into global and European markets reflect this hegemonic perspective.

If there is general Russian discomfort with external great-power intrusion, then the SCO is an anomaly. Chinese and Russian regional interests overlap and arguably conflict. The main axis of trade and investment activity in Central Asia has shifted from north-south to east-west, the major player being not Russia but China. That shift cuts across Russia’s effort to consolidate the former Soviet republics around Russia and gives local players more flexibility in policy development.

In a larger sense, the Eurasian balance of power appears to be shifting decisively in favour of a rising China at the expense of a stagnating Russia. Concern by the Russian elite over the geopolitical threat from Beijing to Moscow’s position in Northeast and Central Asia is deeply rooted. It would be reasonable to expect considerable tension between the two great powers in the region.

Yet since 1996, China, Russia, and the Central Asian republics (except Turkmenistan) have cooperated in the development of the SCO. In June 2017, the organisation admitted India and Pakistan. In short, Russia has resisted external engagement in the West but has embraced it in Central Asia.

How do we explain the contrast? Concerning status, the Russian leadership perceives relations with European organisations to be unequal. In contrast, China and Russia are co-founders of, and equal partners in, the SCO. When the body emerged, Russian policymakers were aware of the growing asymmetry in power and the consequent difficulty that Moscow would have in attempts to limit or prevent Chinese engagement with Central Asia. The creation of a multilateral framework constrained Beijing by binding it to agreed norms and institutions.

China was sensitive to Russian concerns about its periphery and had no desire for tension to arise between the two states in the region. The Central Asian partners probably saw an advantage in creating institutions that would introduce China as a restraint on Russian primacy in the region. All member states worried about American engagement with Central Asia. They were uncomfortable with advocacy of liberal values, because those principles were inconsistent with regional practices of governance and threatened the security of established regimes. This nervousness extended to Western military deployment in the region. Finally, members see value in the SCO as a venue for consultation on the region, for exchange of information, and for coordination of policy where interests coincide.

It seems likely the SCO will persist. The organisation provides a forum for regular communication that assists in minimising potentially dangerous misunderstandings. However, where coordination on significant issues cuts across members’ perceived national interests, it is unlikely that the SCO will have a major impact in fostering mutually beneficial solutions to local collective action problems.

In the longer term, given trends in the regional balance of power, the organisation will encounter increasing difficulty in containing Russian and Chinese conflicts of interest. The addition of India and Pakistan to the organisation is hardly a recipe for comity, given their bilateral conflict as well as long-standing differences between India and China.


Neil MacFarlane is Lester B Pearson Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford. He is s a specialist on Russian foreign policy and the regional dynamics of the former Soviet Union, with particular reference to that region's southern tier.