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The Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the New Era

2018-06-04 11:34:00 Source:China Today Author:SUN ZHUANGZHI
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IN June 2018, the 18th Meeting of the Council of Heads of Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will be convened in Qingdao, China. This is the first summit since the organization granted full membership to India and Pakistan last year. Now the SCO has eight member states, covering a fourth of the world’s land mass and host to the bulk of the world’s population. The significant expansion in geographical area and large increase in economic and resource aggregation render the organization greater potential. Given these developments, the SCO Qingdao meeting will be a milestone in the SCO’s 17 years of history, marking a new stage in terms of regional cooperation.


Principle of Equal Consultations

The cooperation within the SCO is distinguished by its spirit of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, mutual consultations, respect for cultural diversity, and aspiration for common development. These principles, referred to as the Shanghai Spirit, had taken shape in the period of the “Shanghai Five,” predecessor of the SCO, and continue to serve as the basis and essence for multilateral cooperation between the SCO member states.

The 18th Meeting of the Council of Heads of Member States of the SCO convenes in Qingdao, a coastal city in eastern China.

The SCO upholds a new type of security that advocates mutual security, safeguards security through cooperation, and addresses conflicts between nations and regions through dialogue. The organization adheres to the new form of cooperation, which advocates that all nations, big or small, are equal, and emphasizes equal consultation and mutual benefits. Priority is given to small, developing countries for their development. The organization also made exploration in fostering a new type of relations between countries. For example, member states comply with principles of non-alignment, not targeting any third country, and not building military or political alliances.

Proceeding onwards from these principles, the SCO countries treat each other with sincerity, carry out extensive consultations, and act within their capacity. The decision-making is not up to major countries, but for the sake of all member states’ interests, which embodies the sense of affinity and vitality. 

Since the “Shanghai Five” period, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have taken joint measures to respond to fast-moving international situations and challenges, so as to safeguard regional stability.

Regional cooperation promoted by the SCO member states has distinctive characteristics. First, it aims to resolve the most pressing security issues in the region, such as combating extremism, terrorism, separatism, and illicit drug trafficking. Member states have strengthened cooperation in national defense and intelligence, and carried out law enforcement collaboratively.

Second is economic cooperation. The SCO vows to promote trade and investment, and eliminate trade barriers. Member countries have identified a slew of key areas and projects via bilateral and multilateral cooperation, and signed agreements to facilitate land transportation.

Third is the mechanism of ministerial-level meetings, which has been established in various sectors and fields to promote cultural and people-to-people exchanges. Civic organizations and local governments are also encouraged to conduct exchanges in such fields as education, culture, health, science and technology, sports, youth affairs, media, and tourism.

 The SCO adheres to the principle of open and transparent cooperation. On one hand, it is ready to cooperate with all countries and international organizations which are willing to participate in the SCO and acknowledge related principles. On the other hand, the SCO firmly safeguards the authority of the United Nations and universally recognized norms of international laws, opposes hegemony and power politics, and opposes interference by foreign forces in the internal affairs of a country.

 Regarding international relations, the SCO has become an observer of the UN General Assembly, and signed cooperation documents with many international organizations. It is also engaged in promoting its appeal to the world by inviting more countries outside the region – the organization has accepted six observer states and six dialogue partners since 2014, and completed its first enlargement in 2017. The SCO also convened an international meeting on the Afghanistan issue, a salient example of its active participation in the settlement of hotspot issues in and outside the region. Regarding major regional and global issues, the SCO expounds its stances and makes its voice heard by the international community, so to protect the interests of regional countries and all developing countries and promote multi-polarization and democratic international relations. In response to the rise of trade protectionism and counter-globalization trend, the SCO called for multilateral cooperation to create better development opportunities for regional countries.


Coping with New Challenges

Now the SCO is in a new phase of development. Expansion of membership has enlarged the scope of multilateral cooperation in different sectors, and brought about new opportunities. However, it has also given rise to several acute problems, which require the organization to tackle effectively. The foremost is to adjust the internal mechanisms. For example, the two new members, India and Pakistan, need to condition themselves to SCO’s operation procedures and rules. On the other hand, the organization’s permanent bodies and various mechanisms should have necessary reform, helping the new members fit in the organization in the running-in period.

Two Russian students, a brother and a sister who are studying at the China University of Petroleum in Qingdao, write in Russian and Chinese to welcome the SCO Qingdao meeting.

 Second is to adjust the key areas of cooperation. The appeals from both new and old members should be taken into account, while the existing priority areas should not be changed. The principle should be observed when advancing pragmatic cooperation in economic and security sectors.

 Third is to make adjustments in the field of international relations, considering the organization’s increasing influence in the world and rising external pressures. The SCO should sum up its experience, and provide definite answers to some concerns, such as whether it will expand the membership in future and how to handle relations with Western countries.

 Last but not least is to adjust the way of working. The SCO is gradually entering a more “diversified” stage. China and Russia play a leading role in multilateral cooperation; India and Pakistan, both regional major countries, have become full members; and the Central Asian members tend to play their part in the organization. Under such circumstances, it is even more important to recognize and respect differences among countries, and on the basis of that, to seek more consensus on cooperation.

 The SCO also faces challenges from the complex geopolitical situation and international security environment. On a global scale, relations among China, the U.S., and Russia are undergoing profound adjustments and conflicts; a wide range of hotspot issues in the Eurasian continent keep heating up; and the unilateralism and the Cold War mentality are gathering momentum in the West, which have disturbed world peace, and undermined the international order.

 At the regional level, the “Islamic State” is going to a dead end in West Asia, but extremists are likely to flow into Central Asia and Afghanistan, creating even more thorny problems to the world at large. The SCO will not leave itself out, but respond with an effective policy. In fact, the SCO is one of the first international organizations to fight against terrorism. The member states have signed The Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism, and Extremism, The SCO Convention on Anti-Terrorism, and The SCO Convention on Anti-Extremism. These states also ratified documents on combating illicit drug trafficking, made annual plans regarding security issues, and carried out joint exercise to enhance military mutual trust.

The member states in the Central Asian region have resumed the process of “integration” that excludes adjacent major countries. The action was made based on their needs, but also attributed to forces outside the region. It is possible to see these countries alienate the SCO in future. The Afghan issue and Iran’s nuclear crisis that are still unable to have a fundamental solution could create new turmoil at any time. In addition, India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed countries, take opposing stances with each other, which is also a real challenge for the SCO.

The ever-changing international economic and security situations impede the internal solidarity and cohesion of the organization. The best way to address the difficulties is to enhance the multilateral mechanism’s efficiency of decision-making and competence of operation. The focus should be put on the settlement of regional issues, to prevent conflicts among member states from being amplified. The organization should play a leading role in a broader international arena in opposing the unilateral moves that a few Western powers make to consolidate their hegemony.


A Community with a Shared Future for Mankind

The SCO member states vary in economic strength and resource endowment, as well as in the degree of participation in international trade and division of labor. For these reasons, a few countries hold negative attitude towards multilateral cooperation, which resulted in relatively lagging-behind economic cooperation within the SCO framework. India and Pakistan, which just became members last year, need to be more familiar with the SCO’s structure and procedures gradually, observe the existing rules of conduct, and properly handle historical issues and disputes with other member states. All these require the leaders of member states to work together with wisdom, make plans for future development, and seek the most reasonable path for cooperation.

The year 2018 is the first year after the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was successfully convened. It also marks the fifth year of the proposal of the Belt and Road Initiative. The idea of the major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics has become clearer, and is expected to contribute to the development and stability of the region and even the world. President Xi Jinping proposed to build a community with a shared future for mankind and forge a new form of international relations, which also pointed the SCO in a right direction in the years to come. The new era and historical conditions have given new connotations to the Shanghai Spirit, and the SCO can serve as a demonstration of building a community of a shared future by countries with diverse cultures and systems.

The SCO is the first international organization named after a Chinese city. It thus has distinctive Chinese characteristics from the outset. In the past 17 years, China has contributed ideas and way of thinking, set goals for multilateral cooperation, and also came up with specific plans and concrete measures. For example, China has provided more than US $22 billion of concessional loans within the SCO framework, set up the Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation Commission, and a cooperation center for environmental protection. All the measures are aimed at extending friendship to future generations, expanding non-governmental exchanges, and creating favorable public opinions, so as to lay a solid foundation for regional cooperation.

The SCO is able to leverage the Belt and Road Initiative to build a community with a shared future for mankind, proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, to gain new momentum for development. The SCO member states and observer states are all situated along the Belt and Road routes. Over millennia they have formed firm friendships through trade and exchanges, which also gave birth to the partnership featuring mutual benefits and cooperation in contemporary times.

In 2013, President Xi Jinping proposed to build the Silk Road Economic Belt in a speech delivered in Astana, Kazakhstan, which has produced clearly observable changes globally over the short span of a few years. The initiative also brought great opportunities for the SCO. It serves as an important platform for member states to wed their national strategies with the Belt and Road Initiative.

In the future, the SCO will establish solid and secure networks and boost transnational economic and cultural exchanges. More importantly, it is expected to blaze a new trail for regional cooperation, so as to play an irreplaceable role in transforming global governance and building a community with a shared future for mankind.  


SUN ZHUANGZHI is director of the Institute of Russian and Eastern European & Central Asia Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and executive director of the China Shanghai Cooperation Organization Research Center.

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