Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

The dictators' club

Russia has sought to frame the SCO as a sort of anti-NATO. It has pushed for a reinforcement of the organisation’s military dimension, proposing a joint military exercise on Russian soil next year. Moscow sees the SCO as the core of a China- and Russia-led anti-Western bloc. That Putin invited Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to attend a summit that Russia was not even organising speaks volumes about the active role it intends to play in the organisation.

China's president, Hu Jintao, says the SCO represents "a new security concept" based on mutual trust and benefit. "Experience has shown that the SCO is an important force in safeguarding regional and world peace," he said last week. Sino-Russian relations, increasingly the group's cornerstone, had never been better, he said. It was not exclusive and did not target third parties.

It looks different from Washington, whose applications for SCO observer status have been refused, and Japan, the western ally with potentially the most to lose. "The SCO is becoming a rival bloc to the US alliance. It does not share our values. We are watching it very closely," a Japanese official said.

Russia and China are suspected of using the SCO to shut the US and its allies out of fast-developing central Asian energy markets, thereby monopolising supply. Beijing, for example, is offering $900m (£480m) in soft loans to central Asian partners. At a deeper level, US strategists see a threat that might one day produce renewed, cold war-style confrontation between opposing east-west poles. In some analyses, the SCO is a born-again Warsaw pact; Russia has already been "lost"; India and Pakistan are swing voters; and Iran is the wild card.

The SCO began life as the ‘Shanghai Five’ (China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan) – an informal gathering to deal with border security issues between China and its post-Soviet neighbours. In June 2001, the founding members took the decision to transform the group into a formal organisation, with a focus on fighting terrorism and religious extremism. This, in turn, conferred it an international legitimacy in the aftermath of 9/11, while allowing each of its members to address homegrown movements (such as Chechen and Uyghur organisations, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or the Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party). With the successive enlargement of the organisation, the topics it addressed extended to infrastructure and economic development, turning it into a forum for political exchange between Russia, China, and their common neighbours in central and southern Asia. Now, members of the organisation – four of which are nuclear powers – represent 44 per cent of the world’s population.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is a Eurasian political, economic and security organization. It is the world's largest regional organization in terms of geographic scope and population, covering approximately 60% of the area of Eurasia, 40% of the world population, and more than 30% of global GDP.

The evolution of the SCO established it as a topic of interest to the United States,* although observers disagreed about its implications for U.S. interests. 20 Some U.S. observers considered the SCO a dangerous, nondemocratic competitor to NATO or the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe. 21 While also expressing concerns about the SCO’s potential to exclude the United States, then Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher also suggested in 2006 and 2008 that the organization could provide Central Asian states a beneficial tool for cooperation and an alternative to domination by Russia in areas such as energy. 22 Some observers also predicted differences in perspective between members would prevent the SCO from challenging U.S. interests in a coordinated way, an opinion that has gained additional traction since the inclusion of South Asian rivals India and Pakistan in 2017.23 U.S. policymakers have resolved to monitor the development of the SCO with an eye toward ensuring it does not become a vehicle for exclusion or domination in the region. Last year, the rapidly expanding SCO approved Iran’s application for accession, while the government in Tehran called on members to help it form a mechanism to avert sanctions imposed by the West over its disputed nuclear programme.

“The relationship between countries that are sanctioned by the US, such as Iran, Russia or other countries, can overcome many problems and issues and make them stronger,” Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during a meeting in Samarkand.

“The Americans think whichever country they impose sanctions on, it will be stopped, their perception is a wrong one.”

For his part, Putin said relations were “developing positively” between Russia and Iran and gave his full support to the latter’s application to become an SCO member.