Think of international organizations and groups like the UN, World Bank and the IMF might come to mind. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) likely doesn’t make most people’s lists. The SCO is probably the biggest international organization that you’ve never heard of, and that’s likely because the West is being expressly excluded. However, the SCO is increasingly influential and is set to only become more well-known in the West.
What is the SCO?
The SCO is largely a story about Russia and China coming together, but it’s also more than that. Its emergence is testing Sir Halford Mackinder’s 1904 thesis:
‘Whoever rules East Europe, will rule Heartland; whoever rules the Heartland, will rule the World Island; whoever rules the World Island, will rule the world.’
The origins of the SCO were in a loose-knit grouping of China, Russia and three former Soviet republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – who came together in 1996 to address unresolved border disputes following the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. The group first met in Shanghai and so became known as the ‘Shanghai Five’, but in 2001 the members decided to establish themselves as a permanent new international organization. The SCO also added Uzbekistan that same year. The organization makes its decisions by consensus, and all members must adhere to the core principles of non-aggression and non-interference in the internal affairs of other members.
After successfully agreeing to demarcated borders, the SCO members moved on to address a set of common security-related concerns such as counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing and military cooperation.
Russia, China and the Central Asian republics are all seeking to establish greater security across the region. In addition to Russia’s experience in Chechnya and China’s efforts to quash the restive Muslim population in its western Xinjiang province, the Central Asian states are likewise worried about terrorism by Islamist groups in several of their countries. This is reflected in the fact that whilst the SCO is headquartered in Beijing, its regional anti-terrorist operations are run out of Tashkent in Uzbekistan.
All SCO members are worried about the unrest in neighbouring Afghanistan spilling over into their countries.
Others, however, have interpreted the SCO security efforts as an authoritarian commitment to preventing any more ‘colour revolutions’ – such as the Rose revolution in Georgia in 2003 or Ukraine’s Orange revolution in 2004 – from erupting amongst its members.