Janko Šćepanović: Russia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization:a question of the commitment capacity
source:Taylor & Francis Online
Russia is one of the founding members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and, next to China, one of its leaders. While being an active and engaging member of the organization, Russia’s strategy towards SCO remains puzzling. Initially, it sought a pragmatic cooperation with China on solving numerous security issues that plagued post-Soviet Central Asia. However, Russia gradually developed alternative regional bodies (viz. Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)) where it is a supreme leader, and which became its preferred tools for interacting with other states in the post-Soviet space. This impacted the place and role of the SCO in Russia’s regional and global strategies. Moreover, Russia’s growing power asymmetry vis-à-vis China added an additional dimension to its consideration of SCO. Hence, Moscow promoted several policies, especially the enlargement, which seemed to undercut SCO’s development. This paper relies on a theoretical framework of the so-called theory of cooperative hegemony, especially the application of one of its main analytical variables – the commitment capacity – to examine Russia’s policy towards SCO. Apart from considerable secondary sources, the article draws upon six semi-structured expert interviews, and a number of primary documents including but not limited to foreign policy concepts, declarations, and charters.
The Russian Federation is one of the founders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and next to the People’s Republic of China, it remains one of the organization’s principal ‘engines.’ To Moscow, SCO remains a relevant body, and its participation in it is considered a ‘strategic choice (Zhao, 2011, p. 77).’ As one of its leading SCO scholars noted, ‘Russia is an active participant, not a passive observer (Zhao, 2011, p. 77).’ From an official side, this is undeniable. In 2018 President Putin observed how ‘the SCO has become a global [organization],’ and its member states ‘account for a quarter of the global GDP, 43 percent of the world’s population and 23 percent of the planet’s total area. The resources are immense. All of this, together with our military capabilities, constitutes a huge force.’1 In June 2019, at the SCO Supreme Council meeting, which earmarked the beginning of Russia’s presidency over the organization, the Russian leader emphasized numerous areas where SCO plays a significant role. Apart from the well-known fields of activity such as counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, Moscow sees potential for the SCO to be a constructive partner in helping, among other things, Afghan political reconciliation and settlement process.2 That issue is regarded as ‘one of the most important factors in maintaining and strengthening security and stability within the SCO space.’3 It is also where Russia, supported by SCO, organized meetings with representatives of all warring sides in Afghanistan and continued to assist in the reconciliation process by providing the so-called Moscow consultations as a platform that includes not just representatives from all Afghan stakeholders, but also those from its neighbours.4 No less relevant is SCO’s growing international authority, which President Putin believed was boosted by the fact that there were 16 requests from different states to join as members, observers, or dialogue partners.5 Clearly then, there is a global potential to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
However, over the past years, many of these formal statements were not followed through with tangible measures (Yuan, 2010, p. 863). Some question Russia’s genuine intentions for SCO. Moscow did not give proper backing for the practical development of the SCO’s competencies, which would have enabled it to become a better functioning institution (Gabuev, 2017). There are even more general criticisms of the organization, which is deemed as ‘overpromising and underdelivering’ and grounded more in symbolism than substance (Stronski & Sokolsky, 2020, p. 12).’ The two main founders – Russia and China – never agreed on the establishment of the SCO free trade zone or an energy club, out of a fear that it would disproportionately benefit the other side (Kaczmarski, 2015, pp. 94–96).
This paper addresses Moscow’s SCO policy by looking at the existing evidence and contextualizing it within the so-called theory of cooperative hegemony (Pedersen, 1998, 2002). As scholars had pointed out elsewhere, Russia applies a cooperative hegemonic strategy in the other regional institutions it founded: the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) (Šćepanović, 2020). This allows Moscow to assemble more regional states, entice their cooperation by sharing power and responsibilities with them, and show commitment to the development of institutionalization (Šćepanović, 2020). This work assesses Russia’s SCO policy through a theory-laden approach by looking at one of the critical preconditions for successful cooperative hegemony: the would-be hegemon’s commitment capacity (Pedersen, 2002, pp. 688–693). Commitment capacity measures the level of preparedness on the part of the would-be hegemon to maintain the very institution it created (Pedersen, 2002, pp. 688–689).
This paper seeks to answer the question as to whether Russia is committed to exercising and implementing a cooperative hegemony in Central Asia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Apart from benefiting from a considerable existing secondary expert literature, for this research, I have consulted sixteen different official documents found on the websites of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and various government agencies such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. These documents include charters, foreign policy concepts, military doctrine, national security strategy, declarations, statements, and similar. Moreover, additional valuable insights and expertise were obtained from six scholars I had a chance to interview in a semi-structured way between April and September 2019.
The article has six parts. First, I briefly review the literature and explain my contribution to it. Then, I cover the theoretical approach and explain why cooperative hegemony is well suited for understanding Russia’s policy towards the SCO. Third, I outline the role of the three variables that are used to measure cooperative hegemony. This is followed by the examination of the examples of Russia’s commitment to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. After that, I point out the limitations of Russia’s SCO policy. Finally, I assess the growing asymmetry between Russia and China, and he impact this has on Russia’s expectations from the SCO. I conclude by examining SCO place in Moscow’s regional cooperative hegemony compared to other regional organizations.
2. Literature review
First, there is a considerable existing body of knowledge produced by scholars over the past years. These include specialized literature on the SCO, Russia’s interests in it, the contextualization of the SCO in Russo-Chinese relations, as well as literature that examines different forms and attempts at regional hegemony by Russia and other states.6 Reviewing it contextualizes this article in a broader scholarship.
For instance, prominent Russian experts like to stress the advantages that Russia gets from being part of SCO. To Dmitri Trenin, SCO is a good platform for policy-coordination of primarily the big three: Russia, China, and India. If these three could become the SCO engine, it would become a very effective organization (Trenin, 2019). Alexander Lukin emphasizes the usefulness of SCO to Russia once the relations with the West soured following the short period of cooperation during the Afghan invasion of 2001 (Lukin, 2018, pp. 85–88). Russia then sought to expand the functions of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to ‘make it a more effective, non-Western counterweight to Western structures (Lukin, 2018, p. 86).’ This was one of the principal reasons why Moscow pushed for the enlargement of the SCO to include other leading non-Western states like India and broaden the organization’s scope (Lukin, 2018, p. 86). Moreover, Russia also uses SCO to maintain cordial relations with China, Central Asian Republics, India, and Pakistan by diversifying its interests and converging them with its partners (Asif-Noor, 2020). In that regard, SCO serves as a forum for consolidating Russia’s foreign policy objectives in its ‘Near Abroad’ (Asif-Noor, 2020). Other scholars are more sceptical and point out to the inefficiency caused by the 2017 enlargement when India and Pakistan became full-fledged members. There is little guarantee that the expanded organization will translate into greater influence (Gabuev, 2017).
A noticeable theme in many studies is Russia’s worry about the future of its hegemonic position in Central Asia, which affects its policies towards the SCO. Marcin Kaczmarski highlights the stagnation in the organization’s development caused by the competing visions of China and Russia and the latter’s fear that SCO might supplant its role in Central Asia (Kaczmarski, 2015). Alexander Cooley recognizes that SCO had success in formulating a normative framework for addressing transnational security threats (Cooley, 2019, pp. 118–119). However, Russia’s concerns over facilitating the formalization of China’s regional economic hegemony in the region propelled it to oppose Chinese economic initiatives (Cooley, 2019, pp. 118–119). Cooley also believes that there was a schism between the two countries, which was visible in the lack of support by China and other SCO member states for a joint SCO statement supporting and recognizing Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008, and its annexation of Crimea in 2014 (Cooley, 2019, p. 126). There is also a wider discord in the perception of SCO’s role in the region. To Russia, Central Asia is seen through a primarily military lens, while the Chinese view economic development and the combating of terrorism as principal objectives (Swanstrom, 2014, pp. 485–487). Nor does China wish to allow the SCO to be transformed into an anti-NATO or a military bloc directed against a third party (Swanstrom, 2014, p. 486; Cooley, 2019, p. 126). Where the objectives of the two do coincide is for the SCO (as well as Russia-led CSTO) to provide the so-called ‘protective integration,’ which reinforces the value of sovereignty (often through an accepted ideology), and legitimizes policies of the governments of the member states (Allison, 2018, pp. 309–312).
Apart from these, it is also essential to mention several relevant works that look at regional hegemony. For instance, Ruth Deyermond explores the so-called ‘matryoshka hegemony.’ She shows how at any point, it is possible to have in an international system a global, regional, and sub-regional hegemons interacting with each other (Deyermond, 2009, pp.151–172). Looking at Central Asia, Russia is still seen as a regional hegemon, albeit a declining one, which clings on its preponderant military position mainly due to the acceptance by and weakness of others (mainly the former Soviet Republics), as well as well-developed multilateral and bilateral, political, cultural, and business ties with these states (Deyermond, 2009, pp.159–161). However, Russia’s position has been permanently weakened by its withdrawal from the region in the early 1990s, the arrival of the U.S. in 2001 (something that Russia was unable to prevent), and the rise of China’s influence. Nevertheless, an indicator of the cordial rather than competitive nature of Russo-Chinese relation were the military exercises under the auspices of the SCO (Deyermond, 2009, pp.164–165). Russia’s regional institutions represent an essential tool in its pursuit of regional hegemony. They ‘help to coordinate Russia’s bilateral relations and tie the relations together into a regional security architecture (Slobodchikoff, 2014, p. 69). Slobodchikoff recognizes SCO as another organization similar to some other in the former Soviet space and effectively working to satisfy both China’s objectives (viz. establishment of security and economic ties with the former Soviet Central Asian states), and Russia’s goal of deepening relations with China (Slobodchikoff, 2014, pp. 81–84). Given its satisfactory albeit not high level of institutionalization, SCO can strike a balance between the limits of intergovernmentalism, lack of enforcement mechanism for its decisions, and the flexibility this gives it to effectively manage great power relations in Central Asia (Slobodchikoff, 2014, pp. 81–84).
Building on this body of knowledge, this article adds a valuable contribution by examining the feasibility and usefulness of cooperative hegemony inside the SCO. Where other studies focused on the utility of cooperative hegemony inside exclusively Russia-led institutions – the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – (Šćepanović, 2020), the following examination of SCO provides an opportunity to look at Moscow's strategy and commitment capacity in a setting where Russia shares leadership with another great power (viz. China), and where the integrative objectives and dynamics differ considerably from those in EEU and CSTO. What distinguishes this work is its theory-driven focus, one that is possibly the most important variable of Pederson’s theory of cooperative hegemony: the commitment capacity.
3. Theoretical framework: cooperative hegemony
Most of the existing theories of International Politics explored the issue of the usefulness of institutions to the states, and in particular, the great powers that create them. The two main paradigms – Structural Realism and Neoliberal Institutionalism – have considerable disagreements over international (and regional) institutions’ influence on the states and the cooperation between them. Robert Jervis argued that even if we assume that the correlation between cooperation and institutions was self-evident, this did not imply that such cooperation was increased by the establishment of institutions where they had previously not existed (Jervis, 1999, p. 42). When they are established, Realists believe it is done to maintain their founders’ share of world power. In this view, institutions are little more than ‘arenas for acting out power relationships (Mearsheimer, 1994/1995, p.13).’ On the other hand, Neoliberal Institutionalists agree that states pursue collective action within an institutional framework because it fundamentally helps them realize their interests (Keohane, 1993, p. 274). However, institutional cooperation goes beyond this and opens up opportunities for the benefits unavailable through bilateral means. It is therefore sought given that it facilitates the making of agreements, provides information that reduces the transaction costs, and ensures the credibility of the commitments given by one set of states to other states (Keohane & Martin, 1995, p. 42). Moreover, Neoliberal Institutionalists’ argument goes further and suggests that institutions act independently of states that created them and shape their perception of states’ self-interest by changing their expectations (Keohane, 1984, pp. 62–63).
Despite the richness of the analysis and insights provided by these two paradigms, some scholars of regional cooperation sought other theoretical explanations that could bring together these competing paradigms. For instance, Gordon Mace and Hugo Loiseau studied U.S. behaviour in hemispheric regionalism in the Americas. The two authors argued that the theory of ‘cooperative hegemony,’ which had been originally developed by Thomas Pedersen, came closest to accurately describe the great power strategy in building institutionalism centred upon, among other things, significant power-sharing arrangements (Mace & Loiseau, 2005, pp. 107–134). This is predominantly because cooperative hegemony emphasizes ‘soft rule within and through co-operative arrangements based on a long-term strategy (Pedersen, 2002, p. 683; Mace & Loiseau, 2005, pp. 109–111).’ It provides a novel insight into great power tactics of re-establishing less coercive hegemonic relations with its weaker partners by promoting regional institutionalism where the other states enjoy voice-opportunities. Cooperative hegemony is a promising strategy for the former Soviet space. Pedersen himself thought this tactic would serve a country like Russia and help integrate its diasporas across the former Soviet Republics (Pedersen, 2002, p. 686).
Cooperative hegemony is ‘a grand strategy, and … a type of regional order … [which] implies a soft rule within and through co-operative arrangements based on a long-term strategy (Pedersen, 2002, p. 683).’ It is distinguished by its institutional-embeddedness and reliance on the pursuit of relative gains through non-coercive or soft-coercive means (Pedersen, 1998, p. 38). Typically, cooperative hegemons are declining great powers or great powers that seek to consolidate their rule within a region. Russia was famously labelled as ‘a country in decline’ by Joseph S. Nye.7 However, cooperative hegemons can also be states with a considerable diaspora living in other neighbouring countries or powers situated at a geographically vulnerable location (Pedersen, 2002, pp. 683–684; Pedersen, 1998, p. 39).
Cooperative hegemony can help regain lost prestige (Pedersen, 2002, p. 693) and improve the legitimacy of a great power that seeks to conceal its expansionist pretensions behind a curtain of a regional institution-formation (Pedersen, 1998, p. 39). This is something that Russia sought after a challenging decade following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Also, cooperative hegemony grants the so-called advantages of scale. This refers to the enhanced military, the political or economic situation of the would-be hegemon that achieves regional unification (Pedersen, 2002, p. 685, 694). Nonetheless, these benefits are insignificant in case of a power asymmetry (Pedersen, 2002, p. 685, 694).
Also, cooperative hegemony generates advantages of stability, which become especially important in situations where a declining regional power and its partners face external security and economic challenges or, as the author calls them, ‘externalities’ (Pedersen, 2002, pp. 685–686). It is essential to underscore that great powers often must settle for an optimal institutional setting, which empowers their smaller partners. Such an arrangement offsets the internal balance of fear and forestalls defection (Pedersen, 2002).
4. Variables of cooperative hegemony
As had been indicated, there are three separate variables used to examine the extent to which SCO promotes Russia’s cooperative hegemony. They also represent some of the pre-conditions for an effective cooperative hegemony (Pedersen, 2002, p. 688). The first two are the power-aggregation and power-sharing capacities. The former assesses the would-be hegemon’s ability to convince enough states to become part of its regional project (Pedersen, 2002, p. 689). On the other hand, power-sharing is defined by the extent to which the would-be hegemon is willing to share the power with others (Pedersen, 2002, p. 689). It is a way of ensuring that smaller partners retain control over their foreign policy and sovereignty. This is particularly important given that integrative projects can be undermined if there is a considerable degree of asymmetry of power between the main power(s) and its smaller partners (Pedersen, 2002, pp. 688–691). Hence, the right power-sharing arrangement is often required to have the necessary power aggregation (Pedersen, 2002, pp. 689–690).
Both preconditions were addressed correctly. SCO is an organization with considerable membership and associateships with nations that encompass most of continental Asia. SCO Charter states clearly that the organization is ‘open for other States in the region that undertake to respect the objectives and principles of this Charter and comply with the provisions of other international treaties and documents adopted in the SCO framework.’8 Apart from the initial members that formed the Shanghai Five’s core in 1996 (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan), Uzbekistan was added in 2001. Later, several other states became associated with the SCO under observer and dialogue partner statuses. The first one was Mongolia in 2004, and it was followed by India, Iran, Pakistan, and finally even Afghanistan in 2012 (Weitz, 2014). Belarus became an observer in 2015, and Sri Lanka, Turkey, Nepal, Cambodia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan dialogue partners between 2009 and 2015. Ultimately, India and Pakistan were formally invited to become full-fledged members at the SCO Ufa Summit in 2015 and joined officially in 2017 in what became the first official enlargement of the SCO (Michel, 2017).
On the other hand, power-sharing is formally organized in an egalitarian manner, given that SCO operates on an exclusively intergovernmental principle. This helps decrease the concerns over domination by the big three states. Egalitarianism was embedded in the Charter, which emphasizes ‘equality of all member States, a search of common positions based on mutual understanding and respect for opinions of each of them.’9 In 2017, SCO reaffirmed its commitment to equality and power-sharing in its Development Strategy for 2025. It posited how ‘[the] equality of SCO member states remains an unchanged pillar of the [Organization]’s activities. It is supported by a provision regarding consensus-based decision-making, which will continue to be applied in accordance with the SCO Charter.’10 SCO is a ‘deliberative’ organization, which allows it to pursue common goals without infringing on its members’ freedom of action (Jackson, 2014, p. 190). This is a vital ingredient to SCO’s existence as it allows all its members to pursue what is called a ‘multi-vector diplomacy (Jackson, 2014, pp. 186, 190).’ This is a distinguishing feature of the former post-Soviet Central Asia. The SCO’s key body is the Council of the Heads of State (CHS) (Aris, 2011, p. 22). The 2002 Charter of the SCO states how the Council ‘shall determine priorities and define major areas of activities of the [Organization], decide upon the fundamental issues of its internal arrangement and functioning and its interaction with other States and international [organizations], as well as consider major international issues.’11 On the other hand, decision-making effectively relies on a consensus given that decisions will be made ‘by agreement without vote’ and will be considered adopted if ‘no member State has raised objections during its consideration (consensus).’12 The implementation of these is left to individual states and their legislations: ‘[the] decisions taken by the SCO bodies shall be implemented by the member States in accordance with the procedures set out in their national legislation.’13 This provision serves as an additional safeguard to the smaller members from the fear of being dominated.
However, in the case of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia’s commitment capacity is the most critical variable for understanding Moscow’s policy towards the organization. It refers to the level of preparedness of the would-be hegemon to maintain the very institution it created or co-founded (Pedersen, 2002, pp. 688–689). Among other things, the commitment capacity is related to the costs of the absence of the institution, the setting of the constitutional rules that make it possible (for others) to participate in regional integration, and the vested economic interest (Pedersen, 2002, p. 692). The costs of the non-commitment differ for different would-be hegemons. They are indeed extremely high for states with vulnerable geographic location like Russia (Kaplan, 2012, pp. 153–188). It came together with China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in the middle of the 1990s to settle their outstanding border issues and then work together to counter security threats. Another factor is cooperative hegemon’s obsession with geopolitics (Pedersen, 2002, p. 692). I show below how the second factor plays a big role in Russia’s SCO policy.
5. Examples of Russia’s commitment capacity to the SCO
Russia’s commitment to the SCO can be assessed based on four examples. First, Russia supports SCO because it helps it improve and manage relations with China and its former Central Asian states. Second, SCO advances Russia’s goal of restoring its global standing, and it promotes its vision of a multi-polar world centred upon the UN. It is part of Moscow’s motivation to enlarge the SCO, which adds to its weight as an influential global centre comprised of many powerful non-Western nations. Third, there are specific issues that Russia seeks to resolve, and for which the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is helpful. These include dealing with regional security matters related to terrorism and extremism, especially countering pro-democracy movements and Western infiltration into Central Asia. Finally, Moscow’s commitment capacity is visible in its willing participation in specific joint military drills with its SCO partners.
First, Russia sees a significant ‘political potential’ of the SCO for enhancing regional trust and partnership.14 For the first time in recent history, Russia had to deal with China that was more powerful, developed, and wealthier than it. It found itself facing Chinese conventional military capabilities superior to its non-nuclear forces (Trenin, 2012, pp. 5–9). Hence, in the post-Cold War period, Russia’s policymakers adopted a policy of avoiding being dominated by other more powerful states (Trenin, 2012, p. 3) and sought to ‘mend fences’ with Beijing in the former Soviet Central Asian space. Russia works on ‘enhancing the role in regional and global affairs of the SCO whose constructive influence on the situation in the region as a whole has significantly increased.’15 More recently, it started to view that this mission could be attained only by the proper expansion of SCO’s potential, in particular through enlargement. Hence, official rhetoric coming from Moscow is very supportive of the organization. Russia became committed to ‘further strengthening the SCO’s role in regional and global affairs and expanding its membership. It stands for increasing the SCO’s political and economic potential, and implementing practical measures within its framework to consolidate mutual trust and partnership in Central Asia.’16 Fundamentally, to Moscow, the SCO serves to bolster Russia’s external image.’17 It represents a ‘big geopolitical bloc that would reaffirm Russia’s status of a great power,’ and an equal decision-maker in the organization alongside China.18 It even succeeded in convincing China to agree on SCO’s enlargement to incorporate India and Pakistan.19
The main support for the SCO comes in the form of speeches, statements, articles by Russian President Putin (Zhao, 2011, pp. 79–92). In 2004, at the inauguration of the SCO’s Secretariat’s work, he stated how ‘[the] Russian Federation is ready to do everything possible to ensure the SCO’s steady strengthening as a crucial element of regional and global security and development based on multilateral approaches.’20 Later, in 2006 he praised SCO and posited how it ‘became an influential regional [organization]’ that had ‘a significant role in ensuring stability in the vast Eurasian territory.’21 Moreover, Moscow’s emphasis is on the very principles that underpin its other two regional integrative initiatives: respect of the state sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. Russian leader pointed out how the organization sought to ‘strengthen regional security and stability … by preserving national and cultural specificities of each state.’22 During the challenging year of 2020, Mr. Putin praised SCO’s role by saying how it ‘has shown an ability to respond promptly to new acute challenges’ by ‘undertaking concerted efforts to overcome the political, trade, economic and social ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.23’ In addition to this, the official Russian documents emphasize the SCO’s role and place. The Foreign Policy Concept from 2016 highlighted the organization’s role in Central Asia. Moscow committed to ‘further strengthening the SCO’s role in regional and global affairs and expanding its membership, and stands for increasing the SCO’s political and economic potential, and implementing practical measures within its framework to consolidate mutual trust and partnership in Central Asia, as well as promoting cooperation with the SCO member States, observes and dialogue partners.’24 The 2013 version of the document highlighted the SCO’s role as part of the regional and broader cooperation with China. Both countries ‘[shared] the same fundamental positions on key global issues as one of the core elements of regional and global stability,’ hence, Russia would ‘promote foreign policy cooperation with China in various areas, including … within the … SCO and other multilateral formats.’25 Moreover, the 2014 Military Doctrine also recognized the role of the SCO in deterring and preventing armed conflicts and to this end, it was necessary ‘to intensify cooperation in the area of international security in the framework of … the Shanghai Cooperation [Organization] (SCO).’26
In return for this stalwart verbal commitment, Moscow received official endorsements from the SCO in the form of statements supporting its global vision. Russia gets help in voicing more globally its advocacy of a multipolar world. At the summit in Bishkek in 2007, SCO reiterated how it supported: ‘creating a security architecture on the basis of generally accepted norms of international law that will … reflect the balance of interests of all participants of international relations,’ and ‘guarantee each member state the right to independent choose its way of development based on its own historical experience and national specificity, protect its unity and national dignity and equally participate in international affairs.’27 The organization even adopted similar wording to Moscow’s and not only called for but affirmed the establishment of a polycentric world.28 In the 2025 strategy, almost entirely aligning itself with Russia’s position of strengthening other global poles, SCO recognized that it would ‘strengthen its position in the global and regional architecture by actively working in support of building a polycentric democratic system of international relations.’29
Second, Russia supports SCO because it helps it accomplish its global objectives. Moscow realizes that developing powerful regional centres is a requirement for its full and meaningful participation in the global governance as one of the leaders in one of the relevant global poles (Torbakov, 2016, pp. 251–252). As Pedersen recognized: ‘[major] powers with a prestige deficit may use regional institutionalization as a means of enhancing their prestige and the legitimacy of their rule. For such states, the costs of non-commitment are considerable since (regional) commitment is a source of prestige and legitimacy (Pedersen, 2002, p. 693).’ Moreover, SCO publicly endorses global multipolarity and the role of the UN. For instance, on the occasion of the fifteenth anniversary of the adoption of the SCO Charter, the Heads of State of the SCO members emphasized, ‘the importance of creating a more equitable polycentric world order that meets the interests of each and every state, is based on international law and the principles of mutual respect and consideration of each other's interests.’30 In Moscow’s eyes, at the heart of this world system would be the UN, which allows the non-Western states to challenge the hegemony by any single power. Moscow was discontent with what it perceived as a gradual erosion of the UN-based international rules-based system, which it sought to reinforce.31 China shares this sentiment. The SCO allows both countries to channel their complaints from a multi-lateral platform representing nearly half of the world’s population. SCO’s international engagement mostly comes in the form of statements from its summits, where the organization reiterates the views and norms held by its members. For instance, on the occasion of its fifth anniversary, its leaders affirmed how ‘SCO holds that the United Nations, being the universal and the most representative and authoritative international [organization], is entrusted with primary responsibility in international affairs and is at the core of formulating and implementing the basic norms of international law.’32 Later, the official strategy of the SCO for 2025 similarly reiterated how the ‘[the] member states [were] convinced that the United Nations should play a central coordinating role in world affairs … and maintain and restore international peace and security.’33 In September 2020, during Russia’s chairmanship over SCO, it was affirmed that the ‘SCO member states intend to play a more active role in building a multipolar international order rooted in the principles of international law, including the UN Charter, multipolarity, equal and indivisible security, renouncement of confrontation or conflict, and the aspiration to strengthen global, regional security and stability.’34 Foreign Minister Lavrov alluded to the SCO contribution to this goal when he stated how ‘[the] SCO has become an influential [organization] and an important factor in the emergence of new polycentric world order. The [organization] has worked to bring about tangible improvements in the security and multilateral political, economic, and humanitarian cooperation of member states. As a result, the role of the SCO in international and regional affairs is on the rise, attracting the attention of many countries and international [organizations].’35 As Dmitri Trenin noted, ‘[enlarging] the Shanghai Cooperation [Organization] to include India and Pakistan makes sense for Russia as it seeks to position itself in the geopolitical context of Greater Eurasia. Moscow’s strategic goal is to embed China in a web of friendly arrangements and thus to alleviate Beijing’s propensity to act unilaterally. With India as a full member of the SCO, there will be three great powers in the [organization], diluting China’s dominance in the group (Gabuev et al., 2017).’ Adding Pakistan expanded the organization's reach to encompass all players in continental Asia.
Also, the final two examples of commitment capacity deal with more region-specific security issues. Sharing the burden with others is often one motivation for any state committed to institution-building (Hurrell, 1995, pp. 331–358). At the beginning of the 2000s, Russia did not have significant resources. It needed to work together with China to resolve regional security issues such as transnational terrorism, crime, extremism, and separatism (Hurrell, 1995, pp. 331–358; Facon, 2013, pp. 463–465). Later in the mid-2000s, Russia used the SCO to respond to colour revolutions and foreign military presence in Central Asia countries (Trenin, 2007, pp. 92–95). Russia and China were jointly opposing the so-called ‘colour revolutions’ in the post-Soviet space, which they saw as nothing short of Western deliberate interference and design to overthrow the existing governments and replace them with pro-Western ones (Lanteigne, 2018, p. 128). The SCO is based on these principles as its fundamental values. It emphasizes mutual respect of sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and inviolability of borders and non-interference in internal affairs, non-use of force or threat of force, and equality of all member states.’36 What Russia saw since the sudden changes of long-standing governments in Georgia 2003, Ukraine 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 was an attempt by various pro-Western non-governmental organizations to meddle in and depose legitimate authorities and replace them with pro-Western ones. It became a real source of instability (Trenin, 2007, p. 93). A joint SCO action against these disturbances increased its potency. To this end, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization issued the so-called Astana Declaration of July 2005 and expressed a desire to see the end of American/Western military presence in the SCO territory for counter-terrorist operations against the Taliban. While the Member States reiterated that they ‘support the efforts of the international coalition engaged in the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan and we will continue doing so,’ they also recognized an end of active military campaign. Thus they ‘[deemed] it necessary for the relevant participating states of the antiterrorist coalition to set a deadline for the temporary use of … infrastructure and presence of their military contingents in the territory of the SCO member states.’37 This was a significant political boost for the Russians. Sending such political messages from a multilateral platform like the SCO enhances Russia’s voice, visibility, and prestige (Pedersen, 2002, p. 693).
Finally, Moscow endeavours to show commitment capacity by taking part in a series of military drills that SCO started modestly in 2002 and gradually expanded and deepened over the years. These exercises originally began with the goal of seeking to improve confidence building among members. The first one took place in China in 2002 and included Chinese and Kyrgyz forces (Lanteigne, 2018, p. 127). In the following years, what became known as ‘Peace Mission’ became an annual exercise that included a variety of simulated operations, including but not limited to anti-terror exercises, offshore blockade and amphibious landing, and practice drills air-to-air missiles, and similar (Lanteigne, 2018, p. 127). In August 2005, the first such exercise took place in Vladivostok and the Shandong Peninsula and included mainly Chinese (8,000) and Russian troops (2,000). The exercise involved strategic bombers, submarines, and advanced weaponry in a scenario that suppressing terrorists or intervening in a state in political turmoil (McDermott, 2007, pp. 3–24). The significance was that it was the first time Russia and China conducted joint drills (McDermott, 2007, p. 6). In 2007 SCO held another ‘Peace Mission’ military exercise that included around 7,000 troops, mainly from Russia, China, and other partners like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan (De Haas, 2007, pp.1–15). Moscow sent 2,000 troops, and 1,600 servicemen from PLA joined them, alongside 80 pieces of aircraft (Weitz, 2015). It took place in Xinjiang and, also, in parts of Russia between the 9th and 17th of August 2007. Most of the exercises focused on suppressing terrorist insurgency (Weitz, 2015). The goal was to demonstrate and reinforce SCO’s political willingness to improve its counterterrorism cooperation (McDermott, 2007, pp. 3–24). There was also a lot of symbolism given the location (Xinjiang), which sent a resolute message to the terrorist and separatism groups that the organization was there to stay and thwart their efforts (McDermott, 2007, pp. 3–24). The importance of the 2007 exercises was that it involved troops from all parties (albeit Uzbekistan only sent observers), and the first instance of Chinese troops exercising outside of China’s borders (Aris, 2011, pp. 118–122). Given that combatting terrorism remains one of the highest security priorities to the SCO, this is emphasized on the highest levels. In 2017 it adopted the SCO Convention on Countering Extremism, which complemented the previous commitments such as the Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism, and Extremism. Henceforth, joint military exercises and anti-terror drills, including the Peace Mission, were to be staged regularly.38 The major achievement of these drills is the gradual development of even closer cooperation between the Member States (Aris, 2011, pp. 118–122). They also add to the counter-terrorist abilities of SCO states’ armed forces and their interoperability (Weitz, 2015). From the cooperative hegemon’s point of view, there is also symbolism in that these episodes send a message and ‘reassure Central Asian leaders that China and Russia will help them manage their security challenges (Weitz, 2015).’
6. The limits of Russia’s commitment capacity
Despite these positive developments and encouraging rhetoric, Russia’s expectations from SCO are not that high. It wants to showcase the SCO and portray it as ‘a sight of normal great power cooperation that stands in contrast to what is going on in the West.’39 There are four main problems for enhancing SCO’s role in Russia’s cooperative hegemony. The first one relates to Moscow’s half-hearted and perhaps disingenuous approach to the organization and its lack of long-term vision for it. This was particularly visible in the case of its motivation behind the push for the enlargement. Second, Russia never gave genuine support for SCO-led economic cooperation. The SCO’s original goals were satisfied, but the long-term ones remain declaratory for now (Jackson, 2014, p. 195), and it is unclear if they should ever be fulfilled. Third, Russia’s commitment is also impacted by the unsatisfactory returns on SCO’s contribution to the power aggregation capacity. The fellow SCO members did not support Russia’s controversial intervention in Georgia and annexation of the Crimea. Finally, there are issues related to Sino-Russian relations and the possibility of Russia being strategically displaced. Moscow is concerned that a full-fledged development of the SCO could lead to it emerging as a competitor to exclusively Russia-led regional institutions such as the military alliance CSTO or the economic bloc EEU.
The first issue is the objective behind enlargement. While the SCO offers to Moscow greater visibility and an increase in its great power status internationally (Facon, 2013, p. 476), sometimes this world standing prompts Russia to merely embrace what one prominent scholar called ‘great power posturing,’ and ‘symbolic expression of regional hegemony (Kaczmarski, 2015, p. 94).’ If Russia indeed sought more than a symbolic and status-related organization, it is hard to understand why it pushed for policies that undermine SCO’s development and internal cohesion and why its spoken commitments remained only on the paper. While the enlargement of the SCO had a specific objective for Russian strategy, it undermined its ability to act in a more united way. Adding diversity made SCO more cumbersome and more challenging to coordinate diverse interests inside of it. Institutional arrangements with high power aggregation and power-sharing capacities, but weak commitment capacity, produce an informal and institutionally weak cooperative hegemony (Pedersen, 2002, p. 693). Hence, the expansion does not necessarily correlate with expanded influence (Gabuev, 2017). By pushing for an enlargement, Russia admitted it did not ‘overcome its phobias about the rise of China and its growing influence in Russia’s traditional zone of interest, Central Asia, Moscow has turned a multilateral [organization] established to develop rules of the game for Eurasia into a useless bureaucracy (Gabuev, 2017).’ Greater membership will unlikely lead to more extensive institutional power. The animosity between India and Pakistan would not be overcome quickly or result in greater cooperation in intelligence sharing (Gabuev, 2017).
The enlargement resulted in making SCO ‘even more of a symbolic [organization] rather than a vehicle for any kind of substantive regional integration or cooperative problem-solving.’ 40 Some scholars believe that the expansion to include India and Pakistan weakens the SCO tremendously because it made it a weak and overly extended organization.41 India and China disagree on regionalism like the BRI, and Pakistan is too tilted towards China.42 Also, Russia and China do not agree on great power elements of the SCO, or whether it should include Iran, and how aggressive it should be against the United States.43 China wanted to transform SCO into an ‘authoritative regional [organization] but not so much as an element in a new international architecture or as an instrument of confrontation with the West (Denisov & Safranchuk, 2016, p. 508).’ Initially, it was unenthusiastic about the enlargement, and in particular the admission of India. Some of China’s reservations had to do with practical issues: it feared that admission of such a large country would change the face of the organization and make complicated and delicate decision-making more difficult. It also required the SCO to introduce a third official language – English – and expand its Secretariat and RATS (Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure) (Lukin, 2011). China would later show support and embrace enlargement by pointing out benefits. Hence, following the ‘inclusion of India and Pakistan, both major regional players, the SCO is expected to play a more significant and irreplaceable role as a strong bond in promoting integration between Asia-Pacific, European and the Middle East regions.’44 Some tangible gains could be made by boosting the regional endeavours in countering cross-border terrorism.45 However, some experts do not take seriously the notion of any future intelligence cooperation between India and Pakistan on terrorist organizations (Gabuev, 2017). Moreover, China was genuinely sceptical. It has a difficult relationship with Delhi, which was not eased by India’s objection to the Belt and Road Initiative, which it conspicuously failed to endorse at the Ministerial meeting of the SCO in April 2018.46 This happened again in September 2020 at a similar level meeting when the six other members (viz. Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan) reaffirmed their support for the Belt and Road Initiative.47
Second, Russia’s support was lacking when it came to implementing various programmes. Russia’s involvement was lacking. It certainly lends its rhetorical support but less forthcoming when it comes to developing institutions of the SCO (Yuan, 2010, p. 863). President Putin once emphasized SCO’s potential beyond just political and security spheres by suggesting the government had ‘a full economic agenda.’ He went on to add how ‘economic cooperation is becoming more and more important for the SCO. In the region, there are huge possibilities for effective, mutually advantageous cooperation that would significantly improve the population’s living standards and transform Central Asia into one of the most developed regions of the world.’48 However, this never led to a concrete commitment. A Russian expert told me that his country remained open to the idea of future economic cooperation within the SCO once Russia’s market becomes ready for it.49 This created an impression that the organization’s further development is constrained by competitive and irreconcilable interests. Early in its development, SCO was led by China, which sought to agree on border delineation. Once this was accomplished, the organization was stuck in a limbo as neither Beijing nor Moscow could impose their vision of SCO’s further evolution (Kaczmarski, 2015, pp. 94–96). While the combatting of terrorism was a priority, China later sought to focus on building the SCO into a ‘regional arrangement that would contribute to peace, stability, and prosperity. It dedicated resources and tried to facilitate institutionalization that promoted ‘closer cooperation between member states in anti-terrorist and separatist campaigns, including joint military exercises (Yuan, 2010, pp. 861–863)’ Russia was fearful of China’s possible domination and for that reason sought to slow down the speed of the development of the SCO (the Secretariat was not set up until 2004), and was early on lacklustre in cooperation in military exercises, most telling of which was its low key participation at 2003 anti-terror drills (Yuan, 2010, pp. 861–863).
Besides, Moscow acted passively and hindered economic cooperation within the SCO out of fear that China would dominate the SCO Bank (which was never created) and would enjoy disproportionate advantages inside the SCO free trade zone (Lukin, 2018, pp. 84–85). The most striking differences came in the area of economic cooperation and energy exports. The founding declaration of SCO called upon member states to start ‘ … a negotiation process … on the issues related to establishing favourable conditions for trade and investment, and a long-term program of multilateral trade and economic cooperation.’50 China launched a free trade zone initiative, which Russia rejected. Simultaneously, the energy club was a Moscow-led proposal for an energy club opposed by China, which saw this as an attempt to veto China’s regional energy projects (Kaczmarski, 2015, pp. 94–96). Even during the financial crisis in 2008–2009, the two could not agree on relief efforts. Russia opposed creating a bank that China had proposed and responded by forming the EurAsEC Fund of 10 billion USD, which excluded China (Kaczmarski, 2015, pp. 94–96).
Third, while SCO generates benefits of power aggregation and greater visibility on the grand stage through fellow members’ rallying around a joint political project (Pedersen, 2002, p. 689), there were some significant disappointments for Russia. For instance, the organization did not support Russia’s more controversial actions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Back in the summer of 2008, then-President Medvedev had come to the SCO Summit in Dushanbe expecting to receive support from the fellow member states for Russia’s recognition of the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, his expectations of the support were unrealized (Cooley, 2019, pp. 126–127). Moscow did not receive a formal backing. Instead, in their declaration the SCO states merely expressed ‘their deep concern over the recent tensions around the issue of South Ossetia and [urged] the parties concerned to peacefully resolve existing problems through dialogue and make efforts to promote reconciliation and negotiations.’51 On a bilateral level, China was also hesitant to support Russia and encouraged ‘all sides concerned to properly settle the issue through dialogue and coordination (Weitz, 2008).’ Even smaller partners like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan balked at the prospect of formal recognition of breakaway Georgian provinces (Cooley, 2019). In 2014, the conflict in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean by Russia presented a similar problem. At the 2014 Dushanbe Summit, Russia, once again, failed to secure the formal backing. Instead, the statement by the Heads of Members States favoured ‘an early restoration of peace in Ukraine and continuation of the negotiation process in order to achieve a comprehensive solution to the crisis in that country.’52 This episode further demonstrated internal disagreements between both smaller and larger member states of the SCO. While some partners like Kazakhstan were uneasy about Russia’s actions in Ukraine (Lillis, 2014), more prominent partners like China took a non-aligned approach to the crisis and advised negotiations as a solution (Lanteigne, 2018, pp. 129–131). The outcome is not entirely surprising. Russia’s actions in 2008 and 2014 went against the core principles of SCO, which resolutely opposes actions against territorial integrity, separatism, and foreign interventionism. This stands in contrast to the early 2000s when Moscow received support for its campaign in Chechnya, which was an internal issue (Kortunov, 2018). Also, it ought to be said that the internal balance of power inside of SCO was not the determinant factor in Moscow’s failure to convince fellow members to support it. Russia was similarly unsuccessful in securing a political backing for the actions it took in Georgia in other regional organization where it is a dominant power (viz. the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Šćepanović, 2020)).
Finally, there is an issue of Russia loathing the possibility of the SCO playing a role of a strategic displacer of Russia in Central Asia. Moscow spent years developing and leading two other institutions as part of its cooperative hegemony CSTO and EEU (Šćepanović, 2020). In a way, Russia prefers to work through these bodies. This is consistent with one of the central premises of cooperative hegemonic behaviour. It is primarily a strategy for a (declining) great power, which seeks to lead smaller partners. This is also related to the growing power asymmetry between Russia and China,53 which produced a fear of displacement and the loss of influence in Central Asia.
Hence, Russia sought to keep an eye on China’s rise through SCO. By coordinating within the SCO, Moscow can oversee China’s contacts and its Central Asian partners (Kaczmarski, 2007). This was part of Moscow’s strategic thinking for seeking coordination in the security realm between CSTO and SCO. In 2007, Moscow finally managed to secure the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between CSTO and SCO. The document committed both sides to coordinate cooperation in ensuring the regional and international security and stability, counteraction to terrorism, fight against drug trafficking, suppression of arms trafficking, and counteraction of [organized] transnational crime.’54 Furthermore, the Secretariats of both organizations would hold consultations on issues of mutual interest and further develop joint programmes and actions to promote cooperation in the fields of their responsibility.55 While seemingly insignificant, the MoU reflects Russia’s more profound concern over losing its privileged role as a security provider in Central Asia (Kaczmarski, 2007). Moreover, by closely coordinating the relations with the SCO, it can slow down its development in the security field, potentially supplanting the role of the CSTO (Kaczmarski, 2007). However, there are clear limits to what Russia can achieve. China has, through bilateral means, already extended its presence in the former Soviet territories. In early 2019, The Washington Post reported on the sightings of Chinese soldiers operating in a base inside Tajikistan, Russia’s ally inside the CSTO.56 It would probably become a natural development in the future that as China’s economic presence grows, so does its need to have assets to safeguard its investments.57
Overall, Moscow’s ability to limit China through CSTO declined. The content and degree of China’s involvement are low for now. It is not active militarily in the region and opts to defer to Russia.58 Moreover, recently, Russia even tried to continue to support the closer ties between the two verbally. Mr. Putin praised the increased defence and foreign policy cooperation between SCO states and singled out a joint meeting of the SCO Defence Ministers in September 2020, in which the heads of defence departments of the CSTO and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries also took part for the first time.59 While the meeting was very cordial and involved an exchange of best practices, agreement on joint counter-terrorism exercises, and issuing of a ‘joint communiqué reflecting the consolidated approaches of its participants to the common security challenges,’60 it was mostly a symbolic event. In reality, SCO seems to be increasingly emerging as the region’s dominant organization (Aris, 2011, p. 155). Its appeal comes from a different cooperation model it offers, a more functionally valuable multilateral framework, a more comprehensive agenda, and balanced membership (Aris, 2011, p. 156). In the long run, if Russia pursues a more resolute competition with the SCO, it might inhibit the CSTO (Aris, 2011, p. 155). Some Russian analysts see CSTO-SCO rivalry as ‘covert and dangerous competition (Safranchuk, 2008).’ They also believe that, ultimately, any competition would be a loss to Moscow. Central Asian Republics wish to balance either Moscow or Beijing inside the SCO or propel CSTO to compete. Nonetheless, in case it happens, it would come at the expense of the CSTO (Safranchuk 2008). As China’s project, SCO can rely on much more significant resources (Aris, 2011, p. 156).
7. Conclusion: growing asymmetry of power and SCO’s place in Russia’s cooperative hegemony
Finally, despite the undeniably positive developments of the past two decades, there is an underlying uncertainty on the Russian side. It is a consequence of diverging trajectories that Moscow and Beijing took since the end of the Cold War. China experienced a spectacular rise, while Russia declined. This created asymmetry between the two in political, economic, and strategic dimensions and weakened their relationship (Lo, 2017). Some Russian experts also believe the asymmetry is likely to create challenges, albeit not immediately.61
From the point of view of a cooperative hegemon, the willingness to aggregate and share power with others depends on power distribution in the region and the internal balance of fear vis-à-vis the most powerful state (Pedersen, 2002, pp. 689–690). In fact, an arrangement like the one inside the SCO where there is more than one big power might help offset the fear of domination. To some Central Asian states with a history of imperial domination by Russia, the existence of another great power to balance Russia might be desirable. Some scholars claim that SCO does not even have an official leader (Naarajärvi, 2012, p. 116). Others, however, clearly point out that SCO represents ‘China in Central Asia’ (Trenin, 2007, p. 83). It represented a ‘culmination of the growing influence of the People’s Republic of China in Central Asia,’ a first regional institution joined by China, which was not just economics-oriented (Chung, 2004, p. 994), and of which China was as an intellectual engine (Swanstrom, 2014, p. 486).
Even back in 2001 when the SCO was established, the asymmetry of power between Russia and China was shifting rapidly. In fact, in joining the SCO, Russia admitted to limitations of its hegemonic position in Central Asia, China’s ambitions, and the new states’ formal independence (Trenin, 2006, p. 115). Two decades later, the asymmetry between Moscow and Beijing is even more striking. China’s economy of 14.28 trillion USD is more than eight times larger than Russia’s (1.7 trillion USD).62 Its conventional military capabilities are already superior to Russia’s (Trenin, 2012, pp. 5–9). Furthermore, while the mutual ties and friendship have reached the highest stage in years, Russia is not as important to China as the other way around. The mutual trade increased, and the two economies are very compatible (Gabuev, 2019, p. 46). However, in 2015 Russia was only the ninth most important trade partner to China (Lo, 2017). Moreover, given that it primarily exports hydrocarbons to China, this produced concerns among Russians that their country might become little more than a ‘raw material appendage’ China (Lo, 2015, p. 145). However, even on this matter, China is does not rely only on Russia and has alternative suppliers of resources (Kuhrt, 2021).
This inevitably impacts Russia’s calculation, including its policies towards joint projects like the SCO. Russia was unsurprisingly unhappy to see another big power enter its former domain of Central Asia (Song, 2013, pp. 93–94). While originally it did not have a better option but to join SCO, eventually, the organization offered Russia some opportunities. Moscow was able to steer SCO’s work in a direction that it favoured (e.g. the security building) and limit activities in the field where China would have an edge (e.g. economic development) (Trenin, 2006, p. 115). Russia joined the SCO because it could not leave too much ground to its Chinese partners and had to reassure the Central Asian states it would remain relevant.63 In the early 2000s, Russia attempted to elevate military matters to a higher level in SCO, which was visible in the 2007 joint SCO-CSTO military drills (Swanstrom, 2014, p. 486). However, China opposed the transformation of SCO into a military alliance or a counter-hegemonic bloc (Swanstrom, 2014, p. 486; Cooley, 2019, pp. 128–129). Gradually, SCO became a vehicle for China to project its expanding influence, so Russian policymakers wanted to turn it into a framework to embed China.64 They also sought to dilute the project by expanding the membership (Gabuev et al., 2017), and turned it into a ‘regime of dialogue between the leaders of member states’ and not an executive body with practical power (Song, 2013, p. 93).
Despite the asymmetry of power between Russia and China (as well as between the two and the rest) the institutional design of SCO provides safeguards against domination. It is a very intergovernmental body with a well-developed power-sharing capacity, where all decisions are made by consensus. As a ‘structured’ institution, it has a formalized bureaucracy, but it does not have a dispute settlement mechanism to enforce the implementation (Slobodchikoff, 2014, pp. 70–71). This has, in fact, allowed it to have legitimacy and give flexibility to its members on whether to implement decisions (Slobodchikoff, 2014, pp. 70–71). As was pointed out in the theory part, decision-making relies on a consensus ‘by agreement without a vote,’ where decisions will be adopted if ‘no member State has raised objections during its consideration.’65
Ultimately, what the SCO offers to Moscow is an opportunity to join with China in a higher status institution, given that U.S. entry into the region undermined Moscow’s sustained cooperation within the CIS (Contessi, 2010, p. 104, 117). However, in its broader regional strategy, Russia sees different utility for SCO. It boosts its Asia-Pacific policy and non-traditional security issues. It is also a prestigious platform for interacting with big non-Western powers. While the SCO represents a robust platform for political gamesmanship and competition with the West, it becomes clear that CSTO and EEU are the real foundations of Russia’s cooperative hegemony in post-Soviet space. While having a smaller membership, they receive steady commitment from Russia, which enjoys an undisputed headship over these institutions (Šćepanović, 2020). This remains a precondition for effective cooperative hegemony (Pedersen, 2002). Nonetheless, SCO remains a valuable organization for Russia, which can and does provide a valuable political support for its global objectives.
The author would like to thank all the experts and officials whom he had interviewed during his research. He is also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers and the editorial team of the journal for their helpful feedback and assistance on the manuscript.
1 President of Russia (2018, June 6). Interview with China Media Group. Retrieved from http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/57684.
2 President of Russia (2019, June 14). Speech at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Heads of State Council Meeting in expanded format. Retrieved from http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/60750.
3 ‘The Moscow Declaration of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation,’ 10 November 2020. Retrieved from http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/
5 President of Russia (2020, September 9). Meeting with SCO foreign ministers. Retrieved from http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/64016.
6 Among the vast literature on the subject, I would recommend, for instance, Trenin (2007), Cooley (2012), Cooley (2019), Lukin (2018), Sakwa (2017), Gabuev (2019), Facon (2013), Kaczmarski (2015), Aris (2011), Denisov and Safranchuk (2016), Zhao (2011), Allison (2018).
7 Edwards, J. (2015, February 17). Joseph Nye just delivered the most complete, cogent analysis of the Russian 'threat' we've heard this year. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/russia-in-decline-joseph-nye-quote-2015-2?r=US&IR=T.
8 Article 13, Charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, 7th June 2002, retrieved from http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/.
9 Article 2, Charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
10 DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY OF THE SHANGHAI COOPERATION ORGANISATION UNTIL 2025, July 2017. Retrieved from http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/.
11 Article 5, Charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
12 Article 16, Charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
13 Article 17, Charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
14 Article 17, Russian National Security Strategy, 12 May 2009 No. 537.
15 Article 77, Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation Approved by President of the Russian Federation V. Putin on 12 February 2013. Retrieved from http://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/official_documents/-/asset_publisher/CptICkB6BZ29/content/id/2542248.
16 Article 79, Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation (approved by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin on November 30, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/official_documents/-/asset_publisher/CptICkB6BZ29/content/id/2542248.
17 Interview with Dr. Marcin Kaczmarski, Lecturer in Security Studies (Central and East European Studies) at University of Glasgow, 16th May 2019.
20 President of Russia (2004, 15 January). President Vladimir Putin sent a message to Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Secretary-General Zhang Deguang following the start of the SCO Secretariat's work. Retrieved from http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/30147.
21 President of Russia (2006, 14 June). SCO – a New Model of Successful International Cooperation. Retrieved from http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/23633.
23 President of Russia (2020, September 9). Meeting with SCO foreign ministers. Retrieved from http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/64016.
24 Article 79, Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation (approved by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin on November 30, 2016).
25 Article 80, Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, 12 February 2013.
26 Article 21, THE MILITARY DOCTRINE OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION (approved by the President of the Russian Federation, 24 December 2014), 29 June 2015. Retrieved from https://rusemb.org.uk/press/2029.
27 Bishkek Declaration by the Heads of the Member States of the SCO, 16 August 2007. Retrieved from http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/.
28 DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY OF THE SHANGHAI COOPERATION ORGANISATION UNTIL 2025, July 2017.
30 The Astana declaration of the Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, 9th June 2017. Retrieved from http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/.
31 Interview with Dr. Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at University of Kent, and an Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, 7th May 2019.
32 DECLARATION on the Fifth Anniversary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, 15 June 2006. Retrieved from http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/.
33 DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY OF THE SHANGHAI COOPERATION ORGANISATION UNTIL 2025, July 2017.
34 ‘Press release on the Meeting of the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of SCO Member States,’ 11 September 2020. Retrieved from https://eng.sco-russia2020.ru/news/20200911/756931/Press-release-on-the-Meeting-of-the-Council-of-Ministers-of-Foreign-Affairs-of-SCO-Member-States.html.
35 ‘Article of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ‘The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: Peace and prosperity through security and stability’ published in Rossiyskaya Gazeta of September 10, 2014,’ The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, 10 September 2014. Retrieved from http://www.mid.ru/en/web/guest/maps/uz/-/asset_publisher/n9psHApVxR46/content/id/671483
36 DECLARATION BY THE HEADS OF THE MEMBER STATES OF THE SHANGHAI COOPERATION ORGANISATION, June 2002. Retrieved from < http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/>.
37 DECLARATION by the Heads of the Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (Astana, July 5, 2005). Retrieved from http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/.
38 The Astana declaration of the Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, 9th June 2017. Retrieved from http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/.
39 Interview with Dr. Marcin Kaczmarski, 16th May 2019.
40 Quoted in Piekos, W. & and Economy, E.C. (2015, July 7), The Risks and Rewards of SCO Expansion. Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/expert-brief/risks-and-rewards-sco-expansion.
41 Interview with Dr. Gilbert Rozman, Emeritus Musgrave Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and the editor-in-chief of The Asan Forum, 14 May 2019.
44 Yurou (2017, November 30). Commentary: Enlarged SCO to better benefit regional stability, development. Xinhua Net, http://www.xinhuanet.com//english/2017-11/30/c_136790161.htm.
46 ‘Press release on the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers meeting,’ 24 April 2018, Secretariat of the SCO.
47 ‘Press release on the Meeting of the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of SCO Member States,’ 11 September 2020. Retrieved from https://eng.sco-russia2020.ru/news/20200911/756931/Press-release-on-the-Meeting-of-the-Council-of-Ministers-of-Foreign-Affairs-of-SCO-Member-States.html.
48 ‘SCO – a New Model of Successful International Cooperation,’ President of Russia, 14 June 2006. Retrieved from http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/23633.
49 Interview with anonymous Russian expert, April 17, 2019, Fudan University (Shanghai).
50 DECLARATION ON THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE SHANGHAI COOPERATION ORGANISATION, 15 June 2001. Retrieved from http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/.
51 DUSHANBE DECLARATION, 28th August 2008. Retrieved from http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/.
52 DUSHANBE DECLARATION by the Heads of the Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, 12th September 2014. Retrieved from http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/.
53 Interview with Mr. Alexander Gabuev, Senior Fellow and the Chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, 7th June 2019.
54 The memorandum of understanding between the Secretariat of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Secretariat of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation of October 5, 2007. Retrieved from http://cis-legislation.com/document.fwx?rgn=46847.
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59 President of Russia (2020, 10 November). SCO Heads of State Council meeting. Retrieved from http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/64385
60 ‘Russian Defence Minister chairs joint meeting of SCO, CIS and CSTO defence ministers in the Moscow Region,’ SCO Russia 2019-2020, 7 September 2020. Retrieved from https://eng.sco-russia2020.ru/news/20200907/710791/Russian-Defence-Minister-chairs-joint-meeting-of-SCO-CIS-and-CSTO-defence-ministers-in-the-Moscow.html
61 Interview with Mr. Alexander Gabuev, 7th June 2019.
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63 Interview with Dr. Fraser Cameron, Director of the EU-Asia Centre, a Senior Advisor at the European Policy Centre (EPC), an adjunct professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, and former British diplomat and EU official, 9th September 2019.
64 Interview with Mr. Alexander Gabuev, 7th June 2019.
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