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Geopolitical Implications of the Chinese Partnership Diplomacy – Shanghai Cooperation Organization

SCO Summit 2018 © Kremlin / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was founded in June 2001 by China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Therefore, the date of its foundation confirms that the SCO is not the consequence of the Chinese reaction towards the War on Terror, triggered by USA gathering the Global Coalition. On the other hand, we cannot deny that China did not use it to control U.S. ambitions to spread NATO all-along to the Chinese borders. The West declares that spreading NATO is not aimed to contain China, but to institutionally and democratically stabilize Afghanistan (Mitrovic, 2020). For example, in the Astana Declaration signed by the heads of the SCO member states in 2005, we can read the following: Given the completion of the active military phase of the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan, the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization deem it necessary for the relevant participating states of the antiterrorist coalition to set a deadline for the temporary use of said infrastructure and presence of their military contingents in the territory of the SCO member states (SCO, 2005).

As the first international organization initiated by China, the SCO represents Chinese turnover in understanding multilateralism, infrastructural connectivity, military and non-military strategies of combating terrorism, and China`s position within the, in that very moment, unilateral international order. Therefore, we can understand the SCO as the proactive, for some actors assertive, institutionalization of the Chinese first attempt to create new structures of (non-democratic) interstate/neighbourhood relations and cooperation framework (Ambrosio, 2008). In that sense, China adopted the approach that the international order is the space of interconnectedness as opposed to the revolutionary space. Through various types and levels of partnerships, China started to demonstrate its strategic thinking about how to create a proper atmosphere for achieving its national interests with both visible and hidden geopolitical consequences. When the SCO was established officially, China understood that it did not possess the required capacity to challenge the USA's unique global superpower. However, at the same time, China understood that it had to prevent the USA from establishing a network of security partnerships for controlling the strategic assets of and in Central Asia - abundant energy resources, poor institutional performances, geographic position, fertile soil and ethno-religion structure, as was the case in the Pacific. Thus, China has chosen a soft balancing strategy and strategy of confidence building measures backed by loose, according to the Chinese proclamation, “no strings attached” multilateral institutionalism, credit lines, and “Shanghai Spirit” (Stefanovic-Stambuk, 2018). According to the Declaration on the Establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ formed in the process of the Shanghai Five development, described by mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, joint consultations, respect for cultural diversity and aspiration for collective development, is an invaluable asset gained by the countries of the region over the years of cooperation (SCO, 2001). It will grow and in the new century will become a norm in relations among the state members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Such a definition is in line with Chinese attempts of creating new structures of interstate relations, which could be analysed by using relational theory of international relations and the concept of structural power offered by science of the international political economy.

At the very beginning of the 21st century, the SCO’s duration was envisaged as not longue durée phenomena, but this has not happened. On the contrary, the SCO several times showed that its institutional capacity building and power projection capabilities are in service of rising Chinese strategic credibility not just in Central Asia but also in the Indian and Pacific oceans, Caspian basin region and the Middle East. In 2015 this was confirmed by SCO accession of Pakistan and India – the most populous democracy. Then, it was expected that the SCO maritime geopolitical and geoeconomic potential would be activated. However, this was not the case since there is no SCO mechanism which would tackle the SCO maritime sphere of influence. There are two main reasons for this lack of activation, beginning from Indian geopolitical ambitions and its participation in Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and USA Indo-Pacific Strategy. Apart from that, SCO still does not possess the possibility of harmonizing very different and sometimes unsurmountable maritime interests of the member states regarding which ocean or sea should be prioritized.

This year, the 2021 SCO Head of State Summit testimonies new geopolitical implications for international order, mirrored as Iranian SCO membership and reinforced activity of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group which cannot be analysed as two separate strategic aims. China is giving the green light to Iran that it can pursue its foreign and security policy, although the West defines Iranian behaviour as a significant challenge. China is becoming more and more convinced in following the USA role model in terms of dictating the criteria of good and bad behaviour, although it is insisting that the SCO is a platform for mutual learning (Xuetong 2019; Kaminski 2019). Since no Western country is associated with the SCO work, Iranian accession to the SCO questions Chinese proclamations that the SCO is inclusive and not an anti-Western platform for cooperation, particularly after the USA withdrawal from Afghanistan. Thus, it is notable that through partnership diplomacy, China does not pursue the policy of “hide one’s ability and pretend to be weak”. On the contrary, it demonstrates its capacities and power position in reshaping the world order within which Beijing achieved many economic results of “policy of reforms and opening-up”. However, China believes that it is using the SCO as a platform for expanding its prestige, particularly in fighting terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism (“three evils”). This Chinese assurance was backed by the fact that the United Nations (UN) recognized the SCO results in fighting “three evils.” This deepened cooperation on this issue. For example, on the official UN website, we can read the following:

“SCO is unshaken in its belief that as a means of conflict resolution diplomacy is unmatched. In this regard, SCO continues its support for an even more prominent coordinating role for the United Nations in international relations, with an emphasis upon the further development of close cooperation with the world Organization. A number of special initiatives launched under the auspices of the United Nations and SCO have noticeably contributed to the enhancement of international cooperation in combating common challenges and threats to security.” (UN, 2020)

The OUN interpretation of the SCO gives excellent impetus to China that is on the right track to bring its elements into international order by fighting terrorism. Hence, Iranian SCO membership as an essential part of its partnership diplomacy is in the Chinese service to encircle Afghanistan and guard the situation in Iraq to prevent spill-over of negative effects that can jeopardize China on both economic and security levels. On a security level, the problem for the Chinese side lies in Xinjiang and the activities of Uighurs which China stands to jeopardize its sovereignty (Trailovic, 2018). China is striving to prevent any kind of communication with foreign elements which support organizations, notably the East Turkestan Movement, that want to create the independent state of East Turkestan on the territory of Xinjiang. On the economic level, China has to protect its six economic corridors as a label of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Having all this in mind, the SCO as the Chinese partnership diplomacy tool in bringing geopolitical implications still faces many inconsistencies. First, it does not assure the international community about its inclusivity, openness, and mutual learning approach. Second, since its institutional capacities are loosened, they do not create an atmosphere of predictability and transparency. Third, loosened institutionalism could not embrace different and unsurmountable interests of member states and create power from relations as it was with the case of non-establishing the SCO Development Bank, SCO Development Fund and non-using the full spectrum of possibilities offered by SCO Energy Club. On the other hand, through SCO, China widens its political, economic, and military influence. Considering the geographical (geopolitical and geoeconomic) SCO extension, including observer states (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka), dialogue partners (Mongolia, Belarus, Afghanistan), and guest attendance (ASEAN, OUN, Commonwealth of the Independent States and Turkmenistan), SCO should not be perceived just as one of many pieces of the complex ABC puzzle in Asia. It should be understood as a new geopolitical puzzle of Asia.

Slobodan Popovic is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade, where he is working as Professor Associate on subject of Geopolitics and Geoeconomny. He obtained BA and MA from the department of Regional Asian Studies at the same University and Faculty. Besides that, Slobodan Popovic is junior researcher at the Centre for Asian and Far Eastern Studies and Institute for Asian Studies. He has obtained several scholarships amongst which are SASAKAWA Fellowship and scholarship of Italian Government. You can find him on LinkedIn and reach him at

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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