Global Policy Forum

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: A League of Autocracies?


By David K. Schneider

American Diplomacy
September 16, 2008

From the North Sea, dark winds,
shaking the earth as they come;
The enlightened sovereign on the temple
looks out toward Dragon Dunes.
Skulls and bones, once soldiers
on the frontier wall,
at sunset on the desert
fly up and turn to dust.1
Chang Jian (fl. 727).

Christopher Hitchens, in the latest issue of World Affairs, answers this essay's title question in the affirmative. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is "the sign and symbol of China's penchant for authoritarianism, allied to its regional and international ambitions". He cites the nearly uniform tendency toward autocracy among the group's members, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Vladimir Putin's description of it as a "reborn version of the Warsaw Pact," as evidence that the SCO constitutes an authoritarian bloc, opposed to NATO and the West, that extends from China through the Caucasus and the Urals.2

Potential for an autocratic bloc certainly exists. Robert Kagan has written extensively and cogently about a growing convergence of autocratic political cultures and interests in world affairs.3 China and Russia have clearly taken parallel, if not unified, positions on key international security issues, notably at the UN regarding Iran's nuclear programs. Putin's statement about a revived Warsaw Pact is clear in its ambitions. Iran's relationship with the SCO also raises questions. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has sought to make of the SCO "a strong, influential institution" to counter "threats from domineering powers to interfere in the affairs of other states."4 And, in fact, Western sanctions against Iran have been largely ineffectual for the simple reason that the Iranian regime has only to look east to find comparable economic relationships with governments much less hostile to its domestic and international ambitions. As Hitchens argues, China has been very supportive of autocratic regimes across the globe from Burma in South Asia to Sudan in Africa.

Hitchens' and others' warnings are understandable. But does the SCO go beyond a convergence of interest concerning specific issues to embrace a full concert of power and ambition operating through the mechanism of an international organization? Do China's interests accord fully with those of Russia, Iran, and other SCO members and observers? What are the Chinese government's objectives and intentions regarding the purpose and function of the SCO? Are we looking at a unified alliance held together by shared ideologies and interests, or an organization that exhibits a high degree of surface convergence between otherwise divergent powers?

A close analysis of China's engagement with Central Asia through time reveals that the view that sees the organization as a second Warsaw Pact or Concert of Autocracies obscures its real nature and misunderstands both the aims of the Chinese leadership in creating it, and the geopolitical forces that will make concerted action along such lines highly unlikely, even in the very long term.

In fact, the SCO is the most recent manifestation of clear patterns of Chinese statecraft developed over a very long history of engagement with the region. It represents an attempt to solve in the post-Soviet era a problem that is nearly three thousand years old, a problem that no Chinese government, traditional or modern, has ever completely solved. Simply stated, no Chinese regime has survived the loss of control over the empire's western frontiers. The SCO is just the latest device by which the present regime in Beijing hopes to gain maximum control over the area comprising Tibet, Mongolia, and Central Asia, and, thereby, guarantee its own survival.

A look at the history of China's dealings with its western frontier – a history absolutely central to Beijing's geostrategic thinking – is essential to any effort to gain a clear perspective on the character and activities of the SCO in current world affairs.

A Long History of Chinese Statecraft in Central Asia

In the West, China is often thought of as the "Middle Kingdom," a hegemonic, land-based empire surrounded by vassal tributary states. But this is only a partial, nearly stereotypical view of China's foreign affairs through history. From the very beginning of Chinese civilization, control over the periphery was essential. Not only could attacks come from the north and west at any time, but non-Chinese tribes could, and often did, collude with disaffected internal Chinese factions to threaten or destroy the regime in power.

The crisis in 771 BC that nearly destroyed the great Zhou dynasty (11th century-221 BC), from which came most of the foundations of Chinese thought and culture, happened in just such a manner. The northern Rong tribe, allied with one of the Zhou king's own fiefs, sacked the palace, killed the king, and forced a move of the dynastic capital far to the east in search of greater security. This move revealed a lack of political vigor on the part of the dynasty, and started a 500-year descent into political chaos and civil war known to Chinese history as the "Spring and Autumn" and "Warring States."

Unification finally came with the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties, which strove relentlessly to push the boundaries of their empires ever further to the north and west, usually by military conquest followed by Han Chinese colonization. This is still going on in the present, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet. In a succession of campaigns designed to dominate or defeat the Xiongnu (the ancestors of the Huns, who later played a role in the history of Rome), the Han succeeded in establishing Chinese power far into Central Asia, reaching and occupying by 100 BC much of the territories of present-day Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan – the four Central Asian members of the SCO – and initiating the first major contacts with the civilizations of the West. This is one of the moments in Chinese history when the "Middle Kingdom-vassal state" model became a reality.

By the late second century AD, however, this grand imperial structure came crashing down. Domestic political instability combined with tribal unrest in the west to end the Han. The Yeuzhi people, centered in the Kokonor region, rebelled in 184, sweeping east and threatening the capital Chang'an, in present-day Shaanxi Province. In 220 the Han split into rival dynasties, each unable to defend the western frontier. In 386 the Toba Turks invaded and occupied north China, forcing a mass exodus of Han Chinese to the south, which was ruled by a succession of weak royal courts. China was split in half for the next two hundred years, with the north, the cradle of Chinese civilization, under the rule of a people the Han Chinese considered barbarians.

maptang.gif - 44340 Bytes China was finally reunified in 581 under the Sui (581-618), a short-lived dynasty that laid the foundations for another great period of Chinese hegemony in East Asia, the Tang dynasty (618-907). It took another 170 years for the Chinese state to reestablish and extend its power into Central Asia, exceeding even that of the Han. With these conquests China became the greatest empire of the age, not just in East and Central Asia, but in the world. Recognition of China's geopolitical position came in 638 when the son of Yazdgard III, the last ruler of the Sassanid dynasty in Persia, arrived at the Tang court to request assistance in the Persian conflict with the Arab Muslim forces of the Omayyad dynasty in Damascus. The Tang emperor refused, leading to one of the great geopolitical catastrophes of Chinese history. By 674, the Persian Empire was gone and Arab forces were pushing into Central Asia. An uneasy peace in the region lasted until 751, when Central Asian tribes, resentful of Chinese domination, asked the Abbasid Caliphate in Bagdad for assistance in throwing off Tang rule, which was granted. Chinese and Arab forces clashed on the Talas River, in present-day Kazakhstan. The Tang army was destroyed, breaking China's hold on Central Asia for the next nearly one thousand years, and throwing Chinese politics into a long period of decline lasting from the An Lushan rebellion in 755 to the establishment of the Song dynasty (960-1279) in 960.

mapsouthernsong.gif - 59775 Bytes But even with the new dynastic regime in place, Chinese power abroad continued to deteriorate as non-Chinese tribes – Tibetans, Tanguts, Jurchen, Khitans, Uighurs, and Mongols – which the Chinese had struggled for thousands of years to subdue, grew in power and influence, many of them establishing independent kingdoms and dynasties with which the Song had to deal on equal terms. The Tibetans established a powerful kingdom in the southwest from which they both assisted and harassed various Chinese emperors. The Tanguts established their own dynastic house in the northwest, the Western Xia (1038-1227). The Khitan set up the Liao dynasty (907-1127) along the northern frontier. The Jurchen established yet another powerful dynastic house, the Jin (1115-1234). This was a multipolar international system in which China was unable to defend its interests. In 1127 the Jurchen destroyed the Liao and swept into North China. The Song court fled south, leaving the north once again in the hands of "barbarians." Emblematic of China's fall from a dominant to a minor power is the treaty it was forced to sign in 1041 that declared the Chinese Song dynasty a vassal of the Jurchen Jin. Tribute payments went out of rather than into China. But the crushing finale came when the Mongols destroyed both the Jin and the Southern Song and put all of China under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1206-1368). With the receding of Mongol power across the globe, native Chinese rule was restored for the period of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which never succeeded in reasserting Chinese power in Central Asia before yet another northern tribe, the Manchus, conquered all of China, placing it under foreign rule once again for what would turn out to be the final imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911).

Four Geostrategic Axioms

Before reviewing the highly successful early Qing campaign to raise China once again to the position of a global hegemon, it is worth asking what observations might be drawn from this panoramic view of China's relations with its western frontiers. There are four:

1. Central Asia is a politically unstable power vacuum that often becomes a threat to nearby empires.
2. A rough balance of power operates in the region that includes the tribal powers native to Central Asia and a number of major powers – China, Persia, and the Arab Caliphates – that were drawn into the region through time both for security concerns and ambition.
3. China's strategic position in that region and its own domestic political stability are intimately related.
4. As a consequence of the first three, it is a geostrategic imperative for any Chinese government to attempt to control the Tibet-Central Asia-Mongolia arc to the maximum extent possible.

Modern Chinese Statecraft in Central Asia

mapqing.gif - 32266 Bytes The first three Qing emperors, being themselves former nomadic conquerors of China, understood these four axioms of Chinese statecraft very well, as they moved with vigorous diplomatic and military campaigns to expand the borders of the Qing empire as far west and north as possible. By 1760 the Qing had direct control of Manchuria well north of the Amur and Ussuri rivers; Inner and Outer Mongolia, almost as far north as the present city of Krasnoyarsk; Tibet; what is now Xinjiang; and central Asia as far west as Lake Balkhash in present-day Kazakhstan. A Qing protectorate extended past the imperial border nearly all the way to the Aral Sea. This was the largest land area any Chinese government was able to control. The only serious opposition to Chinese expansion during this period came from Russia, itself a land-based hegemonic empire, with perceived vital interests in this same region, and also embarking on an epic period of imperial expansion. Early on the balance of power between the two expanding empires favored China. The important border and trade provisions of the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, for example, were settled for the most part on China's terms.

But Sino-Russian power relationships changed with the decay of Chinese politics and of its international standing after the humiliations suffered as a result of the mid-nineteenth century Opium Wars with Great Britain. As the maritime European powers moved to carve out spheres of influence in China, Russia also moved, very successfully, to assert its interests and ambitions at China's expense, mainly in the north and west. The Treaty of Beijing, signed in 1860, recognized Russian control over most of Central Asia and joint Sino-Russian control over the rest of the region well into Xinjiang, a loss of 350,000 square miles of territory. By 1915 Outer Mongolia was placed by treaty with Russia under nominal Chinese suzerainty, but under actual Russian control, and the Tannu-Tuva region in the far west was essentially part of Russia by 1917. Over the course of the consolidation of Soviet power in Russia and its surrounding territories, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan were all incorporated into the Soviet Union. Even the Tuva region of Mongolia was annexed in 1944. The rest of Outer Mongolia fell under Soviet domination. Tibet was also detached from China during this period. An agreement between Great Britain and Tibet in 1914 affirmed Tibet's defacto independence, in effect denying prior effective Chinese sovereignty there since the Qing.

Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party leadership, after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, moved immediately to reassert Chinese power in the western frontier regions. Tibet was retaken in 1950, and power was soon consolidated in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. But full political and border stability still remained elusive, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang. China fought a brief border war with India along the Tibetan periphery in 1962-1963. Tibetan uprisings have been common since 1959, most recently just this year, with demonstrations, violently suppressed, spreading from Tibet into neighboring Chinese provinces.

Chinese power in Xinjiang has never fully succeeded in controlling separatist movements. Even though the borders with Russia were settled, security remained a problem. It was a Soviet incursion deep into Xinjiang in 1969 that drove Mao and Zhou Enlai to open diplomatic channels to the United States, thus beginning the triangular balance of power in the region. There are over eight million Uighurs, and nearly as many more recent Han Chinese migrants; there are also Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Mongols. A significant Uighur Diaspora is scattered through the region, and there is a good deal of ethnic fluidity and cross border migration – tens of thousands fled Xinjiang into Soviet Central Asia in 1962, for instance. There are networks of Uighur exile groups across Xinjiang and Central Asia. Muslim uprisings have also been fairly consistent through history; a major one in took place 1864. An independent nation of East Turkistan existed in Xinjiang between 1944 and 1950, when it was incorporated into the People's Republic.

Terrorist incidents involving separatist groups have taken place consistently over time, some 200 incidents between 1990 and 2001, according to a Council on Foreign Relations study, which cites Chinese government sources. These have been carried out, according to various accounts and claims, by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and the Turkistan Islamic Party, in the judgment of some, the same group under different names.5 Fear of terror connections coming from Central Asia prompted Chinese complaints to Islamabad in 1995 that Pakistan was failing to stop groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami from assisting separatist groups in Xinjiang. The next year China constructed a fence along the border to stop infiltration.

New challenges came with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Suddenly Central Asia, long contained by Moscow, became a collection of newly independent states, three of which -- Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – even now are in danger of state failure, according to the Carnegie Endowment's 2008 Failed States Index. The same index places Pakistan and Afghanistan in the "critical" category, and Turkmenistan on the "borderline" list.6 At least from the early 1990s to the present, the key region for the Chinese government, from the standpoint of international security and domestic political stability, has been an arc of instability that runs from Tibet into former Soviet Central Asia, and back into Xinjiang, with a southern tier of even greater instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Four Geostrategic Axioms in Modern Times

mapcentralasia.gif - 54994 Bytes Just as in traditional times, the present Chinese government has to deal with the perennial four-fold geostrategic reality of the western frontiers. First, Central Asia is still an unstable power vacuum containing some of the world's most volatile conflicts and most vulnerable states, each striving to avoid both Russian and Chinese domination. Second, there is still a balance of power operating in the region. Russia began to expand into Central Asia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as did Great Britain. In the twentieth century, the United States, India, Pakistan, and Iran came in as well. None of these powers has ever fully withdrawn from the region, so balance of power dynamics have tended to become more complex over time. Third, this configuration of forces that now fills the vacuum contains a number of serious risks to China's own domestic political stability. As the history outlined above shows, the rise of powers, ideologies and forces that tend to destabilize the west, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang, could, and traditionally have, had dire consequences for the regime in power. Fourth, in response to these three conditions, the present government has to act in the context and structure of modern international affairs to secure its interests in the region. The SCO is a diplomatic device whereby China hopes to solve its ancient security and political problem along its western frontiers. This is the mother of necessity that gave birth to the SCO.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

China's initial response to this situation in 1992 was to negotiate a series of political, military, and economic agreements with Russia and the Central Asian states. A significant upgrade of these diplomatic contacts came in 1995 and 1996, when in meetings in Shanghai and Moscow, China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan established what came to be called the "Shanghai Five Mechanism." Then, in June, 2001 at a summit meeting in Shanghai that included Uzbekistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was formally declared to combat "terrorism, separatism and extremism," and a charter was signed in 2002. The SCO's "architecture" and its diplomatic mode are animated by what the organization calls the "Shanghai spirit," which is enshrined in Article Four of the "Declaration on Establishment of Shanghai Cooperation Organization," issued in Shanghai in June, 2001:

"The 'Shanghai Spirit' formed during the 'Shanghai Five' process, with 'mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for multicivilizations, striving for common development' as its basic contents, has been precious treasure accumulated in the cooperation among the countries of the region in recent years. This spirit should be carried forward so that it will become the norm governing relations among the SCO member states in the new century."7

These principles are in turn derived from China's five principles of peaceful coexistence: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in domestic affairs; mutual benefit; and peaceful coexistence. Under these broad diplomatic principles the SCO is empowered to proceed toward its goals of regional cooperation, coordination, and integration.8 Through the SCO China is attempting to achieve what occupation and military colonization did in the past by means of a diplomatic architecture of regional economic and security integration.

In economics, China is promoting a full range of projects and measures designed to link the Central Asian states to the rapidly developing and reforming Chinese economy. China has been building new road systems and rail lines, such as the Urumqi-Almaty railroad between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang. In 1997 China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) won the right to open and operate the Kazak Uzen oil field for 20 years. There are plans for a CNPC-built pipeline between Kazakhstan and Turkey. China is working to draw Iran into its economic network by strengthening their bilateral trade ties. Iran gets consumer goods from China in exchange for oil and natural gas. An Interbank SCO Council has been created to fund future joint projects, and China has pledged to expand its program of export loans to SCO states. In order to avoid direct competition with Russia, most energy deals are being concluded on a bilateral basis. One example is the Sino-Kazakh Oil Pipeline, which became operational in 2005. In 2006 Kazakhstan completed the Atasu-Alashankou portion of another pipeline that will provide a direct link between China and Caspian Sea oil production. It is important to note that the major energy and economic competitor to Chinese expansion, as in previous centuries, is Russia. Both countries, within the constraints of their relative economic capabilities, are striving to dominate the rest of the SCO states. China's bet is that, over the long run, Russia will be unable to keep up with Chinese initiatives in trade, finance, energy, and communications.

Regional security cooperation began after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when China worked to gain the agreement of the Central Asian states not to support Xinjiang separatist groups. Subsequent joint declarations and bilateral military pacts concluded in the late 1990s were designed to oppose "ethnic separatism," particularly with cross-border potential. The 2001 SCO "Convention on the Fight against Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism" led to the creation of an SCO Counterterrorism Center headquartered in Bishkek. Further agreements have been struck on drug trafficking and protection of secret information. The People's Liberation Army has conducted joint military exercises in several SCO states, and has engaged in joint exercises with Russia. China has established a military base in Kyrgyzstan. Two important points are worth making here. First, the military thrust of the SCO is toward confidence building, counterterrorism, and border security within the SCO itself and not toward security problems outside the scope of the region. Second, while the SCO military activities are multilateral and internally directed, their practical effect is that China has begun to insert its military forces, and assert its security interests, in a region that had been, for all practical purposes, a part of the Russian and Soviet empires since the late nineteenth century.


Bearing in mind this nearly three-thousand-year history, and the four near axioms of Chinese statecraft derived from it, we can now answer the questions posed at the beginning of this essay, and venture a prediction. First, it is now possible to set forth a fairly comprehensive profile of Chinese objectives in creating and participating in the SCO:

• Develop trade and financial ties designed to draw the region into an economic and communications web with China as its metropolitan center.
• Establish military relations, and bases if possible, through the region.
• Maintain the primacy of authoritarian politics in the region.
• Gradually replace Russia as the regional hegemon, without provoking a reaction by Moscow.
• In the meantime maintain the independence of the Central Asian states from Russian domination and possibly reoccupation.
• Counter and exclude liberalizing influence from the American presence in Afghanistan and other Central Asian states.
• Remove the American military from the region, but not before it reduces the risk of terrorist domination in Afghanistan.
• Prevent the infiltration of separatist assistance into Tibet and Xinjiang.
• Prevent the spread of Islamic connections between Xinjiang and Central Asia and Pakistan.
• Insulate Tibet from influences coming from the Tibetan government in exile residing in northern India.
• Continue the ongoing Han colonization of Xinjiang and Tibet.
• Exploit the mutual Chinese-Russian interest in controlling Muslim populations and separatist movements.

Second, although there is significant evidence of political and geostrategic convergence among SCO members and observers, there is also a great deal of underlying competition, and some profound conflicts of interest, particularly between China and Russia, so much so that a true concert of powers appears rather unlikely. Chinese interests in Central Asia are very long term and involve replacing Russia as the regional hegemon both in security and economic terms. The goal of current Chinese statecraft on the western frontier is to create a satellite region through economic integration and security cooperation in order to draw the critical Tibet-Central Asia-Xinjiang arc into as close a condition of subordination to China as possible without provoking counter moves by Russia or other regional actors. With success in achieving these objectives far from certain, and a long history of only partial and cyclical achievement of long-term goals, it will be a very long time before the SCO will be able to act in the world as a Concert of Autocracies.

Finally, a prediction: the SCO will become over time more a source of conflict than cooperation. As China, a multi-dimensional power, rises, increasing friction with Russia's more uni-dimensional power cannot but raise tensions in this critical region. One way to gauge this possibility is to watch how both powers respond to the Russian military action in Georgia, which, like the Central Asian states, is an energy rich, former Soviet republic that was building oil and gas facilities and relationships not dependent on Russia. The incursion not only signals Moscow's willingness to force its former possessions to do its will, thereby violating nearly every principle of the "Shanghai spirit," but also represents a profound threat to all of the Chinese government's political and strategic objectives in the region, which it had hoped to achieve through the device of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.9


1. This is the second of a set of four quatrains entitled "The Frontier" by the Tang (618-907) poet Chang Jian (fl. 727). The North Sea is the far north, beyond Chinese geography, and the Dragon Dunes are in present-day Xinjiang Autonomous Region, both the homelands of non-Chinese nomadic tribes. The northern and western frontiers were a major theme in Chinese culture for thousands of years.

2. Hitchens, Christopher. "Dear Mr. President." World Affairs, Summer 2008, Vol. 171, No. 1, p. 6-11. Hitchens is not alone in seeing the SCO primarily as geopolitical counterweight to the United States. In one example, an Associated Press report characterized the SCO as follows: "The Shanghai Cooperation Organization was created 11 years ago to address religious extremism and border security in Central Asia, but with growing interest in membership from countries such as Iran, it has grown into a bloc aimed at defying U.S. interests in the region," "Iran Announces it is Seeking Membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization," International Herald Tribune, March 24, 2008. For a contrary perspective, argued on different grounds from this essay, see Iwashsita, Akihiro. "The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Japan: Moving Together to Reshape the Eurasian Community," Brookings, January 28, 2008

3. See for example Kagan, Robert. The Return of History and the End of Dreams, New York, 2008. I want to note here that this essay is not a case for or against Hitchens' and Kagan's larger arguments concerning the present structure of world politics, the need for a league of democracies, and enforcement of the "duty to protect." It considers only the much narrower issue of the nature of the SCO.

4. Hitchens, incorrectly, includes Iran as a member of the SCO. Iran, in fact, has been not a member but an official observer since the July 2005 SCO summit in Kazakhstan. India, Pakistan and Mongolia are also formal observers. For Ahmadinejad's statement, see Richard Weitz, "Iran Again Fails to Secure Shanghai Cooperation Organization Membership," World Politics Review, 28 Aug 2007 For a current list of SCO members and observers, see CIA World Factbook, Appendix B: International Organizations and Groups

5. Holly Fletcher and Jayshree Bajoria, "The East Turkestan Islamic Movement." Council on Foreign Relations, Backgrounder, July 31, 2008

6. "The Failed States Index 2008." Foreign Policy July/August 2008, p. 64-69.

7. Declaration on Establishment of Shanghai Cooperation Organization

8. See "Article One: Goals and Tasks," Charter of Shanghai Cooperation Organization

9. Evidence of tension between SCO members over the Georgia situation began to emerge at the eighth SCO summit, which took place on August 28 in Dushanbe. See, for example, the discussion and linked reports provided in Bajoria, Jayshree. "Russia's Security Ties in Asia." Council on Foreign Relations Daily Analysis August 28, 2008: publication/ 17044/ russias_security_ties_in_the_east.html?breadcrumb=%2F.

More Information on Empire?
More General Analysis of "Empire"
More Information on The Rise of Competitors


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C ß 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.