Small Wars Journal

Partnership Instead of Alliance: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a Mechanism for China’s Growing Influence in Central Asia

Wed, 08/10/2016 - 5:15am

Partnership Instead of Alliance: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a Mechanism for China’s Growing Influence in Central Asia

Robert Schafer


The Shanghai Cooperation Organization reached a milestone with its fifteen-year anniversary celebrated at a summit in Tashkent this past June. Going forward, the work of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will expand its membership with India and Pakistan becoming full members in 2017. The strategic impact that India and Pakistan will bring to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization should not go unnoticed by the United States and its allies. Security and economic cooperation in Central Asia have always been the top issues that drives the Shanghai Cooperation Organization into seeking more partnerships. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to explore, in some depth, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the implications of what these strategic partnerships will mean for Central Asia as well as for the United States, who still seeks to leverage influence in the region.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has made significant improvements to regional security and economic cooperation among its member states in Central Asia. This has enabled countries like Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan to prosper from their membership.  The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is an economic and politically influential organization considering that currently the full member and observer states possess 40% of the world’s population and have a hold on the world’s largest gas and oil reserves.  It is also important to note that two members are nuclear powers.[1] India and Pakistan’s imminent inclusion will now add two more nuclear powers into the organization.

Central Asia has been under the Russian sphere of influence for over two hundred years.[2]  The formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in June of 2001, although welcomed by the member states as new opportunity for regional development, would still be perceived by Russia as a form of encroachment into its sovereign domain.  Still problematic to the Central Asian States, however, is the threat of Islamic radicalization. China, experiencing similar problems with separatists in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region would promote security and stabilization in a partnership against terrorism, separatism, and extremism.[3]

Russia as a Partner and Stakeholder

There is a Russian response, however, in the formation of The Collective Security Treaty Organization, which quickly grew out of a military alliance among the Commonwealth of Independent States. Shortly after the Soviet collapse, Russia formed the Commonwealth of Independent States Collective Security Treaty in 1992 to maintain its influence in the region.  The Collective Security Treaty Organization therefore, still remaining a valid security apparatus in the region, is a Russian response to Chinese influence in the Central Asian States. The Collective Security Treaty Organization is far more limited in its scope as it gives Russia the opportunity to increase its control over the Central Asian military establishment through its joint command and staff structure.

Russia uses the Collective Security Treaty Organization to remain a regional hegemony. The fact that Georgia is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, however, did little for the latter in 2008 when South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away. Russia, in fact, would recognize the independence of the two former provinces, which have stronger ties to Russia than Georgia with its pro-Western ideology.  The Shanghai Cooperation Organization did not voice support for Russia’ actions, yet Georgia’s support for pro-Western government reforms were in violation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization charter that rejects separatism and extremism.

Russia continues to manage its former empire as if it were still an empire and both the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are vital in the Central Asian States to maintain that influence.  Russia and China have “very different visions for their roles in the region.”[4]  Russia desires its return as the regional hegemon whereas China seeks gradual development of relations and a return on investment in the form of energy resources.  Both countries have a vested interested in the stability of the region, but the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 changed that dynamic.

The Collective Security Treaty Organization, ironically, is a stronger security apparatus than that of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization but Russia, as a declining power, cannot effectively deploy its resources to Afghanistan to counter any threats of terrorism.  The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is similar in its weakness when it comes to applying direct action. It prefers only to maintain its regional regimes loyal to China.  Therefore, to maintain influence and prevent further instability in Central Asia, both Russia and China had to allow the United States to address Afghanistan.

Balancing Regional Stability

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, however, has positioned itself to address the instability of Afghanistan, seeing it as a potential regional asset.  Afghanistan, as a benchmark of forward movement into regional stability, was granted observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2012.  It is through this initiative as well that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is committed to a more peaceful solution to the problems within Afghanistan’s borders.  Many scholars agree that Russian and Chinese interests, rather than Western interests, will shape Central Asia’s future.[5] This is logical reasoning, especially when considering what may happen when the United States military leaves the region or at least significantly reduces its presence.  This also assumes that instability through government corruption returns much as it has recently in Iraq. 

There are challenges for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to grant Afghanistan full membership.  Primarily, the presence of international soldiers in the country and conducting joint military operations suggests that the current government is aligned with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  Afghanistan relies heavily on United States support and granting full membership status into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would also increase the United States’ influence in the organization and affect the decision making of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.[6]

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s goal of becoming an important economic, political, and security apparatus with global influence can be achieved by partnering with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to stabilize countries such as Afghanistan.[7]  This is problematic as Russia will in no way willingly partner with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  However, this misstep on Russia’s part could encourage China to take the lead in pursuing this agenda, giving China, through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, greater legitimacy in Central Asia.  The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, so long as Russia remains influential among its member states, will most likely not enjoy a joint partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  Russia, it seems, would rather see the United States continue to attrite itself in Afghanistan just as the Russians had experienced in the 1980s.

If that is the desired end state that Russia envisions for the United States and Afghanistan, then perhaps it is in the United States national interest to seek regional cooperation from China itself outside of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.  There is still another intrinsic benefit from the United States partnering with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in stabilizing Afghanistan: the patronage of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran as a Potential Regional Partner

Iran is now free to pursue its nuclear program since sanctions have been lifted as a result from the recent nuclear deal struck between Iran and the P5+1 countries as well as the European Union. Until recently, Iran has been ignored as a key regional actor in stabilizing Afghanistan and despite recent overtures from the Obama administration, Tehran has largely been kept out of international negotiations because of the United States known opposition to the regime.[8]  Although the Shanghai Cooperation Organization can play a role in mediations between Iran and the United States concerning Afghanistan, this is problematic as it assumes Iran wants Afghanistan stabilized by the United States.  This, however, is not logical given the hostile relationship between Iran and the United States.

Iran had been granted Observer status in 2005 into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and potentially should play a larger role with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a regional actor especially now that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is considering granting Iran full membership. Iran also shares the ideology of non-western influence in the region. It is along the lines of that rationale that it would, together with Russia, maintain the desire to see the US fail with its foreign policies, not only in Afghanistan but in Central Asia as well.  Iran, however, does bring a lot to the region in terms of security, stability, technology, and access to more natural resources.

Iranian membership is still in consideration. The issue of Iran filing for full membership signals a departure from its non-alignment policy adopted shortly after the creation of the Islamic Regime in 1979.  If Iran was granted full member status, there are a few challenges that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization should expect to encounter. First of all, along with Iranian membership comes the inclusion of their massive gas and oil reserves which would effectively weaken OPEC in setting prices, production targets and the overall stability of the global energy market.[9] Should this actually occur as scholars predict, the balance of power of the world energy market will most certainly shift to Central Asia. Secondly, Iran will enjoy open markets and greater trade with other Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states since it will no longer be internationally isolated.

Balancing Regional Energy Cooperation

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization balances its security strategies in the Central Asian States with Russia through cooperation and training among its member and observer states. What is it about the Central Asian States that makes it attractive to China, Russia, and even the United States, besides the instability of secure borders or the threat of extremism?  There also exists the potential for improved economic trade as well as greater access to energy and other natural resources in the region.

China is a major trading partner for Central Asia and may become the dominant economic influence in the region.[10] The Central Asian countries have access to vast amounts of natural resources.  The infrastructure, however, linking these countries among themselves and with other countries like China and Russia suffers greatly.  The New Silk Road initiative, proposed by China in 2011, is huge step forward in restoring economic balance in the region.  This new route also ties in Afghanistan as an additional benefactor with access to greater natural resources. 

This is a smart move for China.  Through diversification of natural resources in Central Asia, China not only redistributes the wealth among the member states but also reduces the geo-political influence in the region.  In general, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization relates China’s desires for enhancing energy cooperation through a more favorable diplomatic mechanism.  Implementation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s energy policy, in an otherwise unstable world economy, may not only play a serious role in ensuring stable growth of Shanghai Cooperation Organization members and observer state economies but also exert a positive influence on the world economy as a whole.[11]

The clear benefactor to greater regional energy cooperation within the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is Kazakhstan.  While they are the largest world exporter of uranium, there is also a need for greater bilateral cooperation among other regional actors like Russia and China.  This partnership in energy cooperation among Russia, China, and Kazakhstan is developing rapidly. It is, among the three Shanghai Cooperation Organization members, a cornerstone of their partnership.[12]

This all ties in with China’s agenda to expand regional influence by repairing or upgrading infrastructure to include major roads, railways, and pipelines.  In return for greater access to regional energy, China offers lesser developed countries like Kazakhstan access to world markets for its exports as well as increased trade among member states regionally.  This trade mechanism did not flourish before when Kazakhstan was in the former Soviet sphere of influence.  China continues to reinvest in itself and Central Asia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and it is seeing significant return on that investment.

There are great benefits for China to have preferential access into the Russian and Central Asian markets and natural resources.  The other Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states are rich in natural resources but lack the productive flow and exchange of consumer goods.  Trading with China would seem like the best course of action for all players as selling natural resources to China is an important step in boosting their economic strength.[13] This also assumes a mutual benefit: if China’s Gross Domestic Product grows rapidly, then opportunities for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states to invest in foreign markets, exchange technologies, or even increase or expand their own market capacity are also realized.

Economic cooperation among the Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states has been on a gradual incline since the organization’s inception in 2001.  India and Pakistan are to become full members and Iran should not be too far behind in their nomination.  This makes logical economic sense in that Iran is also considered a Central Asian state and maintains 16% of the world’s natural gas reserves.[14]

It is logical to assume that Shanghai Cooperation Organization full member states enjoy greater security and economic cooperation by including the hypothetical “if” states of Iran, Afghanistan, and Mongolia, to name but a few. If these states joined, what would this suggest for United States national interests in the region?  There is a clear balance of power in the region that does not recognize the United States and their interests.  In fact, the United States has filed for observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2005 only to be promptly denied.


It is incorrect to view the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a counter-balance to NATO or the United States.  The Shanghai Cooperation Organization adheres to the principles of the United Nations Charter.  The United States remains critical of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization mainly because Russia and China are leveraging natural resources in Central Asia against the United States and against what the member states perceive to be the real agenda in the region (promoting democracy and increasing the United States’ powerbase). Concerning future membership, this will probably not mean that a state would have to be non-democratic to be admitted, it is likely that the existing members will be very wary of allowing any democracy to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at a level beyond that of an observer state.[15] The immediate risks to United States national interests in Central Asia come from Russian influence as opposed to the other member or observer states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russia has an interest in removing, or severely limiting, United States presence and influence from Central Asia. This had clearly manifested in their successful call for United States eviction from Manas Airbase in June of 2014.   

China and Russia suspect that the United States will choose to remain in Central Asia long after its military forces, along with those from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have withdrawn from Afghanistan. Most likely the United States will continue to influence other member states through cultural, diplomatic, or long-term economic incentives in return for greater access to the gas and oil reserves in the region.  Current United States policy objectives in Central Asia include the continuing stability for Afghanistan, combating terrorism, and stemming opium production and other overflow into the other countries in Central Asia.[16] These policy goals are also further aligned with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization goals, which bring an opportunity to pursue these policies on a bilateral basis much resistance. Most Central Asian states value their bilateral relationships with the United States because of the financial incentives the United States provides. However, any financial assistance offered with strings attached to human rights, democratization, or combating corruption will be met with resistance, and will likely hinder the development of close political ties and alliances within Central Asia.[17] This rejection seems irrational, but what is important to remember is that the people of Central Asia are tied together through ancient tribal cultures, oral traditions, and a shared history. The people simply do not want western democracy, preferring the status quo instead.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is neither a powerful military alliance nor is it an influential political power base, but rather a flexible regional security apparatus that continues to seek partnerships and expansion in all areas of cooperation. Over the long term, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has the potential to become a global player, a serious center of political decision making.[18]  This is due mostly to a solid, economic vision from China and vested interest in Russia to improve upon security and growth opportunities in Central Asia.  The eagerness of the other member states to expand their own markets locally in return for greater stability and growth bodes well for current popularity of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as well. Many researchers agree that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has an important role to play in the region in the years ahead, especially with the United States and Afghanistan since it appears to be nearing the pivotal point for its own future as well. On a global scale and relating to potential central Eurasian threats and problems, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization yields great value, yet must interact more with other influential international organizations such as the United Nations or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.[19]

End Notes

[1] Ali G. Dizboni, “Iran and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Counter-Hegemony as Common Purpose,” Dynamiques-Internationales (2010).

[2] Weiqing Song, “Interests, Power, and China’s Difficult Game in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” Journal of Contemporary China 23:85 (2013): 88.

[3] Terrorism, separatism, and extremism as identified in Article 3 in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Charter ratified in 2002, which can be accessed at

[4] Alexander Frost, “The Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Russia’s Strategic Goals in Central Asia,” The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly 7:3 (2009): 98.

[5] Matthew Hall, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: A Partner for Stabilizing Iran?” The Shedden Papers (2009): 9.

[6] Stephen Granger, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Challenges Ahead and Potential Solutions,” 2d Annual International Conference on Business Strategy and Organizational Behaviour (2012): 30. The conference was hosted in Bali and the notes can be accessed at

[7] Matthew Hall, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: A Partner for Stabilizing Iran?” The Shedden Papers (2009): 8.

[8] Ibid, 9.

[9] Ali G. Dizboni, “Iran and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Counter-Hegemony as Common Purpose,” Dynamiques-Internationales (2010): 11.

[10] Alex Gupta, “Central Asia: Five Key Issues,” Discussion paper from the American Security Project based in Washington DC (2014).

[11] Galiia Movkebaeva, “Energy Cooperation Among Kazakhstan, Russia, and China Within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” Russian Politics and Law 51:1 (2013): 87.

[12] Ibid,86.

[13] Gao Fei, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and China’s New Diplomacy,” Discussion Paper from the Netherlands Institute of International Relations located in Antwerp (2010): 10.

[14] This data is from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s country study on its Dialogue Partner, Iran, and can be accessed at

[15] Thomas Ambrosio, “Catching the Shanghai Spirit: How the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Promotes Authoritarian Norms in Central Asia,” Europe-Asia Studies 60:8 (2008): 1342.

[16] Plater-Zyberk, Henry and Andrew Monaghan, “Strategic Implications of the Evolving Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” The United States Army War College Press (2014).

[17] Ibid, 34.

[18] Kuralai Baizakova, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Role in Countering Threats and Challenges to Central Asian Regional Security,” Russian Politics and Law 51:1 (2013):78.

[19] Ibid.


About the Author(s)

Robert Schafer is a senior non-commissioned officer in Civil Affairs and former deputy director of the Civil Military Advisory Group in Washington D.C. Over a long career, he has deployed extensively to Iraq as well as to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, Kuwait, and Somalia.  He is a graduate of the National Defense University with a Master of Arts in Strategic Security Studies. He also graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a Master of Education and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature.  His current research interest focuses on special warfare in non-linear systems.