Quantifying China's Influence on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

By Abigail Grace
Cornell International Affairs Review
2016, Vol. 10 No. 1 | pg. 1/3 |


Following the People's Republic of China's "Reform and Opening Up" (gaige kaifang) ushered in by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China's participation in international organizations has dramatically increased.2 These organizations cover a range of issues, and include institutions such as the United Nations Security Council, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank. However, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a notable departure from these aforementioned institutions. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization was founded in June 2001 by the People's Republic of China, the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Tajikistan, and the Republic of Uzbekistan.3 The SCO, created and led solely by Asian countries, is the first case in which the PRC has independently developed a multilateral organization.

Though China's active participation in this organization is apparent given the PRC's emphasis on the organization in its biennial defense strategies, how Chinese foreign policy priorities affect the policies of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has yet to be fully explored. Given the PRC's historical tendency to eschew foreign involvement in domestic security matters, China's decision to enlist the support of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to combat domestic terrorism within Xinjiang (China's westernmost territory which borders other SCO member states) raises interesting questions about how China views the SCO in comparison to other Asian regional multilateral security organizations. Based on a quantitative analysis of official Chinese Defense White Papers and counterterrorism treaties ratified by the SCO and ASEAN+1, it is clear that Chinese foreign policy objectives ultimately drive the SCO's policy goals.4 Contrary to the claims of equality among states within the SCO, the following findings indicate that Chinese foreign policy objectives play a large role in how the Shanghai Cooperation Organization frames controversial issues such as regional prosperity and cooperation, domestic terrorism within the PRC, and shared regional challenges.

Establishing that the PRC has an outsized influence on the SCO's policy objectives is critical for two primary reasons. First, if China does drive the SCO's priorities, then it is fundamentally violating its own, self-constructed goal of "cooperation… and seeking consensus instead of imposing one's own will on others," outlined concurrently with the SCO's establishment in the White Paper China's National Defense in 2000.5 Given that the SCO is primarily comprised of states that have only gained independence within the past 25 years, a China-driven agenda would eliminate key venues for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to advance their own respective policy objectives. Secondly, the SCO likely represents a model for future Chinese-led multilateral organization. Given the recent establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the SCO's recent proposals on cyber-sovereignty to the United Nations, it is increasingly likely that the PRC will use similar platforms when engaging with the international community in the coming years. Quantifying the degree to which the SCO is a tool of Chinese foreign policy will have telling implications for future Chinese multilateral engagement not just with Central Asia, but with the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

Methodologically, this paper utilizes a frequency analysis of ten key phrases. Each of these phrases not only has strictly definitional meanings (e.g. peace, harmony, terrorism) but also carries policy connotations. For example, when CCP officials refer to harmony they are not only implying that the region has an absence of direct conflict, but also invoking traditional Confucian ideas on the international order.6 Phrases included in this analysis were directly selected from a review of official Chinese Defense White Papers. Chinese Defense White Papers are published by the State Council Information Office, and their content is overseen by the Central Military Commission, the Ministry of National Defense, and the State Council. These White Papers are regarded to be the most authoritative sources of Chinese defense policy.7 The implication of this quantitative analysis is that when regional multilateral organizations such as ASEAN+1 and the SCO choose to employ one of these ten phrases, they are accepting the Chinese connotations associated with the phrase in addition to the base definition of the word itself. Following the quantitative results, which demonstrate that SCO documents have dramatically higher rates of identified key phrases, a qualitative review of corresponding passages is employed to support the initial findings.

This analysis overwhelmingly supports the hypothesis that Chinese foreign policy objectives shape official SCO doctrine far more than ASEAN+1 doctrine. Key phrases such as good neighbor (睦邻, mulin), harmony (和谐 , hexie), and separatism (分裂主义, fenlie zhuyi), occur at dramatically higher rates in SCO treaties than in ASEAN+1 treaties, despite the fact that the selected documents were written within months of one another and address relatively similar objectives. Further qualitative analysis reveals that these phrases are associated with politically sensitive topics, such as countering Western influence in Asia, collective regional security, and domestic separatism within the PRC—thus incentivizing China to frame these issues in a way that is favorable to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The SCO's decision to utilize nearly identical language to official PRC defense white papers clearly demonstrates that CCP foreign policy objectives play an outsized role in determining SCO priorities. Therefore, it is apparent that the PRC is able to leverage its influence on the SCO to ensure that sensitive issues are framed in line with CCP objectives.

Historical Overview

The PRC has pursued multiple strategies for global engagement since the state's initial founding in 1949. Maoist China, characterized by isolationism and its relative pariah status within the international community, rarely engaged with foreign powers. This provided a critical window of opportunity for the United States to develop alliances with states throughout the Pacific, and for the original founding states of ASEAN (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand) to form a collective security organization in part based on resisting communism's spread.8 Throughout China's isolationist period and Deng Xiaoping's tenure, present-day Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were still governed by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Therefore, the United States and other Western nations were able to exert little, if any, substantive influence on the region.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, newly independent Central Asian states had not yet been brought into the West's sphere of influence. This provided the PRC with a window of opportunity to engage with the region prior to the entry of any other geo-political power. In April of 1996, the Shanghai Five was founded by the People's Republic of China, the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Russian Federation, and the Republic of Tajikistan to demilitarize and clearly delineate borders within Central Asia. This initial multilateral engagement represented a crucial first step for the PRC to engage meaningfully with its newly formed neighbors. Due to the relative success of the Shanghai Five, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was subsequently founded in June 2001 by members of the Shanghai Five and the Republic of Uzbekistan.9 The SCO is unique in that the relatively recent emergence of a distinct Central Asian political region allowed post-reform China to shape the structure of the SCO in a way that inherently favors a Chinese view of international organizations. This view is best exhibited by the PRC's New Security Concept, a 2002 document outlining China's vision of regional and international security in the 21st century. The New Security Concept is rooted in five key tenets which state that states should:

  1. Cooperate on the basis on the UN Charter, the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, and other widely accepted norms.
  2. Resolve territorial disputes through peaceful negotiation.
  3. Reform and improve existing international economic and international financial institutions for mutual benefit and common development.
  4. Place emphasis on non-traditional security threats such as terrorism and transnational crime. Oppose foreign invasion and safeguard territorial integrity.
  5. Promote disarmament, the elimination of WMD, and adhere to non-proliferation standards.10

Significant academic debate surrounds China's relative influence within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In part, this debate stems from the fact that the charter of the SCO emphasizes equality among member states regardless of the relative power of the state in question.11

ASEAN was founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. ASEAN's initial key objectives were to resist the spread of communism and accelerate economic growth among member countries. The remaining member states: Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia ascended between 1984 and 1999 as the Cold War thawed. In sharp contrast with the SCO, ASEAN's organizational framework was in place decades before all member states reinstituted diplomatic relations with the PRC. Therefore, though the SCO and ASEAN have relatively similar aims of regional security cooperation and economic empowerment, the creation of rules of engagement prior to instating diplomatic ties with the PRC and absence of a hegemon within ASEAN create a notably different dynamic between the two regional organizations. ASEAN's nearly fifty-year history has enabled the organization to build relatively robust institutions capable of translating ministerial-level decisions to operational action. Additionally, ASEAN's historic ties with the West also provide an interesting point of comparison. From ASEAN's founding until the early 1990s, ASEAN member states enjoyed the support of America's military to protect its territorial claims and aid its suppression of internal communist factions. However, with the end of the Cold War, American military aid to organizations such as ASEAN decreased, creating a relative power vacuum within the region.12 With this shift, China-ASEAN relations have grown; in fact, China's active participation in Sino-ASEAN bilateral dialogues and the ASEAN Regional Forum (a regional dialogue that includes ASEAN nations as well as China, the United States, Japan, and South Korea, among others) has closely mirrored its rate of overall engagement levels with other international organizations.13 By 1991, all ASEAN nations had normalized relations with China, thus laying the groundwork for the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum and additional ASEAN+1 engagement. As such, ASEAN+1 treaties and documents have been selected as a comparative case to analyze the PRC's influence on the SCO.

Current Political Landscape

Today, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and ASEAN are at relatively divergent points within their organizational life-cycle. The SCO is undoubtedly on a trajectory of organizational growth, adding India and Pakistan as member states in June 2016. With this expansion of their mandate, the organization is now better positioned to address the severe economic needs of relatively resourcerich but industrially under-developed member states, such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Since its founding, the SCO has been characterized by the stark dividing line between SCO states with regional hegemon aspirations, such as China and Russia, and smaller member states such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that do not have the political or economic capital to substantively alter the relatively stagnant post-Soviet geo-political landscape of Central Asia. In contrast to multilateral organizations such as ASEAN that also seek to strengthen member states' domestic institutions, SCO treaties and agreements remain focused on either promoting broad-based regional economic growth or collective action against non-state actor security risks, such as transnational terrorist threats. However, there is still much room for institutional diversification and strengthening, and the expansion of operational-level initiatives. Though the SCO will host international cultural symposiums and annual ministerial-level meetings, there is little evidence of organizational initiatives tricking down to an operational level and altering the status quo within any member states' domestic operating procedures.

In contrast, no clear regional hegemon exists among the ASEAN member states. Though industrialization and economic modernization in Southeast Asia has been well underway throughout the organization's existence, as time has progressed, ASEAN has attempted to remain relevant and serve as a conduit to foster agreement on relatively complex economic and political issues. ASEAN member states have diligently worked to adopt policies encouraging regional integration, such as a free trade zone among all member countries. Additionally, the organization has sought to diversify the range of issues addressed by ASEAN, devoting resources to distinct initiatives designed to improve regional human rights, humanitarian assistance, and raise the standard of living for all individuals residing in ASEAN member states.14 Undoubtedly, ASEAN's long-standing institutional history, demonstrated capacity to address regional issues, and relative success integrating Southeast Asia's economy has enabled the organization to grow and diversify. Despite this relative organizational success, Southeast Asian member countries are facing notable geopolitical challenges. China's increased bellicose action in the South China Sea, Cambodia's continued advocacy for Chinese positions within ASEAN internal discussions, and Duterte's recent ascension to to the Philippine's presidency have contributed to international speculation of factionalism emerging within the region. Some have begun to question if ASEAN's nearly fifty-year history of successful multilateral engagement is threatened by an increasingly assertive China. Though the PRC is in no means an official member of ASEAN, its interests and policies remain a large shadow over the comparatively smaller ASEAN states.

Literature Review

The People's Republic of China's Regional Security Objectives

Through a review of China's stated regional security goals and previous scholarly analyses of China's influence on the SCO and ASEAN, a greater understanding of the PRC's influence on the SCO can be gained.

In order to ascertain whether or not the PRC is successfully influencing the SCO to adopt policy positions favorable to China, it is important to understand what China's regional security objectives are. China's regional security goals are well documented throughout its biennial white papers issued under the title China's National Defense. A cursory review of the papers issued from 2000 to 2015 reveal five key reappearing policy priorities relevant to an analysis of regional multilateral security organizations.15 This analysis will focus on these five regional security objectives that appear within SCO and ASEAN+1 treaties and documents:

  1. Maintaining regional stability within Asia
  2. Championing the "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence"
  3. Countering Western influence within the region
  4. Obtaining "regional hegemon" status, especially in the maritime arena
  5. Eliminating separatism, extremism, and terrorism within China's borders

Maintaining regional stability within Asia is undoubtedly a key priority of the PRC. In the latest white paper, PRC officials write that, "a prosperous and stable world would provide China with opportunities," underscoring the country's commitment to collective development among regional partners.16 Additionally, China pledges adherence to the "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence" in every defense strategy issued from 2000 to 2010, and alludes to it in the 2015 strategy. These principles champion non-interference on all levels—internal matters, issues of sovereignty, and territorial integrity.17

China's commitment to countering Western influence within the region is both recurrent and thinly veiled. In 2015, CCP leaders wrote, "China will… pursue an independent foreign policy of peace and a national defense policy that is defensive in nature, [and] oppose hegemonism and power politics in all forms."18 However, the PRC's own attempts to attain regional hegemonism, especially within the maritime arena, are readily apparent. PRC depictions of rival territorial claims to disputed zones within the South China Sea are especially bellicose. PRC leadership in China's National Defense in 2015 writes:

On the issues concerning China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some of its offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China's reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied…It is thus a long-standing task for China to safeguard its maritime rights and interests.19

This intense focus on safe-guarding China's regional hegemonism is coupled with the PRC's determination to eliminate domestic terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Combatting the terrorism, separatism, and extremism (also referred to as "three evils") is a heavily prioritized objective in all of China's defense strategies issued from 2000 to 2015. In the most recent strategy, these three evils are categorized as "rampant threats."20

Analysis of China's Influence on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

The successful chartering of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was largely a result of Chinese diplomatic initiatives in Central Asia. The PRC, realizing that the Shanghai Five was limited by its concrete objectives of resolving border disputes, saw an opportunity to expand the initial collective to a more robust, formalized international organization. Given the PRC's active role in the SCO's creation, many onlookers have viewed the SCO as an instrument for the PRC to advance their own foreign policy objectives within Central Asia.

The PRC's decision to proactively forge multilateral ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a departure from the PRC's status quo in the 1990s of avoiding formalized multilateral commitments when possible.21 This has Bates Gill, among others, to speculate that China's engagement with the SCO was not representative of the country embracing multilateral norms, but rather a calculated move to advance China's interests in Central Asia.22 Wu Guoguang and Helen Lansdowne posit that China's embrace of multilateralism within Central Asia is indicative of the PRC's goal (first outlined in the 2002 New Security Concept White Paper) to engender multipolarity within the international system and counter potential Western influence in Central Asia.23 Chien-peng Chung outlines a similar rationale for the PRC's decision multilaterally engage with Central Asia. He attributes China's engagement with the SCO to their attempts to pilot a form of "new regionalism" based on partnerships rather than alliances.24 Wu and Lansdowne, Gill, and Chung all utilize a qualitative approach, relying upon their own readings of PRC and SCO strategies to reach these conclusions. Joel Wuthnow et. al concludes that China is likely to select "high engagement" and "institution shaping" postures that allow the PRC to engage in multilateral interactions that are not only accepted by the international community, but also allow it to advance its own policy priorities.25

In contrast to the Wu and Lansdowne, Gill, and Chung, CCP-aligned scholars wholly reject the assertion that the SCO is an instrument for China to advance its objectives within the region. Zhao Huasheng, Professor and Director for the Center of Russian and Central Asian Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, writes:

China helps maintain the political balance and coordinate member countries' interests. China cares about maintaining equality in the SCO, especially between large countries and small ones. When dealing with internal problems, China tries to avoid exerting pressure and consults with other member countries to reach consensus. These measures strengthen the solidarity of the SCO.26

Zhao's view, representative of the CCP's general response to allegations of exerting undue influence on the SCO's policies, highlights the PRC's belief that the SCO is ultimately a consensus-building organization. Zhang Yunling, Director of International Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also emphasizes that SCO-led initiatives, such as the recent "One Belt, One Road" economic project, are not created solely to benefit the PRC. Rather, he insists that theses initiatives equally benefit all member countries.27 The emphasis on equality between larger and smaller states directly contradicts Wu and Lansdowne, Gill, Wuthnow, and Chung's readings of China's influence on the SCO.

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