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Foreign Policy

Chinese Interest in the SCO Space

Oct 07, 2021
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general , Center of SCO Studies

Iran’s application to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization received a positive response at the SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar were accepted as dialogue partners. The SCO space has thus extended to West Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and northeastern Africa.

Since SCO members are non-NATO countries, and some of them have tense relations with the United States, the media in the United Kingdom, U.S., Germany and France describe it as a tool for China and Russia to counter the U.S. Meanwhile, the U.S., UK and Australia just announced a high-profile trilateral security partnership covering the Indo-Pacific, attempting to deter China via defense cooperation.

When prejudices take the place of reason, countries preaching the so-called China threat always try to find excuses for their behavior to prove their actions are legitimate. For China, supporting expansion of the SCO space is a risky decision. Because the SCO’s second expansion is contemplated at time when major-power politics are in a state of “cold peace,” only time will tell if it’s a good idea. However, no matter what the outcomes are, China needs to actively pursue its own interests in the SCO space. Guaranteeing stable expectations for its security interests is most important.   

SCO crucial to China 

The SCO space has become an important platform for China to correct the unbalanced global order. Over the past 20 years, China’s relations with SCO members have generally been stable, and it has established various levels of strategic partnerships with other members. To further consolidate the stability of the SCO space, China chose what it is good at — seeking peace and stability through economic development.

China proposed at the Dushanbe summit that trade among SCO countries should reach $2.3 trillion in the next five years. At the same time, China has adopted the model of open cooperation, seeking to dovetail the Belt and Road Initiative with member countries’ national development strategies and regional cooperation initiatives in the SCO space. More important, China has become the world’s largest energy importer. When Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar establish different levels of relations under the SCO framework, the SCO space will become the most important source of petroleum and natural gas for China. It is thus of essential significance for China to seek stable security expectation via the SCO space. 

Challenges in SCO space 

Though the SCO space is strategically important to China, to achieve stability in strategic interests it has to face various challenges. Among those, SCO rules of procedure and pressure from the international system are the most outstanding internal and external factors. Under its present institutional arrangement, the SCO follows a rule of “consultation-based consensus,” which is conducive to improving decision-making efficiency but will also reduce the practical value of decisions made. Therefore, as the SCO admits more members, the existing rules of procedure will worsen such problems as inefficient institutional operations, the short supply of regional public goods and the high cost and low benefits of cooperation.

Against the backdrop of an unbalanced global order, pressures from the international system are the most direct external pressures on the SCO space and are directly reflected in the China-U.S.-Russia relationship. China is both the initiator and a member of the SCO, so as China-U.S. competition escalates, the two countries find themselves in a serious confrontational posture on many significant issues. Following NATO’s eastward expansion, there have been troubles in Russia-U.S. ties, too, with the Ukraine crisis in 2014 sending their relations to a historical nadir. Considering current China-U.S.-Russia relations, the majority of SCO member countries are more inclined to adopt a risk-dodging strategy. Thus, China’s route for pursuing its own security interests via the SCO is narrow. 

Maintaining strategic reason 

Despite various challenges, it is important for China’s future development to actively pursue stable security expectations in the SCO space, because the more stable expectations are, the more conducive it will be to China’s development. Taking into account the present situation and future of the SCO, maintaining strategic reason is the foremost precondition for China to seek stability in its expected security interests within the SCO space. Maintaining strategic reason is a matter of systemic engineering, which needs to proceed from historical experience, relations with the rest of the world and the country’s future development. The following are indispensable:

Strategic positioning needs proper deliberation. A fine goal doesn’t necessarily mean the path to it is reasonable, because decision-makers may deem paths they dislike as unsuitable and hence influence people’s judgment. Moreover, no international mechanism is perfect. Even among SCO members there are confrontational relations. It is thus important to understand Chinese interests inside the SCO space according to the objective rules of historical development to avoid exaggerating the functions of the SCO space. Instead, there has to be a clear understanding of the limits of collective action.

Attention must be paid to rallying strategic policies. China will find it very difficult to realize its interests in the SCO space all on its own. It will be subject to restrictions imposed by the interaction between and among actors within the space. For example, there have been two different understandings of the role of China-Russia relations in Eurasia. One frames the China-Russia relationship as an anti-West force in Eurasia, and another defines it as one conducive to stability and development in the region. But from the perspective of strategic reason, the latter is more in line with China’s interests. 

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