Ten years on and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) remains a work in progress. It has achieved much in its short life, but its hesitation in resolving unrest in Kyrgyzstan last year and its ongoing inability to contribute much to improve stability in neighbouring Afghanistan have shown the limits of its power. All of these raises questions about the grouping’s aims and hopes for the next decade.
China is increasingly becoming a force in Central Asia, a predominantly Russo-Turkic region. On the ground, it is still possible to find expressions of tension towards China, but, nevertheless, growing numbers of Central Asian families are electing to send their children to China to study. From Kazakhstan alone, there are some 1,600 students now in Chinese universities; Shanghai has 800 students from Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, numbers electing to go to the West are shrinking.
Studying in China, especially in Shanghai, is an affordable and increasingly enticing prospect – hitching your star from a young age to China’s is savvy and offers interesting prospects. Elements of a “Chinese dream” are starting to emerge, appealing to not just Chinese youth, but also those from around the developing world.
And this vision is something that China has been eager to nurture. Xinjiang Normal University says it trained some 3,000 students in 2009 at its Confucius Institutes in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (two of six in Central Asia; the other four are in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan). In parallel, Beijing has also encouraged the development of the SCO University, a network of some 56 universities across member states that will help pool knowledge as well as train the next generation of SCO leaders mindful of their regional heritage.
China’s reasons for this interest are not, of course, entirely altruistic. It shares a border with the Central Asian states of over 3,000 kilometers and, since the Qing dynasty unification of China in 1759, the region has been the source of at least two dozen major disturbances in China’s western provinces. In some cases, this has expressed itself in the form of Islamist inspired violence, like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, elements of which are believed to have trained in the past with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Rioting regionally often has an ethnic flavour; communities involved are also present in China. More recent troubles have stemmed from the high volume of drugs flowing through the region from Afghanistan and other regional producers.
Beyond security, Beijing also sees opportunity in Central Asia. The region is rich in raw materials and hydrocarbons, something China’s 9 per cent annual growth needs to maintain its vigour. And Central Asian states need China’s cheap products and capacity to build large infrastructure projects. Water treatment systems in Uzbekistan, electricity grids in Kyrgyzstan and a high-speed rail link between Astana and Almaty are merely some of the projects being carried out by Chinese contractors.
At a strategic level, Beijing sees the development of the region as a way to turn it once again into a key route from East to West and a land bridge between Asia and Europe. All of this shows why China is so eager to see the SCO function as an effective regional actor.
Developing the grouping as a security actor also helps assuage broader Chinese strategic security concerns. Elements in the Chinese security establishment continue to fear NATO expansion, and see a gradual American encirclement with US forces in Japan, South Korea, Afghanistan (and parts of Pakistan), while American ally India completes the circle on their southern border. The development of a Chinese-instigated security alliance to the west provides China with a growing degree of influence over regional security decisions.
But what does China want for the future? Beijing hopes to build on the first decade of the SCO to deepen “three goods” in the region – “good neighbours, good partners and good friends”. The aim is to ensure the best interests both of China and the Central Asian states, and to create a genuine “community of interests”. But these parameters need to be pushed to make the SCO a more capable actor in reacting to large-scale regional problems.
The SCO is fundamentally a Chinese creation, albeit one that uses the language of communal decision-making. To alter the balance of this statement, China needs to find ways of strengthening its soft-power capacity in the region. The grouping needs to find further ways of showing it is working as an effective organization beyond the large-scale annual joint training exercises. Ultimately, these missions are only of use if they translate into joint operations to deal with the very serious security threats that exist in the SCO’s neighborhood.
The time of Great Games in Central Asia is now over. Learning this, China has taken a holistic approach to the region using the SCO as its key vehicle for engagement. As we pass the first decade of its life, we can see that the story so far has been one of gradual growth. By using the SCO and language of communal interests, China has managed to gradually ingratiate itself with the region and advance its cause without overpowering others. For the next 10 years, look to see much of the same.
Lifan Li is a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) and Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at SASS and a China programme associate at the European Council on Foreign Relations
Originally appeared on South China Morning Post, reprinted with the author’s permission.