The Dictator’s Club is the term often given by some commentators in the West to refer to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. This is a IGO representing primarily European and Asian States. So, why was it formed and what is its purpose on the international stage?
What are the origins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?
In 1996 the Shanghai Five group was created after an international agreement was signed by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The countries agreed to cooperate in military matters due to their shared borders and security concerns. At the time of the formation there was much instability in the central Eurasian regions and tackling separatism was a significant aim of the organisation. Annual summits of the organisation took place between 1998 and 2000 and a number of agreements were reached between members.
In particular, the signatories agreed that outside interference in their sovereign territory on the pretext of ‘humanitarian intervention’ was unacceptable. This was a clear response to the growing western concept of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ that had seen interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone amongst other places. In 2001 Uzbekistan joined the organisation, making it the Shanghai Six and subsequently they all signed the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement and therefore created the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
How is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation administered?
The key executive body of the organisation is the Council of Heads of State. They meet at the summits which are held each year and are hosted by one of the member states. In addition, the Council of Foreign Ministers meet regularly and often do so on an ad hoc basis to act on emerging situations. There is also a permanent secretariat (civil service) which is based in Beijing. The management of the secretariat rotates between different member states. It is currently back to being held by China having previously rotated amongst the other members.
The Charter of the SCO lays out its main goals. These are:
- To strengthen mutual trust, friendship and good neighbourliness between the member States;
- To consolidate multidisciplinary cooperation in the maintenance and strengthening of peace, security and stability in the region and promotion of a new democratic, fair and rational political and economic international order;
- To jointly counteract terrorism, separatism and extremism in all their manifestations, to fight against illicit narcotics and arms trafficking and other types of criminal activity of a transnational character, and also illegal migration;
- To encourage the efficient regional cooperation in such spheres as politics, trade and economy, defense, law enforcement, environment protection, culture, science and technology, education, energy, transport, credit and finance, and also other spheres of common interest;
- To facilitate comprehensive and balanced economic growth, social and cultural development in the region through joint action on the basis of equal partnership for the purpose of a steady increase of living standards and improvement of living conditions of the peoples of the member States;
- To coordinate approaches to integration into the global economy;
- To promote human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with the international obligations of the member States and their national legislation;
- To maintain and develop relations with other States and international organisations;
- To cooperate in the prevention of international conflicts and in their peaceful settlement;
- To jointly search for solutions to the problems that would arise in the 21st century
What kind of issues has the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation acted on?
Since its formation, there have been a number of issues that the cooperated on. Some examples include:
- Agreements to cooperate on crime and drug trafficking.
- Agreements to stop terrorism. In 2004 the organisation created RATS (Regional Anti-Terrorism Office) and this organisation has prevented over 500 potential terrorist attacks.
- Working together to develop cyberwarfare technologies, including taking part in join cyber exercises.
- Creating intelligence sharing mechanisms.
- Taking part in shared military exercises. In 2018 India and Pakistan took part in military exercises alongside fellow members. Given the issues between the two states, this was a historic moment.
- A long-term plan to develop a free trade area, with specific agreements short of that already agreed. There have even been preliminary discussions about the creation of a currency union.
How has the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation grown?
The organisation has now grown beyond the original six members. Firstly, in June 2017 India and Pakistan joined. In addition, Iran and Belarus are now both in the process of joining. There are also countries who have formal relationships with the SCO.
Observer States: Afghanistan, Belarus, Mongolia
Official Dialogue Partners: Sri Lanka, Turkey, Cambodia, Azerbaijan, Nepal, Armenia, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
Interestingly, with Turkey having dialogue status, there is an increasing possibility that it may see membership of the SCO as an alternative to membership of the EU which is still appears to be a long way of achieving. Indeed, President Erdogan announced on the 17th September 2022 that he would pursue full membership of the SCO.
How has the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation interacted with other IGOs?
The relationship between the SCO and other IGOs and individual states has often been difficult. Whilst it has allowed the UN guest attendance at conferences, it has banded together within the UN to protect its members. For example, in July 2019 five of the eight members signed a joint letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council defending China against widespread international criticisms of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Four of the eight also supported the Hong Kong national security law at the UN which would allow crackdowns on pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong.
The relationship between the SCO and the US has also been tricky. In 2005 the US applied for observer status but this was predictably rejected. However, the rejection confirmed the view that the group was fundamentally an anti-western alliance.
Why is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation important at the moment?
At the present time the SCO seems to be more important than ever. Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 Russia has become an international pariah whilst China has become increasingly criticised by the international community for its mistreatment of the Uighur Muslims in China and its threats towards Taiwan.
At the most recent SCO summit in Uzbekistan Presidents Putin and Xi held detailed meetings. In their previous meeting in February 2022 Putin and Xi and railed against the US and the West. They even released a 5,000 word join statement that called for a ‘transformation of the global governance architecture and world order’. However, since then, Russia has launched a war in Ukraine in which its military forces are strategically exhausted. This leaves President Xi in a difficult position. If Russia is defeated it will strengthen the western liberal order, however, his support for Putin has to be somewhat lukewarm in order to avoid the risk of falling within the purview of sanctions aimed at Russia and its allies. Over the next few months, as Putin’s war looks increasingly likely to continue to falter, how President Xi positions himself will be fascinating to watch.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is often called the Dictator’s Club due to its dominance by states with a strong presidential system and illiberal democracies. The SCO provides a mechanism for China and Russia to try to increase its global influence. With neither being members of the G7, it provides a forum for cooperation on economic matters. Ultimately, the SCO is a burgeoning Eurasian equivalent of the EU. The recent decision of President Erdogan of Turkey in September 2022 to seemingly abandon hopes to join the EU and announce plans to join the SCO is geopolitically significant.
Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – An international IGO made up of Eurasian countries and dominated by China and Russia.
IGO – Intergovernmental Organisation.
Shanghai Five – The original looser agreement of states that was the forerunner of the SCO.
Humanitarian Intervention – The intervention in the affairs of another state, particularly militarily, based on humanitarian concerns.
Responsibility to Protect – A doctrine developed in the West in the early 2000s that argues that developed states have not just a moral duty, but a legal mandate, to intervene in another state to protect against persecution.
Secretariat – The civil service of an international organisation.
United Nations Human Rights Council – A body of the United Nations that exists to protect Human Rights across the globe.