Earlier this month, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held one of its most important summits in years. The SCO faces the task of managing the instability engendered by the Arab Spring and the ongoing NATO military drawdown in Afghanistan. In addition, the organization has the potential to substantially shape the broader China-Russia relationship. Yet besides its traditional joint declarations and bilateral leadership meetings, the summit, which took place in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on Sept. 13-14, was noteworthy mainly for its limited achievements.
The most important participant was China’s new president, Xi Jinping, who was attending his first SCO summit. Xi reaffirmed China’s traditional faith in the “Shanghai Spirit” based on “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation [and] respect,” which the Chinese claim permeates the organization’s work and differentiates the SCO from other international institutions.
China has found the SCO to be a convenient instrument to reassure the other members about Beijing’s intentions in their region. Chinese diplomats take care to define their commercial and other deals with the individual states as occurring within a SCO framework that benefits all members. In this manner, Beijing seeks to expand its economic and other influence in Central Asia without directly challenging Russia’s predominance in the region, a vital one for Moscow, while assuaging worries in Central Asian countries regarding the potential for Chinese domination.