SCO shows the limits of Chinese-style international organizations

Andrei Lungu | 28 September 2022

As Chinese President Xi Jinping reemerged on the diplomatic world stage at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, this month after almost three years of pandemic isolation, border skirmishes were breaking out between two other members of the group only about 200 kilometers away.

Although the clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan resulted in nearly 100 deaths, Xi made no public comment about the conflict.

The SCO is supposed to be a security organization to ensure regional peace and stability. That two member states would come to blows during the long-awaited face-to-face summit shows the limits both of the group and of Beijing’s approach to international organizations in general.

The SCO today can boast that its members represent more than 40% of the world population. More states continuously seek to join, with Iran now set to be the next full member. But the group has very little impact on its members, let alone the world.

While Beijing may claim the SCO has helped it to prevent terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, its northwestern region that abuts three Central Asian members of the group and whose Muslim inhabitants share cross-border ethnic and religious ties, it is unclear whether the organization itself really has been a factor.

Still, for Beijing, the SCO serves another simple but important political purpose. It is meant to be proof, both at home and abroad, of the success and appeal of Beijing’s vision for international relations.

This involves organizations and multilateral diplomacy with Chinese characteristics: fluid, vague, open, nonbinding groupings, unlike Western organizations such as NATO and the EU.

For Beijing, the fact that its organizations are little more than talk shops is not a bug, but a feature. These groups are not meant to tie China into military alliances or to involve handing over powers to supranational bureaucracies. They are meant only to create the image of successful Chinese diplomacy and of Beijing’s ability to bring countries together.

And bring them together it does, at least for a group photo.

The SCO’s three most populous members — China, India and Pakistan — have a long history of bloody confrontations, including very recent ones. China-India and India-Pakistan relations are primarily driven by their border disputes and their rivalries, but somehow they are all happy members of the group, just like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.


This article has been previously published in Nikkei Asia. You can read the full article on Nikkei Asia’s website.

Photo Credits: Flickr/MEAphotogallery


Andrei Lungu​

Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

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