In Other Words

Catching the Shanghai Spirit

Journal of Social Sciences, No. 12, December 2003, Shanghai.

Four years after the Soviet Union’s implosion, China and its new neighbors — Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, and Tajikistan — united to negotiate their new borders in a coalition called the "Shanghai Five." The process culminated in 1996 and 1997 with treaties demarcating and demilitarizing the roughly 4,300-mile border China shares with the other members. The group soon cooperated on security and trade as well and, with the addition of Uzbekistan in 2001, officially became known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The SCO’s subsequent accomplishments include two combined military exercises, the creation of the Regional Antiterrorism Structure in Uzbekistan, and cooperation on border, law enforcement, and economic matters. In January 2004, the SCO officially opened its new Beijing headquarters with 30 staffers and an annual budget of $3.5 million.

These achievements represent a remarkable success for Chinese diplomacy and a potential boon for security and stability in Central Asia. However, the SCO is as much about practical cooperation on security threats as it is about China’s larger regional and global goals. Pan Guang of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences explains as much in his excellent article, "The SCO and the Shanghai Spirit," from the academy’s Journal of Social Sciences.

Pan, a leading Chinese expert on Central Asia, Russia, and the Middle East, describes the evolution of and thinking behind the SCO, from its beginnings in the Chinese-Russian rapprochement to its significance for China, Central Asia, and global security. Pan’s most important contribution is his explanation of how the "Shanghai Spirit" — principles of mutual trust, benefit, and equality underpinning the Shanghai Five process and the SCO — derives from China’s own New Security Concept (NSC), which has outlined the country’s foreign policy priorities since its introduction in 1997. The NSC is itself an advancement of the vaunted theories of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and China’s long-standing "Five Principles of Peaceful Cooperation," which include mutual nonaggression, noninterference in internal affairs, and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The NSC has always been more theoretical than practical in the eyes of most Western observers. However, Pan details clearly how China’s diplomacy with its neighbors and role in creating the SCO put the NSC into action. According to Pan, the SCO has successfully fostered stability along China’s western and northern borders and helped fight terrorism, extremism, and separatism in Central Asia and China — particularly by helping China cut off external support for its restive Uighur minority in the northwest province of Xinjiang. "The Shanghai Spirit and SCO, which advocates good-neighborliness, peace, and development, plays a stabilizing role that is very important to Central Asia," writes Pan. Although evidence on this last point is dubious, the SCO may indeed bring stability to this volatile region by helping members organize their resources or, at the very least, by showing that cooperation beats competition.

Some analysts in the United States, particularly those still trapped in a Cold War mentality, believe the SCO is an attempt to limit Washington’s influence in Central Asia. U.S. policy toward the SCO remains ambivalent, lacking a comprehensive or vocal response. Yet, as China’s first attempt at shaping a new international system, the SCO reveals much about China’s plans to engage the world in the coming years. The shape of China’s future foreign policy remains unclear, but if the SCO is any guide, a highly pragmatic and interest-driven policy — not an ideological one — could be on the horizon.

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