Autocratic peace and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

Author: Andy Yee, Hong Kong

In June 2011, Astana, Kazakhstan will host the jubilee summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

Over the past 10 years, the SCO has institutionalised economic, political and security cooperation among its members. Western countries have watched the organisation with growing concern. In 2005, the US was denied observer status in the SCO. In March this year, US officials again expressed interest in greater engagement with the organisation.

The rapid development of the SCO represents a major challenge to Western norms of political development and international cooperation. Its success as a multilateral organisation provides support for the notion of ‘autocratic peace.’ Where democratic peace theory posits that democracies do not go to war against each other, autocratic peace theory holds the same for autocracies. This implies that it is not the political features of democracy that are important for peace, but rather the shared preferences for stability that stem from similarities in regime type. This kind of peace provides de facto legitimacy for authoritarianism, and, by extension, suggests an alternative to Western norms of universal values and democracy promotion.

The SCO’s organisational ideology rests upon two sets of non-provocative norms, the ‘Shanghai Spirit,’ and the ‘Beijing Consensus.’ The Shanghai spirit is based ‘on the principles of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equal rights, consultations, respect for diversity of culture and aspiration towards common development.’ The ‘Beijing Consensus’ promotes economic development without attached political conditions. This allows autocracies all the benefits of energy, infrastructure, and investment without the pressures of democratisation and market liberalisation. Last year, China granted $10 billion in loans to SCO nations, and proposed contributing $8 billion to establish a SCO Development Bank to promote multilateral economic cooperation.

The New York-based group, Human Rights in China, recently expressed concern over the challenge posed by the SCO to Western norms. In a new white paper, Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights: The Impact of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it calls to attention the SCO’s problematic approach to counter-terrorism. The paper argues that the doctrine (modelled on China’s ‘Three Evils’ doctrine of terrorism, extremism and separatism) often ‘acted as cover for suppression’ of ‘legitimate opposition groups and the cutting-off of trans-regional ties between them.’ The broad definition of terrorism in the doctrine also enables SCO states to ‘criminalise legitimate expressions of political and religious beliefs’.

Revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan between 2003 and 2005 highlighted the political value of the SCO in providing a support structure for members to rely on in legitimising their regimes. In 2005, China provided support to Uzbekistan in cracking down on separatist revolts in Andijan. For Uzbekistan, Chinese support gave protection against further uprising and Western interference. For China, a successful crackdown in Uzbekistan lowered the chances of revolution spreading to Uyghur extremists in China’s northwest.

The political value of the SCO was again demonstrated shortly after China’s crackdown on the July 2009 ethnic riots in Xinjiang. The SCO’s Secretary General issued a statement which made clear that Xinjiang was an inalienable part of China, and that the Chinese government was taking measures in accordance with its law to restore peace and order in a situation of purely internal affairs. This was rare and valuable public support in the face of Western criticism.

Despite these gestures of support, behind the veil of autocratic peace lie the incoherence and instability characteristic of single party regimes and dictatorships. The desire for stability and the fear of popular uprising are constants in these regimes, hence shared values and ideology will often come second to the desire for self-preservation. As such, the SCO could lack stability in times of difficulty.

A case in point is the refusal of the SCO to support Russia’s push for recognition of breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, after Russia’s war with Georgia in August 2008. In particular, China is concerned that recognising these secessionist moves would stimulate similar demands for autonomy in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The contrast between this scenario, and the SCO’s immediate support for China’s 2009 crackdown in Xinjiang highlights the strategic competition between China and Russia that underlies the organisation. While they are bound together by their enmity toward the US in Central Asia, they remain suspicious of each other. In particular, a declining Russia is concerned about China’s long-term ambitions in Central Asia, where it has long dominated.

Ultimately, the SCO is a structure in which the two powers manage their tensions, with smaller states balancing their interests against those of the powers. Russia is interested in developing the SCO as a geopolitical counterweight to the US and NATO, and using it as a vessel to shape Chinese thinking and maintain influence in the region. China, alternatively, is concerned with using the organisation to combat Islamic extremism and expand its economic and soft power in Central Asia.

This is why Quentin Peel of the Financial Times described the SCO as a ‘dog that does not bark’. It is an alliance of convenience that ‘masks very different ambitions between Russia and China’. For example, in 2002 China proposed that the SCO be made into a free-trade zone. This proposal was rejected by Russia on the basis of different levels of economic development. Smaller states such as Kazakhstan also fear that they would be turned into Chinese economic protectorates.

As the role and geographical scope of the SCO remain in flux, it is still too early to determine if it will develop into a formal security community or alliance. But, the question may be irrelevant. The SCO’s member states know the limitations of autocratic peace. Institutional instability, nepotism, corruption, and a lack of rule of law will make further cooperation difficult in the long term. This implies that the SCO is not necessarily dedicated to promoting anti-Western values and authoritarianism. Its underlying logic is different to that of other multilateral organisations. Regardless of its future direction, though, there can be no doubt that, as relative power shifts from West to East, the SCO will assume a greater role in international politics.

Andy Yee is a writer and translator based in Hong Kong. Educated at SOAS and Cambridge University, he has worked at the Political Section of the EU Delegation to China in Beijing. He blogs at Global Voices Online and China Geeks.