SCO Expansion as a Factor of Stability for Macro-Regional Order in Eurasia

Sergey Kuznetsov, School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University

Mikhail Lazarev, School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University

Olga Khovrina, School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University


The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) celebrated in 2021 its 20th anniversary by launching the official procedure of the SCO second enlargement. In this respect, it is advisable to conduct a piece of research on the way this regional international organization works in the context of structuring the Eurasian macro-regional order. Hence, it becomes necessary to assess the resilience of the SCO as an international organization and the impact of the organization's expansion on this parameter. From a theoretical point of view, it seems appropriate to use the theoretical legacy of the old and new institutionalism, the concepts of a macro region and a macro-regional order, veto players, and resilience.

The authors believe that with an increase in the number of SCO members, the Eurasian macro-regional order becomes more structured, but at the same time, the internal heterogeneity of the organization increases, which creates challenges in the future. The authors consider that SCO membership depends on the country's influence on the situation in the region or in the world, as well as its belonging to a non-Western bloc. In this regard, the conclusion has drawn that neither three of possible SCO members, namely Turkey, Mongolia, or Belarus, couldn’t attain the status of member States because of their position on the world arena. The Afghani membership, in its turn, depends on recognition of Taliban’s regime by the member-states, normalization of relations and the search for common interest with the non-western bloc.

Key words: SCO, SCO’s enlargement, macro-regional order, resilience, Eurasia

1. Essence and key features of the Eurasian macro-regional order

Before characterizing the macro-regional order in Eurasia and moving on to a detailed analysis of the issue, it is obligatory to define the world order and then by analogy macro-regional order. In the most general sense, the international order is understood as the basic system of rules, agreements and institutions that regulate relations between various international actors with the aim of maintaining international stability (Kissinger, 2015). H. Bull puts forward two terms at once that characterize order in the IR: international order (order among states) and world order (supplemented by order within states), both entities pursue the goal of stabilizing relations and maintaining peace within order, self-preservation and independence, as well as implementing common values. The balance of power is a guarantee of achieving the above-mentioned goals, since the international system is a set of political actors whose interaction is regular enough so that "the behavior of each was a necessary factor in the calculations of all others" (Mironov, 2011).

Additionally, B. Buzan and R. Little defined the international system as "large conglomerates of interacting or interdependent elements" (Buzan, Little, 2000). At the same time, the concepts of order and system are not identical to each other, since the system describes a set of interacting elements, while order is a set of norms developed in the process of this interaction, which received their documentary and institutional design (Dunaev, 2013). Hence, order is a legal form international system, which contributes to the initial resilience (the ability to overcome external destructive influences) and stability (the ability of the social system to suppress internal destructive influences) (Bogaturov, Kosolapov, Khrustalev, 2002) as well as security of the system and becomes obsolete over time and requires its revision based on the change in the balance of power.

In our case, the international system can be characterized as polycentric. Moreover, we can find the same processes within each subregion, where one can single out its own hegemon, or a contender for this status. Both, however, are subject to the strongest competitive challenge from outside, which makes it possible to form a polycentric macroregional order. In other words, the key variables shaping the macro-regional order are the balance of power and the balance of interests since they determine the motivation for the behavior of states and their elites in international relations.

And so far, after the end of the period of the Yalta-Potsdam world order, the existing world order has not been regulated (in accordance with the interests of the West and the United States, which did not abandon globalization in the wake of protectionism, but decided to revise it) and a completely new world order has not been formed, all countries and regions without exception, must propose a draft of their own vision of the new world order. The SCO is becoming one of the institutional pillars for this order at the macro-regional level. From this perspective, it is important to characterize Eurasia as an emerging political macro-region, as well as the goals and initiatives of the SCO.

In essence, macro-region, or international political region is a "tied to the territorial-economic and national-cultural complex, a regional set of phenomena united by a common structure and logic in such a way that this logic and the historical and geographical coordinates of its existence are interdependent" (Voskressenski, 2012).

Based on this definition, it seems possible to highlight the following key characteristics of Eurasia:

  • the largest region on the Earth (vastness of territory);
  • distinguishable regionalism associated with the geographical distance centers of power and each subregion peculiarity;
  • ethnic and confessional diversity (a blessing and a curse);
  • the relative youth of the nation-states, the predominance of modernity, and therefore a heightened perception of sovereignty;
  • pronounced imbalances in development;
  • the presence of several centers of power: Russia, China, India, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the European Union, as well as the United States (indirectly through allies);
  • high degree of actor’s competition;
  • the abundance of international institutions and the situation of cross-membership.

2. SCO: history, modern realities, and goals

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a regional international organization was established in 2001 in Shanghai by the leaders of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the basis of the previous format of negotiations between Russia and the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia on armaments and border settlement. Initially, the SCO was conceived as a multidisciplinary structure, the main pillars of which were three levels of cooperation:

  1. policy and security;
  2. trade and economic sphere;
  3. the field of development of cultural and humanitarian ties.

Currently, the organization includes 18 countries. The SCO member states are Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. As the current members officially declare, the organization is open for accession by states that "meet the criteria and conditions contained in the SCO regulatory documents and undertake to comply with the goals and principles of the SCO Charter as well as the provisions of other international treaties and documents of the Organization"[1]. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran (the accession procedure in these countries has been initiated) and Mongolia have the status of observers and, accordingly, of possible members. Previously India and Pakistan were observer countries.  Several countries have applied for observer status at the SCO: Syria, Egypt, Vietnam, Israel, Maldives, Bangladesh, Iraq, Bahrain and Qatar. The SCO dialogue partners are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Cambodia, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

The Charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization of June 7, 2002 regulates the fundamental goals, principles and directions of cooperation of the member countries of the organization (Articles 1, 2 and 3 of the Charter, respectively), as well as the procedure for its functioning and structure. They are reduced to ensuring stability and prosperity in the region, joint counteraction to key threats (terrorism, separatism, and extremism) based on the principle of equality, cooperation and mutual respect of the member States.

The SCO's activities can be analyzed from the standpoint of both formal and informal rules and norms. As noted in the Dushanbe Declaration, over the twenty years of its existence, the SCO has created stable mechanisms for interaction between members and partners of the organization and a complex system of governing bodies. Therefore, when studying the activities of the SCO, first of all, it is worth paying attention to the formalized practices of interaction in this association.

In general, an extensive network of cooperation has been established within the SCO[2], but in this paper we study only its most significant components in terms of the design of the macro-regional order in Eurasia. These components are consultative meetings of ministries and departments of the member countries (most significantly — in the field of scientific and technical partnership[3]), a number of SCO institutions (Interbank Association (IBO), Business Council (DS), SCO Energy Club, acting on the basis of a memorandum on its creation[4]), as well as framework documents of an infrastructure and regulatory cooperative nature, including:

  1. Agreement between the governments of the SCO member States on the creation of favorable conditions for International Road Transport. The agreement entered into force on January 20, 2017[5] (a document that aroused great practical interest) and negotiations on the Program for the Development of Highways of the SCO member states are actively held[6];
  2. The SCO Agreement on Cooperation in Customs Affairs of 2007[7];
  3. The SCO Development Strategy until 2025[8] and the Action Plan for its Implementation[9], which was signed in 2016 as part of the Tashkent Anniversary Summit;
  4. A set of initiatives in the field of international information security (Special Working Group on Modern Information and Telecommunication Technologies (SITT) and its project "SCO High-Speed Information Highway") (Krutskikh, 2013).

Nevertheless, there are still issues that are discussed at the level of countries’ representatives behind closed doors or in a bilateral format. First of all, these issues relate to risks that require secrecy in the fight against them, such as illegal drug trafficking passing through the territories of member countries. Consequently, it is justified to analyze such practices from the point of view of informal rules. In addition, in the decision-making process within the organization, it is possible to distinguish veto players, a term introduced by the neo-institutional school. The preservation or change of the status quo depends on the position of such actors.

Such behavior is possible due to the consensus decision-making mechanism and the imbalances between the parties to organization in terms of economic development level, political weight, and military power. So, within the framework of the SCO, Russia and China set the ideological direction and determine tactical steps for the rest of the member states. After India joined the SCO, the second largest country in the world with a rapidly developing economy, the number of veto players increased. It should also be noted that the other members of the organization tend to join one of the veto players, depending on their interests when making a certain decision.

3. The evolution of SCO priorities in the context of structuring the Eurasian macro-regional order

As an organization, the SCO is advisory and ideological in its nature (Spanger, 2016), although some its bodies deal with the issues of security and military cooperation. At the same time, the inclusion of India and Pakistan in the SCO following the Astana summit can theoretically work both to strengthen regional security and to weaken it, given the incomplete nature of the territorial disputes between Delhi and Islamabad[10]. This point is especially crucial, if we take into account the unique character of the consensus decision-making mechanism in the SCO which is presumed to be both the weakness and strength of the organization. Much in the Indian-Pakistani dimension will depend on the agreed position of Russia and China on the new members of the organization.

In the process of joint implementation of the Belt and Road initiative, it became clear that the full-scale development of the SCO plays an important role of a mechanism of its promotion[11]. However, this concept is developing along two tracks, namely: economic and military modernization (Alimov, 2019), turning it into an additional supporting element of the system for maintaining global strategic stability in the presence of four leading Eurasian nuclear powers in its ranks, as well as a source of disagreement, since military modernization is important for Russia and India while economic modernization is important for China. With the start of the procedure for Iran's admission to the SCO at the Tashkent summit, the range of these problems and costs can be expanded to this track of the organization's development. In other words, the impact of these events on the stability of the organization itself and the macro-regional order in Eurasia should be assessed.

The fundamental challenge of development is to ensure not competition, but rather the synergy of various institutions, organizations, initiatives and projects in Eurasia, which meets the interests of all the powers of the continent[12]. This requires its own financing, which should be carried out by the Development Bank and the SCO Development Fund, but in fact there is no platform for financing the SCO's own projects, since there is no consensus (Denisov, Safranchuk, 2016). However, there is a banking consortium of the SCO, most of the projects financed by the consortium are implemented mainly on a bilateral basis, in which the EDB participates (Alimov, 2017), which never became the SCO Bank.

Considering the SCO institution as a system that ensures order on the territory of the region, one of the most important parameters of the functioning and integrity of the organization is stability. Within the framework of the SCO institution, sustainability is an opportunity to realize the interests and ensure the security of the member states, through effective interaction, as well as adapt to new conditions. These challenges include the previously mentioned uncertainty in financing SCO initiatives, the dichotomy of military and economic modernization of the organization, as well as the rise to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which could accelerate Iran's admission to the SCO, since it is the only large country in the region that bordered this country was not a permanent member of the SCO.

The initial function of the SCO is to resolve territorial disputes between members of the organization and ensure security. In a short period of time, the goals were achieved, but with the Taliban coming to power, the SCO countries can again act as a united front and respond to the challenge that has arisen. The main task is to coordinate the interests of the parties and prevent uncontrollable chaos in Afghanistan, prevent the export of "Green" revolutions and Islamism, as well as the confrontation between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. Also, the summit was marked by the beginning of the procedure for admitting Iran to the SCO membership. Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian said in a dialogue with ISNA that this strategic membership will have an important impact on comprehensive cooperation with Iran within the framework of the neighborhood policy, as well as within the framework of an Asia-oriented policy. The President of the Russian Federation called for the development of methods that would make the work of SCO observers and partners more effective. In this regard, he proposed to organize events at the highest and high level in the SCO+ format.

It is obvious that the SCO is looking for ways to further develop and include as many countries as possible in its orbit, since the organization is a major regional platform in the field of security.  Such an approach increases the structural cohesion of the political macro-region of Eurasia, but in the event of a conflict between its members it weakens the potential of the organization and slows down the decision-making process, since a larger number of veto players increases the coordination time. On the other hand, this approach creates guarantees of a mutually acceptable decision.

4. Significance of SCO’s enlargement and possible scenarios

Significance of SCO enlargements and scenarios Iran's admission to the SCO have intensified discussions about who else can become a member of the organization. One of these countries is Turkey, which has the status of the leader of the Turkic world and strives to become a powerful power, but for the SCO as a collective non-Western organization it is important that Turkey withdraw from NATO, reduce cooperation with the Western bloc and increase trade with the SCO countries. Turkish exports to the SCO countries are now only 10%. Growing Turkish ambitions and claims to expand its influence in Central Asia also cause concern, therefore, in both the short and medium term, it is unlikely that Turkey will become a member of the SCO.

Mongolia is an observer country of the SCO, investment projects for the development of coal deposits are being implemented on the territory of the country, and trade with Russia and China is developing. Mongolia is one of the key partners of the PRC in the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as an important logistics hub for Russia. Mongolia is involved in cooperation in the field of economic cooperation, education and cultural exchange, but there are no good reasons for Mongolia to join the membership, since it is not a regional power. This state of affairs suits both Mongolia itself and other SCO members.

Equally, Belarus is not a country that makes global decisions, structures relations in the Eurasian macro-region, or adds political weight to the SCO, so its membership in the organization is unlikely. Belarus will continue to cooperate with the SCO member states on security, economic, cultural exchanges as an observer, especially since the country is part of a union state with Russia, one of the main veto players of the association.

Finally, Afghani membership in the organization depends on the future direction of the Taliban's policy, territorial integrity, and preservation of statehood. Afghanistan received the status of an observer at the SCO due to the priority f of the peaceful resolution of the Afghan issue for the organization and for the entire macro-region. At the moment, the SCO has no contacts with the new authorities in Kabul, since this requires consensus recognition of the Taliban regime by all eight member States. Relations between the countries of the region and Afghanistan are moving into a bilateral format[13]. Recognition of the new regime and potentially membership in the SCO is possible if the Taliban chooses a non-Western political course.


Thus, the stabilization and structuring of the macroregional order in such a complex region as Eurasia is impossible without the adoption of the most representative pool of actors. However, the internal heterogeneity of the organization is growing, which creates challenges in the future decision-making due to an increase in the number of veto players in the context of a consensus decision-making model, as well as in the event of escalation of conflicts and contradictions between member countries, especially between India and Pakistan. In addition, the organization is undergoing military and economic modernization (expansion of contacts and institutions, in particular), which in fact turns it from a dialogue of post-Soviet countries with China and then a forum of non-Western world into a real and actively developing international regional organization.

As for the future of the SCO, the question is who will be the next member of the organization. In general, two key features can be included in the portrait of a potential member: the country's influence on the situation in the region or in the world, as well as its belonging to a non-Western bloc. If we consider observer countries as candidates by such criteria, then it can be assumed that none of them can become members, except for Afghanistan. In сase of recognition, normalization of relations and the search for common interest, the country may become another member of the SCO.


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[1] Dushanbe Declaration of the twentieth anniversary of the SCO [Electronic resource] / Official website of of the SCO Secretariat – Mode of access:

[2] Structure of the SCO [Electronic resource] / Official website of the SCO Secretariat – Mode of access:

[3] Agreement between the governments of the SCO member states on scientific and technical cooperation [Electronic resource] / Base Garant – Mode of access:

[4] Reference material on the SCO [Electronic resource] / Official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation – Mode of access:

[5] Agreement between the Governments of the SCO member States on the creation of favorable conditions for international road transport [Electronic resource] / Official website of the SCO Secretariat – Mode of access:

[6] Joint communique on the results of the seventeenth meeting of the Council of Heads of Government (Prime Ministers) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Member States [Electronic resource] / Official website of the SCO Secretariat – Mode of access:

[7] SCO Agreement on Cooperation in customs affairs [Electronic resource] / Technoexpert – Mode of access:

[8] SCO Development Strategy until 2025 [Electronic resource] / Official website of the SCO Secretariat – Mode of access:

[9] Action Plan for the implementation of the SCO strategy until 2025 [Electronic resource] / Official website of the SCO Secretariat – Mode of access:

[10] Bragina E.A. India and Pakistan became SCO members [Electronic resource] / IMEMO – Mode of access:

[11] Terentyeva Y. China and Russia in the New Silk Road project: interests and opportunities [Electronic resource] / Higher School of Economics. – Mode of access:Китай%20и%20Новый%20шелковый%20путь.pdf

[12] Putin called for the creation of a Large Eurasian Partnership [Electronic resource] / TASS – Mode of access:

[13] National Coordinator of Uzbekistan: there are no contacts with the new Afghan authorities through the SCO [Electronic resource] / TASS – Mode of access: