sino russian relations

Written by Marium Sardar 10:59 am Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content, Research Papers

Sino-Russian Relations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: The Tides of Power

Sino-Russian relations have witnessed strengthened ties, both using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a tool to achieve their ambitions.
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Marium holds a BSS in International Relations from Bahria University. She has previously interned at the National Assembly of Pakistan and the German Embassy. Ms. Marium has presented her papers at the International Development Youth Forum in Tokyo and at the International Student Festival in Trondheim.

The Dawn of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

The paper intends to discover the synopsis of the Sino-Russian relations, emphasizing three dimensions: the Sino–Russian alliance, the regional dynamics of Central Asia, and the agenda of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The study is important as it tries to discover a correlation among all three integers and deduce futuristic norms and analysis.

Shanghai Five

The post-Soviet era had been a turbulent time for these states, but the advent of the strategic partnership between China and Russia ensures a practical revision of central Asian dynamics under the umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In April 1996, Shanghai Five was created — a regional union of China, Russia, Tajikistan Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan — to solve the boundary issues amongst the members.

The heads of the member states signed the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions to achieve the resolution of territorial disputes. Within the period of five years, this unison developed and groomed the states diplomatically, strengthening their joint approach in terms of economics, politics, and regional security.

And Then There Were Eight

Uzbekistan joined the Shanghai five in 2001, relabeling it as “Shanghai Cooperation Organization” or “Shanghai Pact”, a regional collaboration of Eurasian political, economic and military alliance headed by China and Russia with other developing and underdeveloped countries who chose to support the Chinese trifecta of “Extremism, Terrorism, and Separatism”, especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the “war on terror”.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has not only grown in size but also in influence, granting membership to both India and Pakistan as well as observer status to several countries. Apart from the economic and political aspects of its agenda, the member states have conducted various joint military exercises, and, in 2003, created the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), a counter-terrorism hub, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

This multilateral involvement in the regional social dynamics of Central Asia gives the Shanghai Cooperation Organization a fair advantage and edge over regional actors’ foreign policy and effective implementation of the Shanghai Charter effectively.1 Coming to the economic initiative of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it called for greater economic cooperation among the member states.

Rising Influence

China thoroughly emphasized energy projects, including the exploration of hydrocarbon reserves and the combined use of hydropower within the region. Moreover, it resolved the apparent shortage of water reservoirs by proposing a water development program. The security agenda of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is vast, often being compared to Warsaw Pact and even labeled as “NATO of East”. 

Primarily, its agenda revolves around the Sino-Russian speculations of the U.S.’s interests in Eurasia. As per the bilateral Russo-Chinese declaration of 2001 and 2005 regarding “World Order in the 21st Century”, they highlighted the principles of mutual respect of sovereignty, territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression and non-interference.

Such declaration openly accused the U.S. aggression and NATO foothold in Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S.’s promotion of democracy in previous Soviet republics, terming them as destabilizing tactics and schemes of Western critics. Although Russia and China converge on various forums for integration and in uniting against a common threat of Western ideology, both intend to govern SCO in a bifurcated manner.

Russia considers SCO as a fort for security-centric foreign policy, while China seeks to exercise its influence towards the West through economic cooperation using central Asian states as its infrastructure for the economic scheme.2

Historical Background of Central Asia

Stretching from the South of Russia to the West of China and bordered by Afghanistan, this region is primarily landlocked and is known to be a hub of trade for centuries; the famous Silk Route, for one, has a very interesting history. From barbaric conquerors ruling this region and beyond, to Bolsheviks russifying the region, Central Asia has seen it all, thus giving birth to a multiplicity of historic accounts varying in religious, cultural, ethnic, political aspects.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, this region did not gain significant foreign interest due to the heavy influence of the Russian Federation plus the fact that this region was purposely kept an underdeveloped colony of Russia, with the basic intent of never liberating the territory.

As a result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, fifteen states were created out of which five were central Asian states, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. All these states are governed under the hyper-presidential system with autocratic democracy which is highly critiqued by Western scholars and observers.


In Central Asia, Kazakhstan has the largest territorial mass, the largest minority of Russian ethnics, and a population of about 10 million people. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, proving to be an exceptional leader, helped his state to progress in economics and developed good relations with Russia, China, and the United States.

President Nursultan contained the political activity demanding pure democracy in 2001 that was supported by businessmen and Kazakh elites; he carried out a breakdown and the whole uprising dissolved in 2005. Apart from this, the economic sector grew rapidly due to the exploration of hydrocarbon reserves in Kazakhstan.


Kyrgyzstan, the mountainous central state, enjoyed comparative political stability in the post-independence tenure. Though labeled as the most democratic of all the Central Asian states, it faced a political struggle to develop a strong character of the nation. The first president Askar Akayev, though liberal and democratic in his practices at the start, later changed his norm to more authoritarian trends.

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President Akayev was overthrown after a series of demonstrations in 2002. Of all the Central Asian Republics (CARS) states, Kyrgyzstan managed to carry an election after five years, an undue acknowledgment for vibrant political practice. Economically, Kyrgyzstan is heavily dependent on Russia as many Kyrgyz migrants work in Russia, and though China has stepped up and built railways and roads on Kyrgyz tough terrain, the shift of dependence will take time.


Initially, Uzbekistan had a competitive political system, which was ultimately eliminated by president Islam Karimov in 1995 and the system resumed the communist trends of the Soviet era. In the two decades of Karimov’s tenure, a number of human rights violations were reported.

With his death, President Shokat Mirzayev proved to be much more dynamic for Uzbekistan’s foreign policy; he received high accreditation for his liberal and just efforts in the welfare of Uzbekistan and its economy.3


Tajikistan, being the poorest of all the Central Asian states, has had a vibrant political history in terms of elected presidents and the rise of civil war. In the mid-1990s, despite the government having Russian forces at its disposal, rebel forces took over the eastern part of the country. For nearly a decade, the conflict and insurgency took its toll on the stability and character of Tajikistan as a stable state.

In 1999, however, the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) gained greater access to government positions and the UTO representatives formed armed forces of Tajikistan. Due to its disadvantaged geography and political structure, Tajikistan is solely dependent on Russia for trade and investment. Moreover, Tajikistan offered a permanent military base to Russia in 2004 as a result of economic negotiations.


Turkmenistan, the most neutral yet corrupt state of all the central Asian countries, possesses the fourth-largest gas reserve in the world. President Supramurat Niyazov sought to reshape the social, political, and economic aspects of Turkmenistan. His policies ensured that Turkmenistan would remain isolated during the period of extensive globalization.

President Niyazov’s sudden death in 2006 promised significant change in the political practices of Turkmenistan, as President Gurbanguly ensured external relations with regional powers and revised the institutions by dismantling former President Niyazov’s approach. Until 2007, Russia was the sole partner that bought gas reserves from Turkmenistan, but in 2013, Chinese investment grew significantly.

Moreover, Turkmenistan showed interest in exporting to the European Union via the trans-Caspian pipeline.4 The post-Soviet development in the political character of the central Asian states substantiates the argument that heavy Russian-influenced practices and ideology have continued — the region’s structure also has Islamic overtones.

Due to strategic disadvantages, the Russian monopoly over foreign policies of these countries has persisted. However, with China rising to power, new avenues have opened for these countries and an alternative economic arena has been set up.

The Prospective Regional Integration of Central Asia

The Commonwealth of Independent States

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the main concern for Russia and the speculative West was the regional volatility and instability risen as a result of suppressed grievances, primarily based on ethnic clashes within the communities and religious upheaval in the CARs states.

In these circumstances, the regional stability was the main concern of fallen Russia, as a hierarchal methodology of constructive dialogue and negotiation was absent in Soviet-freed states. In 1992, a proposal for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was presented; every regional state joined it except for Azerbaijan and Georgia because they aimed to distance themselves from Kremlin hold.

The Central Asian Union

Though the creation of CIS was to engage the disputed parties in a peaceful divorce, soon the ethnic conflicts overwhelmed the region and CIS began to struggle and deviate from its main agenda.5 As speculations arose of Russia resuming its role of the USSR through CIS, the Central Asian Union (CAU), now the Central Asian Economic Union, was created in 1994, with only three members: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

Turkmenistan and Tajikistan opted out as the former declared its neutrality and the latter went through severe instability that actually compelled the need of the CAU’s establishment CAU. In 1994, the Kyrgyz President declared Tajikistan to have been the source of three evils, that is, Islamic fundamentalism in Ferghana Valley, drug trafficking through Afghanistan, and the creation of Tajik armed forces against the government.

These factors contributed to the creation of CAU and the expected isolation of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The CAU charter primarily focused on the defense and economic prosperity of the region and hence the CAU inaugurated joint banking and regional level committees to enhance collaboration such as the Central Asian Bank for Cooperation and Development.

Russian Interference

The European Union and the Western countries were quite supportive of the regional efforts made by the CAU members; Tajikistan later joined the CAU as an observer. The CAU, however, is deemed as a failure, since the Charter hasn’t been translated to practice, as expected of the narrow mindedness of political elites, lacking the initiative to tackle regional problems.

The most important reason for its failure was the Russian intrusion in CAU integration, as Russia feared a strong Central Asia without the Russian hold to be a threat to the Russian Federation. Russia has hindered the CAU development by constantly seeking alliance and influence in the region.

In 1992, for example, Russia gave a proposal of the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO) that was deemed as an analogy to the Warsaw Pact; all CIS countries joined it with the exception of Turkmenistan and Ukraine. Uzbekistan, opting for the NATO alliance in 1999, withdrew from the CSTO, which resulted in an aggressive foreign policy by Russia, as thorough efforts were made to politically and economically isolate Uzbekistan from the rest of the Central Asian states.

Russia’s strategy to engage Central Asia was an asymmetric integration process, wherein Russia allied unilaterally with CARs, for example, Russia engaged in the triplet alliance of Russia-Belarus–Kazakhstan. As a result, Uzbekistan relied on the U.S. and NATO until Putin resumed office.

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Putin’s leadership shaped the Central Asian fate more diplomatically and cognitively, since he is a supporter of Russian influence in Central Asia and endorsed the role of Russia as a curator and coordinator of the regional foreign policy and defense strategy.

Putin opted for a foreign policy of carrots and sticks, as on one hand, unstable republics were pressurized directly or indirectly, while on the other, collective security was promoted. Russia’s aggressive foreign policy was also reflected in Shanghai Five that included Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Although its purpose was to peacefully resolve border issues between the regional states, it later focused on regional security, thus giving a Russian narrative to organizational approach, that is, collective security with the aim to neutralize the region with its dominance. Uzbekistan, upon sensing Russia’s conflicting foreign policy and fearing that it could be left out in terms of political integration and military assistance, joined Shanghai Five in 2001.

Sino-Russian Alliance and the Evolution of SCO

The modern dynamics seem to augur the SCO’s revival.6 The evolution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization from Shanghai Five in 2001 was a noticeable development in the arena of contemporary global politics. The regional stakeholders conceived the SCO as a window of opportunity to combat security threats and consolidate peace and sustainable development.

Pakistan, being a key player in South Asia, with an ideal geopolitical position, perceived the organization as a big opening to encase its geostrategic interests and pursue its legitimate agenda towards peace and security for the long-term economic prosperity of the region. With the declaration of the organization as SCO in 2001, the formulation of new goals set a new dimension for the organization.

The Power of the Sino-Russian Alliance

China took the lead role by devising a mechanism to promote economic ties while combating the three evils, namely separatism, extremism, and terrorism. This development gave a new dimension to the organization towards multilateralism, and the arrangement also addressed the concerns of CARs regarding territorial integrity

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization provided China an opportunity to enter into the Central Asian region to meet its ever-growing energy needs and to dominate Central Asian markets through extensive commercial activities. Russia, on the other hand, conceived SCO as an opportunity for preserving its strategic interests in CARs and to maintain its traditional influence over “near abroad”.

Over the passage of time, China and Russia realized the convergence of their priorities to complement each other’s national interests. Regular conduct of joint military exercises under the aegis of the SCO is the manifestation of their mutual concerns to combat security-related issues on a perpetual basis.7

Seeing the SCO as a great source of foreign direct investments (FDIs) and security assistance, the leadership of CARs felt strengthened by associating themselves with the organization. Though socio-economic issues do not fall directly under the preview of the SCO, it is still a viable forum to prevent interstate conflict among member states and to devise Confidence Building Measures (CBMs).

As per the SCO’s charter adopted in 2002, its main objectives are to strengthen mutual trust, good neighborliness, develop effective cooperation in political affairs, economy, trade, science and technology, transport and environmental protection, maintain regional peace, security, and stability.

Redefining the Political  Character of Central Asia

The Goal: A Multipolar World

Russia and China are conducting Russian military exercise Vostok 2018 along with Mongolia in the Russian Far East and the Pacific Ocean; it is the biggest military exercise by Russia since 1981. Russia asserts its national interests and sovereignty through this, and this exercise is proclaimed as rapprochement by Russia to ensure a strategic partnership with China.

Moreover, the U.S. has recently unveiled its new defense policy that underlines strategic competition with Russia and China, thus bringing the two united against the United States. China’s rise since the last decade and Russia’s continuous attempt to reassert its great power status are a continuous opposition to the U.S.-led unipolar world.

The growing west sanctions and aggressiveness of NATO in Russia’s neighbor, that is, Eastern Europe, is forcing Russia to look for partners to lessen the damage. As the Russian economy is military-driven, Chinese accommodation to it would strengthen its defenses. China uses the Russian card to caution the U.S. and regional rivals mainly India and Vietnam.

It also wishes to learn of the Russian army’s vast experience in fighting counter-insurgency tactics used in Syria and Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s accommodation of China has long term security and strategic implications for India. Though India has a special and privileged strategic partnership with Russia, the relations have recently come to a standstill.

Estranged Indo-Russian Relations

Russia is India’s biggest defense supplier, nuclear and cybersecurity provider, and a trusted ally. The decline in the relationship will impact India’s security interests too. India has to realign its relation with Russia in order to maintain a balance of power in the region vis a vis China. Trade is the weakest link in Indo-Russian relations; no relation can be sustained without strong economic interdependence in the present age.

The India-Russia bilateral trade is around $11 billion, whereas that of Sino-Russian is $100 billion. Russia has increased its energy supply to China and has thus become its largest oil supplier. The long-maintained embargo on the supply of arms to Pakistan has been diluted, and Russia is now favoring the Taliban in the Afghanistan peace process. Russia’s stronger relation with China will directly impact India’s relations with China and Pakistan.

Possible Collaborations

Although Russia and China are building on their partnership, both countries have structural differences with respect to their position in the world, level of economic growth, relation with the U.S., and their role in Central Asia and Europe. India needs to use these diverging interests to its benefit, and work together with Russia in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

India, unlike China, does not pose a threat to Russia’s position in these regions. It is also possible for India, China, and Russia to work together, since they prefer a multipolar world order, peace in Afghanistan, and stability in Central Asia. The apt platform to realize this is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.8

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Sino-Russian Diverging Approaches

The Sino-Russian alliance, especially under the SCO agreement cooperating for economic collaboration, was put to a test in the wake of the 2014 Crimean crisis. Putin’s aggressive foreign policy and the notion of the resurgence of Mother Russia put severe strains on the economic and political institutions of Russia as a result of which Putin directed the focus towards East Asia as a new area of interest to make up for the loss.

China, on the other hand, believes in the neo-Westphalian system adhering to a semi-liberal approach in terms of pursuing its superpower ambitions, which dictates that the superpower mustn’t overtly seek power by interfering in domestic politics. This proves that Moscow and Beijing, despite joining heads against the common threat of Western dominance and working within the same region, intend to have different approaches concerning their global ambitions.

However, Russia is characteristically a patriot of the non-interference approach in domestic politics, such as the Russian criticism of the U.S. and NATO in Iraq, Afghanistan, and currently in Syria post-2011. Despite collaboration between the governments of Xi and Putin, Russia opted out of the Chinese strategic approach in a practical manner, as both superpowers had varying perspectives on security.

Russia used the SCO to regain its lost glory and justified it under security mandate; this organization for Russia is a vacuum-abhorring platform, as it refuses to allow emerging powers into this region. The inclusion of Pakistan and India into SCO has opened more avenues for Russia to exercise its dominance.9

On the other hand, China aims to rise to global power status through a different strategy, which is “economic dependence”. China understands the weakness of the developing states; it seeks to indebt them through lenient loans and open participation in the Belt & Road Initiative. SCO has gained high momentum as a strong regional organization, with active applications for membership in the wake of BRI.

Chinese foreign policy has stressed peaceful evolution, great responsibility as a superpower, and peaceful development. China believes that economic welfare can cure religious and ethnic conflicts. Western scholars believe that such bifurcation of the strategic approach will lead to the demise of Central Asia as a unit because either way they are being used as pawns for interest.


On a concluding note, the dynamics of Central Asia are majorly associated with Russian influence. Although it was a privileged home of Silk Route, it has suffered from a water crisis and a lack of cordial relations among regional states. The region is terribly stricken with the mountainous terrain, and a lack of transport system has hampered trade, but economic cooperation may not be so far off.10

The role of the SCO in developing and uplifting this region from its dungeons ensures a very heroic role and salvation for Central Asia. For the first time, all the CARs members are participating in a thorough economic manner and that has been a great source for regional integration of a region. The Sino-Russian alliance in the SCO can be considered as a powerful step in consolidating their partnership through an interest-driven and bifurcated approach.

The Sino-Russian leadership is united against the same front with different objectives, and undoubtedly, China and Russia’s collaboration has made it possible for the Central Asian states to gain considerable importance in the international arena. Central Asia is the most sought after region for economic and political purposes in the wake of SCO and BRI.

1 “About SCO,” The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, accessed December 2018,

2 Ariel Cohen, “The Dragon Looks West: China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” The Heritage Foundation, last modified September 7, 2006,

3 Justin Burke, “Post-Soviet world: what you need to know about the 15 states,” The Guardian, June 9, 2014,

4 Library of Congress – Federal Research Division, “COUNTRY PROFILE: TAJIKISTAN,” January 2007,

5 Alisher Ilkhamov, “Prospects for Regional Integration in Central Asia,” The Social Science Research Council, November 1, 2001,

.6 Jeffrey Hays, “CENTRAL ASIA AFTER THE BREAK UP OF THE SOVIET UNION,” Facts and Details, last modified April 2016,

7 Paul Stronski and Nicole NG, “Cooperation and Competition: Russia and China in Central Asia, the Russian Far East, and the Arctic,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 28, 2018,

8 Stronski and NG, “Cooperation and Competition,”

9 Marc Lanteigne, “Russia, China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Diverging Security Interests and the ‘Crimea Effect’,” in Russia’s Turn to the East: Domestic Policymaking and Regional Cooperation, eds. Elana Wilson Rowe and Helge Blakkisrud (Palgrave Pivot, 2018), 119-138.

10 Uuriintuya Batsaikhan and Marek Dabrowski, “Central Asia — twenty-five years after the breakup of the USSR,” Russian Journal of Economics 3, no. 3 (2017): 296-320,


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