The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) concluded a two-day meeting July 10 in Ufa, Russia, just two days after the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in the same city. These meetings serve as a benchmark of evolving relations between China and Russia.
The BRICS grouping is a more recent invention, but the SCO emerged in 2001 as successor to the so-called Shanghai Five, which comprised Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China. The grouping now includes those five states in addition to Uzbekistan.
Begun as a forum to settle newly created borders after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it has expanded and redefined itself in recent years. But while China and Russia also used the SCO to maintain a dialogue, contemplating their respective strategic interests in Central Asia and the grouping's potential value, they had different visions, which stalled the SCO's development. China has steered the organization toward an economic grouping while Russia has emphasized the organization's political role and pushed for greater security cooperation.
The diverging visions have their roots in Russia's and China's different national strategies. Russia, which believes military might is the basis for national strength, power and influence, saw the group as a potential political and even security bloc, a way for Moscow to guarantee regional security while maintaining its interests in Central Asia. The group, Russia hoped, would also draw in China to provide greater leverage in dealing with the United States.
China, by contrast, sees economics as power. For Beijing, military might rests on a strong economic base, and global power stems as much from the ability to shape global markets as it does from military force. China shared Russia's hope that the grouping would strengthen Beijing's hand when dealing with Washington, but it saw the SCO more as a potential economic bloc, one that would help China take full advantage of the region's natural resources.
These different assessments of the nature of power shape Russia's and China's national strategies as well as their actions in the SCO and the more recently formed BRICS grouping. Both countries measure their strength by comparing themselves to their neighbors and one another.
The SCO is now in the midst of an expansion to incorporate India and Pakistan, after years of keeping the two at arm's length. The expanded SCO creates a space in which U.S. economic power is diluted and in which the two most populous nations in the world are included. It lays the rough framework for a future economic space that could theoretically rival the heft of the European Union or the United States, diminishing U.S. economic leverage, such as sanctions and dollar-denominated oil trade, to influence Russian or Chinese behavior. Though their primary goals for the SCO have differed in the past, Russia and China have both come to see the shared benefit of expanding the grouping in order to challenge the United States.