A case for Vietnam’s membership in the SCO

Analytics | Linh Tong | 28-04-2017, 15:40

A case for Vietnam’s membership in the SCOIn celebration of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (the SCO)’s 15th birthday, the organization finally decided to start the admission process for Pakistan and India  in June 2016. The “Memorandum of Obligations”, which consists of more than 30 sets of documents, has been officially signed by the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers, urging the accession process of the two countries. With the inclusion of India and Pakistan as officially full members, the SCO will become one of the world’s biggest regional organizations (Koldunova & Das Kundu, 2014) representing 41.84% of world population, covering 22.22% of the world land area and accounting for 20.14% of the global GDP1. Furthermore, ever since 2005, the SCO has persistently emphasized its interest in promoting economic cooperation in addition to the organization’s traditional specialization in security. The SCO’s growth regionally and internationally, together with the expanding sphere of influence of China, makes it a desirable forum for Vietnam, as well as a number of other states in the neighboring regions, to participate in. 

In fact, Vietnam had signaled its interest in becoming a Dialogue Partner of the SCO in 2011 during the trip to Hanoi of Mr. Kirill Barsky, the special envoy of the Russian President to the SCO (Radyuhin, 2011). However, whether or not to become a full member of the SCO requires careful consideration because membership to any organization always carries certain political messages and responsibilities, which have to be in line with the Vietnamese national priorities in maintaining multi-vector diplomacy, further integration into the international community, promotion of friendly neighborhood and regional stability, defense of territorial integrity and economic development. Based on such framework of Vietnam’s national interests, the current paper aims to address and discuss potential disadvantages and advantages of Vietnam’s becoming a member of the SCO in four main areas: balancing her relations with China, Russia, and the USA; defense of the territorial integrity; potential for economic benefits and integration requirements and responsibilities; so as to subsequently propose an appropriate formula for Vietnam – the SCO relation. 


Vietnam – Russia/China – The USA triangle

Undoubtedly, China and Russia are considered the leaders of the SCO due to their large territory and population, economy, and armed forces, inter alia. Official languages of the SCO are Russian and Chinese as regulated in the Article 20 of the SCO Charter. Experts often juxtapose the SCO and NATO (Bin, 2013), accusing the organization of being anti-Western under the conspiracy theory that Russia and China are trying to balance the West with the help of this platform, even though the SCO’s collective military capacity is incomparable to that of NATO (Albert, 2015) . Be it true or not, one clear implication is that members of the SCO would be seen as members of the Russia-Chinese club (Bin, 2013). The case of the recent accession of India and Pakistan offers typical examples of close political ties between Russia and India– China and Pakistan. Within this framework, the accession of Vietnam to the SCO will be likely perceived as pivoting to China and Russia, just like Vietnam’s decision to join the TPP has been popularly interpreted as allying with the USA against China in the media (Ho, 2016). Especially in the context of the South China Sea Dispute (where Vietnam is stuck in the asymmetric confrontation with China on the sensitive issue of territorial integrity and therefore closer cooperation with the U.S. is part and parcel for Vietnam’s perspective) and the recent phenomenon so-called Philippines’ pivot to China, Vietnam’s interest in becoming an SCO member might be interpreted as betraying the USA. This is one possible negative implication of the Vietnamese membership in the SCO. 

However, the reality of the SCO’s political flexibility and consensus-based decision making mechanism (Yu Bin, 2013) would limit such a disadvantage. As assessed by experts, the SCO is “non-Western”, but not necessarily “anti-Western bloc” (Rakhimov, 2013). Most members of the organization emphasize their trans-Atlantic relation with the US or with the EU more than the relations with the fellow SCO members (Alexander Lukin, 2007). Most of the SCO members maintain positive relations with the USA (Aris, Stephen. 2009). Therefore, even if Vietnam would join the SCO, it would not jeopardize or automatically end the Vietnamese alliance with the USA. On the contrary, an SCO membership can lend Vietnam more leverage in her relationship with the USA. Historically since the Vietnam War, Vietnam has been a critical bargaining chip for the USA in Southeast Asia (Tong, 2016). As Vietnam joins the SCO and symbolically gets closer to the Russia-China camp, the USA would feel the need to strengthen her ties with Vietnam to maintain Vietnam’s balanced position in between this bloc and the USA. Since the Philippines are already pivoting to China, even going as far as withdrawing from their joint-military practices with the USA (Zhan, Baohui, Richard, 2016), it should not be in the American interest to further strain her relation with either Vietnam or the Philippines if Washington is still keen on sustaining its sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. However, more specific reaction from the American side can only be observed after the formal President of the country has been elected.

Furthermore, the fact that India and Pakistan have become new members might alter the power structure within the organization, making it less Russia and China-oriented, and therefore less politically sensitive for Vietnam. Because India and Pakistan are two nuclear powers, the ultimate leadership position of China and Russia, the original two nuclear powers in the SCO, might be limited. The inclusion of India and Pakistan is expected to bring about a significant positive effect, transforming the SCO into a more active and efficient forum rather than a group of countries constrained by the national interests of Russia and China. As noted from the Tashkent Declaration, “Member States noted that obtaining the full member status by India and Pakistan shall increase the potential of the Organization and contribute to the further enhancement of its role in the international arena as a multilateral mechanism for addressing the urgent problems of contemporary time, ensuring security, stability and sustainable development in the region.

In short, even though the detrimental cost for Vietnam’s membership in the SCO exists, such risk can be offset by the reality of flexible decision-making process and recent dynamics of admitting new members into the organization. 


Vietnam – Russia – China triangle

One of the core goals of the SCO is to establish “a new institution whereby Moscow and Beijing coordinate, compete, and compromise with each other’s interests and influences” (Bin, 2013). Therefore, there is a risk that Vietnam’s membership of the SCO would expose China and Russia against each other in case territorial disputes break out between Vietnam and China. Vietnam has long been Russia’s traditional partner, and Russia sees Vietnam as the bargaining chip against China, to contain whose power Russia has done her best2. However, currently Russia is in economic crisis and might not be able to be compared to China in its capacity and economic might, particularly. Therefore, Russia has been trying to avoid confrontation with China in any case, including the South China Sea Dispute. Should Vietnam become a member of the SCO, in case of territorial conflicts, Vietnam either has to bring China and Russia in a direct clash, which could worsen the Vietnam-Russia relation, or lose her claim on territorial integrity. Joining the SCO might indeed be a political dilemma for Vietnam.

Nevertheless, the counter-argument comes directly from the SCO member states’ relations with China. For example, although India and China have been involved in long-standing territorial disputes over the borders (Weitz, 2015), India has eagerly joined the SCO and has been successfully maintaining positive relations with both Russia and China. Moreover, the fact that the SCO originated from “a confidence-building forum to demilitarize borders” and its great contribution in the border settlement between China and the post-Soviet states prove that Russia does not necessarily have to confront China on behalf of a third state over territorial disputes under the SCO framework. Therefore, while being posed to a potential risk, official Hanoi should not be overwhelmed by the threat of a Russia-China confrontation over Vietnam. Even to Vietnam’s interest, being a member of the SCO could limit Chinese incentives to trigger border disputes with Vietnam3 because actions of this kind would go against one of the very core values4 of the organization, tarnishing the Chinese leadership image (Guang, 2013)5


Economic benefits 

Because the SCO is not an economy-oriented organization (Fredholm, 2013), Vietnam should not expect immediate large-scale economic benefits. For years, the traditional opposition between Russia and China had been a major obstacle for realization of the Russian-proposed Development Fund (Special Account) and Chinese-suggested Development Bank (Gisela, 2015). Moreover, due to Russia and the Central Asian states’ fear of being turned into “suppliers of raw materials for China and the markets for its export commodities” (Bin, 2013), Chinese efforts to drive economic activities, such as the SCO free trade zone (Rakhimov, 2013), have been of limited success. Another disappointing fact is that in contrast with the highly-integrated economic community of the EU, most of economic cooperation among the SCO members has been “bilateral in nature” (Rakhimov, 2013). The SCO’s annual budget is also strikingly small (US$3.8 million in 2005)6 in comparison with the organization’s going-global ambitions. In addition, Vietnam already enjoys good relations and has established free-trade zones with most SCO members (Minh, 2016). Therefore, the economic improvements brought about by membership in the SCO would not be so tangible for Vietnam. 

However, the Russian economic crisis and her weakened political power as a result of the Western sanctions after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 has facilitated the negotiation between Moscow and Beijing , making an agreement between the two powers easier to be attained. The evidence is that by the end of 2014, a proposal for establishing the SCO Development Bank with huge investment was announced (Gisela, 2015). In 2016, President Putin also declared the expected contributions from Asian Development Bank and BRICS Bank as alternative financial institutions for economic projects within the SCO (Korzun, 2016). That means by becoming a member of the SCO, Hanoi will have larger access to different financial resources and economic communities, with which the SCO, or SCO core members has close connection. Furthermore, potential economic benefits from the One Belt One Road project, led by China7, are undeniably attractive for Vietnam and will be one of the core reasons for Vietnam to join the SCO, if Vietnam ever decides to do so8. Becoming a member of the SCO would also mean access to the market embracing almost half of world population and 87 transport routes across the Eurasian region (Rakhimov, p. 75, 2013). The transfer of technology from more developed members such as India, China and from energy industry in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is desirable for Vietnam’s developing economy. In fact, the recent dynamics in economic activities of the SCO appears to be attractive to not only Vietnam, but also a number of South-East Asian countries, as notified by the Russian President Vladimir Putin (Korzun, 2016). 


Integration requirements and responsibilities – the Shanghai Spirit 

Usually, accession process is a very critical stage of preparing the candidate countries for the standard requirements from the targeted organization. In order to become members of the EU or NATO, for example, candidate states should go through a comprehensive transformation process including democratization, market liberalization, and so on. Therefore, whether or not to become a full member is often a critical question for the states should the accession process require substantial changes in their regime and economic structure. However, no strict requirements of this kind exist in the case of the SCO. As can be seen from India and Pakistan’s accession, which is expected to be completed in 2017, new full membership status will be granted as long as there is unanimous agreement among the SCO member states. 

Instead of promoting democratic and liberal values as the EU and NATO does, the SCO sticks to the Shanghai Spirit, which covers “mutual trust, mutual advantage, equality, mutual consultations, respect for cultural variety and aspiration for joint development”. In essence, the Shanghai Spirit “privileges informality, consultation among equals and consensus-based decision-making over hierarchical relationships among states and formal voting procedures” (Gisela, 2015). The SCO leaders have been proud to introduce the SCO as “a new model of [cooperation in] international relations – a partnership instead of [an] alliance” (Gisela, 2015). Being a member of such an organization would offer Vietnam the chance to pursue her national goals independently while maximizing the cooperation opportunities where suitable. Furthermore, the SCO Charter also emphasizes respect for the Westphalian principles including territorial integrity, state sovereignty, state security, and non-interference in domestic affairs of other states, which is vital for Vietnam in the context of the South China Sea dispute. 

The only concern for Hanoi is that membership in the SCO would require the country to actively join the process of combating the “three evils” of extremism, separatism, and terrorism, which lies at the core of the SCO action plan (SCO Charter). Although Vietnam has been contributing to the international efforts to combat the 3 evils within the framework of other organizations like ASEAN or Interpol, further contribution would be burdensome for the country’s priority in economic development and military defense for the time being, when Vietnam is much less exposed to the 3 evils in comparison with the other member states due to her geographical location.



As can be seen from the above analysis, the participation in the SCO would bring as many benefits as disadvantages to Vietnam’s national interests. However, there are daunting questions which cannot be ignored, especially regarding the political implications for Vietnam - big powers’ relations, and preference for economic integration over cooperation in non-traditional security areas. Bearing in mind the current dynamics of Asian politics and unclear American strategy of,it would be risky for Vietnam to display enthusiasm in applying for the SCO membership . Already, Vietnam chose to play on the safe side by delaying ratification of the TPP in September 2016 (Ho, 2016) and gradually improving bilateral relations with China (Baohui, Zhang, Heydadrian, 2016). Therefore, a suitable approach for Vietnam would be to become a Dialogue Partner, so that Vietnam can on one hand participate in all the meetings and discussions of the SCO, and on the other, avoid being perceived as pro-Chinese. Additionally, as a Dialogue Partner of the SCO, Hanoi will be able to specify the areas she wants to cooperate in within the SCO- in Vietnam’s case it is mostly economy-  and legally avoid involvement in security issues. As time goes by, with newly-constructed realities in the world politics and assessment from experience as a Dialogue Partner, Vietnam can later consider whether to push further for the Observer status and finally membership, or to sustain her neutral position as a Dialogue Partner to the SCO. 




1. According to World Bank statistics in 2015, world population was, population of China was 1.357.500.000, population of Russia was 143.500.000, Uzbekistan 30.200.000, Kazakhstan 17.000.000, Tajikistan 8.200.000, Kyrgyzstan 5.700.000, India, Pakistan 182.100.000. 

Area (mlnsq km): World - 148.1, Russia 16.37, China 9.33, Kazakhstan 2.70, Uzbekistan 0.43, Kyrgyzstan 0.19, Tajikistan 0.14, India 2.98, Pakistan 0.77. 

GDP 2015 (billion US dollars): World 73.502, China 10.866.44, Russia 1.326.02, Kazakhstan 184.36, Uzbekistan 66.73, Kyrgyzstan 6.57, Tajikistan 7.85, India 2073.54, Pakistan 269.97

2. Russia focuses on CSTO, another Eurasian security club without China. And the fact that China predominantly dominates the economics sphere to the extent that “Central Asia and Russia would become suppliers of raw materials for China and the markets for its export commodities” strengthens resistance from Russian side. 

3. The SCO’s “Long-term Good-neighborly Friendship and Cooperation Treaty” (Cheng, 2013), or “Treaty on Long-Term Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation Between the Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization”- see in reference the link for the Treaty’s full-text.

4. As clarified in Treaty on Long-Term Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation Between the Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

5. The Shanghai Five was born to deal with border disputes between China and former-Soviet states. “all the disputes regarding the western section of the formerly Sino-Soviet border of more than three thousand kilometers, which had bred instability and conflicts for centuries, were completely solved in 8 years, which is a rare case in the history of international relations… Moreover, the SCO has advanced the process of confidence building and increased the trust between China and nine of its close neighbors.” (p. 20, 21)

6.  “US$3.8 million in 2005; the current amount is classified” (Gisela, p. 6, 2015)

7. One Belt One Road lies at the core of Chinese expansion policy and plays a key domestic important function of stabilizing Xinjiang region. Xinjiang – the Westernmost part of China – has historically associated itself with Central-Asia and rebelled against the rules of Chinese government numerous times. The best strategy for China is to promote and integrate this region economically, therefore China will do her best to promote the One Belt One Road Strategy, in which the SCO is one of the important platforms (Guang, 2013 & Bin, 2013). 

8. Because the SCO’s decision making process is based on consensus, SCO members find it easier to make a decision on non-security issues, like in any other international organization. Despite its origin as a security group, the SCO has bene expanding on “trade, investment, finance, education, health, tourism, and culture”.




• Official Documents: 

1. Key Normative Documents of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization http://www.hrichina.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/Reports/SCO/2011-HRIC-SCO-Whitepaper-AppendixA-SCO-Docs.pdf

- Treaty on Long-Term Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation Between the Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (p. 173-178)

- Regulations on the Status of Dialogue Partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

- The Regulations on Observer Status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

2. SCO Charter:


3. SCO The Tashkent Declaration of the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization http://www.mfa.uz/en/press/sco-uzbekistan/2016/06/7780/


• Book:

Fredholm, M. (Ed.). (2013). The Shanghai cooperation organization and Eurasian geopolitics: New directions, perspectives, and challenges. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

Chapters from the book

1. Fredholm, M. (2013). Too many Plans for War, too few common values: Another Chapter in the History of the Great Game or the Guarantor of Central Asian Security? In The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasian Geopolitics (pp. 3–25). Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

2. Guang, P. (2013). The Spirit of the Silk Road: The SCO and China’s Relations with Central Asia. In M. Fredholm (Ed.), The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasian Geopolitics (pp. 20–28). Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

3. Bin, Y. (2013). The SCO Ten Years After. In Search of its own identity. In The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasian Geopolitics (pp. 29–61). Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

4. Rakhimov, M. (2013). The institutional and political transformation of the SCO in the context of geopolitical changes in Central Asia. In The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasian Geopolitics (pp. 62–81). Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

5.Cheng, Y. (2013). The Shanghai Spirit and SCO Mechanisms. Beyond Geopolitics. In The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasian Geopolitics (pp. 199–225). Copenhagen: NIAS Press.


• Research reports

1. Grieger, G. (2015, June). Briefing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Retrieved from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2015/564368/EPRS_BRI(2015)564368_EN.pdf

2. Koldunova, E., & Das Kundu, N. (2014). Russia’s Role in The SCO and Central Asia: Challenges and opportunities. The Valdai Discussion Club. doi:http://vid-1.rian.ru/ig/valdai/SCO_eng.pdf

3. Albert, E. (2015, October 14). The Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Retrieved from Council on Foreign Relations, http://www.cfr.org/china/shanghai-cooperation-organization/p10883

4. Aris, S. (2009). The Shanghai cooperation Organisation: “Tackling the Three evils”. A regional response to non-traditional security challenges or an anti-western bloc? Europe-Asia Studies, 61(3), 457–482. doi:10.1080/09668130902753309

5. Lukin, A. (2007, August 08). The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: What Next? Retrieved from Russia on global affairs, http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/n_9132


• Media articles

1. Radyuhin, V. (2011). Vietnam bids to join SCO. The Hindu

2. Minh, T. (2016, October 06). EEU- Vietnam FTA officially comes into effect. Vietnam Breaking News

3. Weitz, R. (2015, September 18). The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Growing Pains. Retrieved from The Diplomat, http://thediplomat.com/2015/09/the-shanghai-cooperation-organizations-growing-pains/

4. Ho, M. (2016, September 16). Blow for Obama’s TPP as Vietnam parliament defers ratification. Retrieved from Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-trade-tpp-idUSKCN11M0YG

5. Baohui, Z., Zhang, T., &Heydarian, R. (2016, October 25). Will Duterte’s Pivot to China Start a Chain Reaction Across Asia? Retrieved from Foreign Policy, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/10/25/duterte-china-manila-beijing-chain-reaction-us-allies-pivot-to-china/

6. Tong, L. (2016, June 01). Vietnam’s Evolving Role in US Asia Strategy. Retrieved from The Diplomat, http://thediplomat.com/2016/06/vietnams-evolving-role-in-us-asia-strategy/


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Linh Tong

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