by Alessandro Regio
This year’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Bishkek, Turkmenistan, was a reaffirmation that the organization has come a long way from its relatively humble beginnings in the mid-1990’s. Iran came closer to joining the bloc, while Russia and China continued to kindle their closer ties. However, the summit’s declaration included a more nefarious, yet hidden, agenda. Ambiguous counter-terrorism language exists in the Bishkek Declaration that could pave the way for Russia and China to legitimize illiberal repressive policies in the name of security.
Devil in the Details
The Bishkek Declaration identified seventeen security concerns requiring “special attention”. Four relate directly to counter-terrorism. The declaration takes terrorism very seriously, mentioning “terror” and its derivatives a total of 26 times in its 14 pages. Yet the document never defines “terror” and “extremism”. While there is still a lack of consensus among policymakers and academics from East and West over the meaning of “terror”, international agreements generally have at the very least a working, if not outright, definition of the term.
Ambiguity alone, however, is not cause for concern. The trip-wire here is a sentence on countering terror:
The Member States, stressing that acts of terrorism and extremism cannot be justified, believe it important to take comprehensive measures to intensify efforts against terrorism and its ideology
If there is consensus on anything in the counter-terrorism field, it is that terrorism itself does not have an “ideology”, but instead is a tactic employed to promote an ideology. The lack of legal definition of terror, combined with no SCO action plan to fight terror, is a procedural carte blanche for signatories of this declaration to kinetically counter any ideology they deem threatening.
Interestingly, using broad terror definitions is not new for the SCO. In 2017, the SCO announced a regional framework, the Regional Antiterrorist Structure (RATS), for combatting terrorism and extremism. Still, the SCO’s statement on joint counteraction to international terrorism at the 2017 summit had more to do with what motivated terror rather defining it. The document subsequently left counter-terror operations to the member states themselves, rather than approaching it as a bloc.
This strategy has continued until today, and while this may appeal to SCO members who enjoy autonomy and little international oversight, using vague language to describe counter-terror efforts is ultimately meant to reach an audience outside of the SCO. In another paragraph of the Bishkek Declaration, SCO member states announced that international cooperation on counter-terrorism should be implemented at the UN level:
[SCO Member States] call on the international community to promote global cooperation in combatting terrorism with the central role of the UN by fully implementing corresponding UN Security Council resolutions and the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in compliance with the UN Charter and the principles of international law without [politicization] and double standards and with respect for the sovereignty and independence of all countries, as well as to work towards a consensus on adopting the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.
Russia and China have previously pushed for more centralized UN efforts in counter-terrorism ever since the issue was broached in 2005—specifically, using the United Nations Security Council to choose which non-state actors to target. China and Russia’s influence over the SCO is as well-established as their voting bloc on the UNSC. By rallying SCO member states around this broad approach to countering extremism, Russia and China could take the argument to the UN level with more momentum. That influence could be a tool used by both countries to squash perceived threats, especially when both countries have stated that foreign meddling in national security affairs is unacceptable.
These three elements combined—requiring complete sovereignty over counter-terrorism strategies, a loose definition of extremism, and a push legitimize this strategy on the international level—could create an environment of heightened, formalized repression.
It may seem odd that illiberal powers like China and Russia require international legal frameworks to silence dissidents and crush opposition. After all, both Russia and China have passed laws in the last five years which lowered rights protections for Russian and Chinese citizens that do not “fit the mold”. What has changed in those same five years is a consolidated strategy on both Russia and China’s part to formalize illiberal acts as a way of swaying world opinion away from human rights norms.
Though Russian President Vladimir Putin operates a known oligarchy, he is still susceptible to sways in public opinion. Just last year he suffered perhaps the steepest drop in his political career. Still, Putin is not above harassing political opposition, and this extra tool would help him achieve more of that.
Moreover, enacting anti-terror policies for political gain would not be the first time that Russia has attempted to combine its coercive apparatus with politics. In Syria, Russia has operated without impunity under the guise of counter-terrorism, yet atrocities committed by joint Russian and Syrian forces point to the war in Syria being more about propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime than anything else. Internally, Russia has experienced a slew of crackdowns on minority cultures like Jehovah’s Witnesses, on speakers of minority languages, and of course on Russians’ use of social media networks.
The Chinese government, meanwhile, does not face the same internal political pressures as the Kremlin, but it still has potential targets for this game plan. Beijing is already implementing this strategy in its arrests and internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang Province. Western countries and human rights groups have railed against the systematic internment of the Uighurs, but China’s response has been that the camps are instead education centers used to prevent terrorism from forming or spreading in the area.
While China is right in pointing out that Xinjiang is its primary terrorism concern, according to the START Consortium, its tactics of interrogation and torture go far beyond what most counter-terror experts would accept as ethical. And China will likely not stop at just the Uighurs if left unchecked. Recent protests in Hong Kong show that no part of China’s orbit is immune from its formidable oppression tools, ranging from old-school physical coercion to influencing the information space.
The Dominos of an Illiberal World Order
While the interpretation of the language of the Bishkek Declaration can be debated, what is abundantly clear is that Russia and China will not lose an opportunity to legitimize their illiberal agenda for the rest of the world. Perhaps this is an evolutionary phase of soft power, where both countries move from interjecting themselves in the democratic processes of other countries and instead focus on using international bodies to formalize their long-term visions of the world.
The language in this declaration should not be seen as combatting Western ideology, but instead as a sales pitch to peripheral countries about another global ideology. China and Russia will require justification for their autocratic approaches to complete their Illiberal Movement. The Kremlin has explicitly stated that the U.S.-led liberal world is coming to a close.
Though this line of reasoning may not be effective with core Western countries, it is already spreading in rest of the world. This should be cause for concern enough for policymakers to more critically evaluate the meaning and intentions of these regional organizations spearheaded by Russia and China.
Alessandro Regio has a Master of Arts in International Policy Studies from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He is an international security analyst based in Washington, DC.