The Success of the Shanghai Five:
Interests, Norms and Pragmatism
Qingguo Jia

One of the brighter spots in the area of multilateral activities in the world today is the Shanghai Five, a multilateral forum founded by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, and Tajikistan in Shanghai in 1996.  Beginning as a low-profiled international cooperation mechanism with a modest agenda six years ago, the Shanghai Five has grown into an increasingly influential international forum with an ambitious program for multilateral cooperation.  Despite its various problems and shortcomings, it has made much progress over the years and appears to be promising more in the days to come.  Precisely because of its success, several other countries in Central and South Asia have expressed interest in its membership in recent years.  

How did the Shanghai Five start?  How has it evolved over time?  What are the underlying factors for its development?  What useful lessons can one learn from this experience for multilateral collaboration?  This paper represents a modest attempt to address these questions. 

Among other things, this paper argues that the success of the Shanghai Five is possible because (1) they have focused their attention on areas that promote mutual interests; (2) the countries involved share similar international norms of behavior; and (3) they have taken a gradualist approach which allows time to build up trust and coordination among themselves.  

I.  The Evolution of the Shanghai Five 

The first round of the Shanghai Five took place on April 26, 1996 when the heads of state of China and four other former Soviet states: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia and Tajikistan met in Shanghai to discuss security confidence-building measures in the border areas between them.  China and these countries share borders of over 7,000 kilometers in length.  For historical reasons, there were quite a few areas of disputes along their borders.  During the cold war when Sino-Soviet relations were tense, the two countries stationed large and heavily armed troops in the border areas.  They even had military clashes in some areas of contention such as the Zhenbao Island.  The relaxation of relations between China and the Soviet Union in mid-1980s helped reduce the tensions along the border and subsequent border talks made progress in resolution of the border problems.  However, by time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, some border problems remained and border uncertainty presented potential threat to the relations between China and some of the new countries founded on the former Soviet Union sharing borders with China.  It was against this background that China and these countries began to try to deal with the border problems with a hope to put their relationship on a peaceful course.  Their efforts eventually led to the holding of the Shanghai summit in 1996.  

When the five heads of states first met in Shanghai in 1996, their agenda was a limited one, that is, to develop some security confidence building measures in the border areas before the final resolution of the border problems.  For this purpose, the meeting turned out to be a success.  After frank and friendly discussion among the heads of the five countries, they agreed among other things that they would take serious concrete measures to enhance security in the border areas between them.  Specifically, they agreed that their military forces not to engage in any offensive activities within the border areas; that they would not conduct military exercises against each other; that they would limit the scale, level and frequency of military exercises in the border areas; that they would inform each other about their respective major military activities in the areas within one hundred kilometers from the borders; that they would invite each other to observe their planned military exercises; that they would prevent dangerous military activities in the border areas; and that they would enhance friendly exchanges between the military forces and border patrol forces along the border areas.[i] The agreement helped prevent potential conflicts along the borders between the five countries and introduce security and stability in the relationship between China and these countries.  Following the summit, China and Kyrgyzstan stepped up efforts to resolve their border problems and signed an important border agreement in July 1996.  

The second summit of the Shanghai Five was held in Moscow on April 24, 1997.  On the basis of their last agreement, the five heads of state concluded an agreement on mutual reduction of military forces in the border areas.  Through this agreement, China and the other four countries committed themselves to cutting their military forces in the border areas down to the lowest level appropriate to relations between friendly neighbors and making their military deployment defensive in nature.  They agreed on non-use of force, not to threaten to use force against each other, and not to seek unilateral military superiority.  They also agreed that they would reduce and limit the number of personnel and various principal weapons of the military forces and border patrols in the areas one hundred kilometers from the border and that they would exchange of information about military forces deployed along the border areas and etc. [ii]  The agreement was conducive to disarmament in the areas along the borders between China and the other four countries. 

The third summit of the Shanghai Five was held on July 3, 1998 in Almaty of Kazakhstan.  This summit put its focus on promotion of peace and stability of the region and economic cooperation between the five member countries.  In the communiqué issued at the close of the summit, the five countries expressed their agreement on mutual respect for national sovereign and territorial integrity, equality and mutual benefits, and nonintervention in each other’s internal affairs as the basic principles for handing international relations.  They also affirmed the principle that inter-state differences should be resolved through peaceful consultation.  They agreed to fight against various forms of national separatist and religious extremist activities, terrorist operations, weapon smuggling, and drug trafficking.  They agreed that they would intensify economic relations between the five countries in the spirit of mutual benefits and pragmatism.  They expressed their desire to join international efforts to stop nuclear arms race in South Asia and to defend the international non-proliferation regimes.[iii]  

This summit also represented a historical transition of the Shanghai Five in two important ways.  First, the issues under discussion among the five countries began to expand into non-military areas such as promoting economic cooperation, cooperation against religious extremist activities and transnational crimes, and advocating a set of principles for managing international relations etc.  Second, unlike the situation in the first two summits in which discussion was conducted with China on one side and the other four countries on the other, from this summit on, the discussion among the five states became truly multilateral.  

The third summit was also accompanied by further progress in the border talks between the Shanghai Five countries.  Following the summit, China and Kazakhstan accelerated their border talks and concluded another border agreement on the basis of the previous one concluded in April 1994.  The new border agreement represented a major step forward toward the final resolution of the border problems between the two countries.[iv] 

The fourth summit was held in Bishkek of Kirghizia on August 24, 1999.  In the statement issued in the wake of the summit, the five countries expressed their satisfaction with the previous achievements accomplished through cooperation among the five countries since 1996.  They also expressed their conviction that establishment of various mechanisms for concrete cooperation in areas of common interests would facilitate stability, peace, development, and prosperity of the region.  They indicated their willingness to hold irregular summit meetings and constant contacts and consultation between officials of various departments in their governments at various levels.  They restated their firm opposition to national separatism and religious extremism.  They also announced that they would enhance cooperation in their efforts to combat international terrorism, drug trafficking and other transnational criminal activities.  Once again the leaders of the five countries reaffirmed their commitment not to tolerate any attempt to use their territories to engage in activities that jeopardize the sovereignty, security and social stability of other member countries.  Once again, leaders of the five countries underscored the importance of promoting economic and trade cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual benefits.  They expressed willingness to continue to encourage cooperation on a bilateral basis and meanwhile to seek ways to promote multilateral cooperation.[v]  In the wake of the summit, China and Kyrgyzstan concluded a supplementary border agreement in August on the basis of their 1996 border agreement.  With this agreement, they finally settled problems along the approximately 1,000 kilometer long border between them.[vi] 

The fifth summit was held in Dushanbe of Tajikistan, July 5, 2000.  In the statement issued following the summit, the five countries restated that they hoped that Central Asia would become a region of peace, friendly neighborhood, stability, and international cooperation on the basis of equality.  They expressed their opposition to conflicts, threats and outside intervention that would complicate the region’s situation.  For these reasons, they were determined to deepen their cooperation in politics, diplomacy, economic and trade relations, military matters, military technologies, and other spheres so as to enhance regional security and stability.  They considered that existing consultation between their defense ministers and defense institutions were appropriate for deepening mutual trust and friendly cooperation and conducive to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region.  They reaffirmed their determination to combat national separatism, international terrorism, religious extremism, weapon smuggling, drug trafficking, and illicit migration, which constitute the major threats to regional security, peace and development.  They called for formulation of a multilateral cooperation guideline, conclusion of necessary multilateral treaties and agreements, regularly holding meetings between officials in charge of law enforcement, border patrol, customs, and security, and jointly conducting anti-terrorist and anti-violent activities exercises when necessary.  They vowed to defend the goals and principles of the UN Charter.  They reiterated that countries have rights to choose the paths of political, economic and social development in the light their respective national conditions.  They repeated their intention to adhere to the principles of respect for human rights and also their opposition to international intervention in domestic affairs in the name of humanitarian concerns or protection of human rights.  They expressed their support for China’s efforts for national reunification and Russia’s position on the Chechen question.  They stressed the necessity to defend and strictly observe the 1972 ABM treaty unconditionally and their opposition to the development of TMD including efforts to include Taiwan into the TMD in any form.  They voiced their support for the NPT (non-proliferation treaty).  They expressed deep concern about the political development in Afghanistan and called all parties involved to start dialogue as soon as possible.  They also expressed their intention to promote economic and trade relations between them on the basis of equality and mutual benefits.  They promised to enhance cooperation in promoting cultural exchanges, energy exploration, environmental protection, etc.  Finally, they agreed to hold annual foreign ministers’ meetings and establish council of national coordinators to facilitate cooperation.[vii]  

During this summit, China and Tajikistan successfully concluded an agreement that permanently settles the remaining problems along their common borders.[viii]   

In retrospect, one finds that the Shanghai Five has experienced a step by step development from an institution of bilateral nature to one of a multilateral character, from one focused on security questions to one dealing a broad range of questions, and from one with a limited agenda into one with a comprehensive program. Such a development has far-reaching significance for the development of the region as well as the Shanghai Five member states. 

I.                   II.  The Achievements of the Shanghai Five 

Despite its limitations and problems, by whatever standards, the Shanghai Five has made some impressive achievements. To begin with, through introducing confidence building mechanisms and initiating disarmament in the areas along the borders between the five countries, the Shanghai Five successfully managed to avoid the perennial problem of security dilemma in international relations and to enhance security among member countries. This has allowed them to concentrate their time and limited resources on other pressing issues such as maintaining political stability and promoting economic development at home. All the member countries have benefited from this process.  

Moreover, the Shanghai Five has helped resolve the border problems between China and the other four countries. Border problems are usually the most difficult to resolve in international relations. In history, failure to resolve border problems often leads to military confrontation and even war, between countries. During the cold war, this also happened to China and the Soviet Union. For a few years, the two countries even engaged in a number of bloody border clashes during the late 1960s and early 1970s. During the mid-1980s, as relations between the two countries improved, they began to engage in serious border talks. However, by the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the border problems remained largely unsettled. Some people in China and the Central Asian countries did not want to make any compromise and such a problem posed a potential threat to the security of all the concerned countries. Against this background, China and the other former Soviet states continued border negotiations with a view to settle the border problems permanently. In this respect, the Shanghai Five helped create a good atmosphere for the border talks to proceed. Through serious negotiations, China and the other four former Soviet states successfully fixed their borders over time. For the first time in history, their 7,000 kilometer long borders are clearly demarcated with the exception of a few small areas along the Sino-Russian border. This is an incredible achievement in the light of the complexity of the problems and short period of time it took to solve them. With the border problems behind them, the prospect for these countries to cooperate with one another in the future became brighter. 

Furthermore, the Shanghai Five has helped cultivate good will as well as trust among the member countries. The mechanism appears to have given the member countries good reason to engage in further cooperation. The mood of the summit was in general positive and friendly. The leaders of the five countries appeared to be getting along as well. All member countries have shown due respect for each other. They have concentrated on working at the problems that they felt necessary and feasible to resolve in a pragmatic and constructive manner. They may have differences. However, they have taken sufficient care not to let such differences hamper their cooperation. The agreements are effectively implemented. No complaints have been raised about it. Domestic support appears to be ample. Such an atmosphere helped the member countries to deal with problems between them effectively and constructively. It was against this background that China and the other four countries have been able to conclude a series of border agreements.  

In addition, the Shanghai Five has helped combat and at least discourage attempts to spread religious fundamentalism in the region. Since the end of the cold war, Islamic extremists have been more and more aggressive. Among other things, they have actively promoted its influence in central Asia, which has a large Muslim population. All of the Shanghai Five member countries have been affected by this development. As Islamic fundamentalism increases its influence, it has posed a serious challenge to the established political authority of the newly independent former Soviet states. Because of its geographic proximity to Afghanistan, a center of Islamic fundamentalism, Tajikistan has been involved in civil conflicts and war.[ix] Other countries including China are also victims of the religious extremist activities.[x] Deterrence of and fighting against religious fundamentalism in Central Asia therefore has become increasingly important for all Central Asian countries. In this regard, the Shanghai Five has helped the member countries to offer support to each other and coordinate their efforts to combat religious extremism. Through various joint public announcements at the Shanghai Five summits, the Shanghai Five countries have demonstrated their determination to cooperate in combating international religious extremism. Through some concrete measures of cooperation such as holding joint military exercises to combat terrorist activities, they have managed to demonstrate to the world that they meant business.[xi] These and other efforts the Shanghai Five has undertaken are helpful to deter the expansionist activities of the Islamic fundamentalism and to facilitate the protection of the interests of the concerned countries. 

Finally, the Shanghai Five has created a multilateral mechanism through which member countries can effectively communicate with each other about their concerns and coordinate their various activities. Since the third round, the Shanghai Five became a genuine multilateral mechanism. It has clarified its objectives. It has identified a number of principles as the norms for international conduct between them. It has concluded some binding agreements between them on confidence-building measures, on disarmament, and on cooperation on other issues. It has established a working group to supervise implementation of the agreements. It has also called for formulation of a multilateral guideline for cooperation between them. Finally it has led to increasing contacts between officials from different departments at various levels of their governments, including regular meetings of the defense ministers, of law enforcement officers, and of foreign ministers. If the current trend continues, the Shanghai Five appears to have much promise to become a mature and effective multilateral instrument serving the interests of the member states. 

Given the complexity and scale of the problems confronting these countries, the progress the Shanghai Five has made in promoting peace and stability in the region and in enhancing cooperation between the five countries is by any measure very impressive. Remember that the four of the Shanghai Five countries just became independent and have been in the process in reconstructing their separate national identities. Remember that when the Shanghai Five first started, there were many porous and undefined borders between them, and between them and China. Remember that these countries have been confronted with complex and thorny ethnic problems throughout the years.[xii] Remember also that a significant portion of the population in some of them is highly susceptible to the influence of Islamic fundamentalism. Despite all this, the Shanghai Five has made the progress as discussed in the previous passages. 

III.  The Secret of Success: Interests, Norms and Pragmatism 

Given the impressive accomplishments of the Shanghai Five, what, then, is the secret of its success? A close analysis appears to suggest that among other things three factors have played a crucial role. These are respectively: (1) shared interests, (2) shared norms for international conduct, and (3) a gradualist approach in dealing with the problems they confront.  

1. Shared Interests 

Shared interests have formed a basis for cooperation among the Shanghai Five countries. These include security, domestic political stability, economic development, and international prestige. When the Shanghai Five first began, all the five countries felt the urgency as well as necessity to reduce uncertainty along the border areas resulting from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since territorial problems have great potential of invoking strong nationalist feelings and generating national conflicts, they posed potential threats to security of the member countries and of the region. It was therefore in the interest of all member countries to deal with this problem and to deal with them immediately. Accordingly it was no surprise that the Shanghai Five began with discussion on measures to enhance their border security. Shared interest in this regard eventually contributed to conclusion of the agreements on confidence-building measures and disarmament along the borders of these countries. Shared interests in security also helped to encourage the member countries to step up efforts in border negotiations and eventually contributed to the conclusion of the border agreements.  

Concerns of the Shanghai Five with their domestic political stability also encouraged them to seek for an early resolution of the border problem and develop a peaceful environment along their borders. For its part, China had been deeply involved in historical transitions, namely modernization, systemic transition (from a central planned economy to a market economy), and leadership transition (from a generation of charismatic leaders to one of techno-bureaucrats). Furthermore, Islamic fundamentalism was posing a serious challenge to China’s northwest especially the Xinjiang Autonomous Region as religious extremists clamoring for establishment of a so-called “East Turkestan."[xiii] In the meantime, the Taiwan authorities were pressing for independence leading to military tension in the Taiwan Strait. On top of all this, the US and some other western countries had been putting pressures on China to accept their values and priorities in governing China.[xiv] These challenges had posed serious strains on China’s political system. Under the circumstances, among other things, China had an increasing stake in securing stability along its northwest border and therefore was eager to improve relations with its neighbors including the other Shanghai Five countries. And to realize this, it was necessary to resolve the border problems with those countries.  

Similarly, Russia also faced many domestic problems. They too wanted to seek for a secure and peaceful international environment so as to concentrate their attention and efforts to deal with these problems. Following its unsuccessful reforms, Russia’s economy was in deep trouble. In part because of this, the previous euphoria about its democratization was replaced by pervasive frustration and pessimism. In the meantime, Russian-American relations ran sour. Western countries especially the US became increasingly critical of the Russian management of international aid and Russia’s human rights practice. They also openly condemned Russian handling of the Chenchen question. On top of this, NATO tried to expand eastward. Under the circumstances, the Russian Government faced serious problems in managing economic development and political stability. It badly needed to develop good relations with China and other neighboring countries to ward off Western pressures and also to concentrate its attention on solving its domestic problems. The Shanghai Five provided a good vehicle for Russia to attain these objectives.   

For their part, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia and Tajikistan also had a difficult time at home. Their economies had also experienced difficulties. In addition, these countries just became independent and were involved in the state-building process. National identity was weak. Ethnic diversity made political development in these countries extremely complicated and delicate.[xv] To make things worse, Islamic fundamentalism was on the rise in Central Asia. Religious extremists challenged the secular political authorities in these countries both through conducting subversive activities among the Islamic ethnic population within these countries and through armed invasion from the outside.[xvi] Under the circumstances, these countries wanted to external security so as to concentrate their energy and attention to deal with domestic challenges. They also hoped to obtain support from China and Russia in this regard. Accordingly, they took the Shanghai Five quite seriously and their efforts contributed to the positive achievements of the Shanghai Five over the years.  

At the international level, all of the Shanghai Five countries had an interest to boost their international prestige. By the time the Shanghai Five began, China was still suffering from the impact of the Tiananmen Incident. The West led by the US continued to view China in a very negative light. The new Clinton Administration took a heavy-handed approach on the China question. As China’s economic growth resumed, many people in the world began to see China as a threat or at least a potential threat. Under the circumstances, China needed to do something to reconstruct its international image. Among other things, it saw the Shanghai Five as a fine instrument to demonstrate to the rest of the world that China is a benign and responsible international power instead of a threat to international peace and stability. 

For its own reasons, Russia too needed to boost its international image. Since the late 1980s, the economy of the Soviet Union steadily declined. Years of economic decline not only affected the life of an average Russian but also the country’s comprehensive national capabilities. The dissolution of the Soviet Union dealt a further blow to the former Soviet states including Russia. Continuing economic problems made it increasingly difficult for Russia to maintain its influence in the CIS countries. Within a fairly short period of time, Russia’s international status dropped down sharply. Many people in the west began to dismiss Russia as a third-world country except on question of military security. This is too much for the Russian elite to take. Under circumstances, Russia felt necessary to do something to sustain its great power status. The Shanghai Five appeared to offer one opportunity for Russia to do so. 

As for the other three Shanghai Five countries, they wanted international recognition and attention. Geographically located in Central Asia and politically newly independent, these countries needed international recognition and attention, both to have their voices heard and attract foreign investment to help develop their economy. They also needed international support in their efforts to reduce their dependence on Russia and to meet the challenge of Islamic fundamentalism. In their efforts to attain these objectives, they found Shanghai Five useful.   

2. Shared Norms 

In part because the Shanghai Five countries are weak states and they have different domestic priorities from those of the stronger states, they are vulnerable to external intervention. This has contributed to their opposition to international intervention and the development of shared norms of proper international conduct. The latter include the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the international affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. In the light of these principles, they support the authority of the United Nations and the UN Charter. They endorse the international nonproliferation regime. They endorse the ABM Treaty concluded between the Soviet Union and the United States in 1972 and oppose efforts by some countries to revise or abolish it. They vow to fight international terrorists…. These shared norms of international conduct have facilitated cooperation between the Shanghai Five countries. 

3. Pragmatism 

If the shared interests and shared norms have provided strong motivation for cooperation between the Shanghai Five countries, the pragmatic and incremental approach they have adhered to in promoting cooperation has also contributed to the success of the Shanghai Five. At the beginning, the member countries focused on one limited issue, that is, developing confidence-building measures. Then, as they gained trust in each other and confidence in what they could accomplish, they turned their attention to disarmament along the border areas. After resolving the security problems between them along the borders, they turned their attention to the threat of religious fundamentalism and worked together to fight against it. As their cooperation deepened, they stepped up efforts to cooperate in other areas especially economic cooperation. Through consultation and coordination, they reached agreements on an increasing number of issues. They endorsed the five principles of peaceful coexistence; they expressed their opposition to international interference in domestic affairs of sovereign states; they vowed to fight international terrorism/religious fundamentalism; they denounced the efforts to build the NMD; and they deplored the nuclear arms race in South Asia; they called for promotion of political, economic, social, and cultural contacts between them; and they has established various mechanisms such as annual meetings of their defense ministers, annual meetings of their foreign ministers, working group to monitor and supervise the implementation of previous agreements between them etc.


The pragmatic and incremental approach the Shanghai Five has taken is important for its success because its initial objectives were limited and fairly easy to obtain. And once they were accomplished, it helped develop a sense of trust and confidence among the Shanghai Five countries. And this trust and confidence became an important basis for them to further their cooperation. That is to say that by limiting their initial objectives, the Shanghai Five countries avoided a situation in which they would begin with ambitious goals and high expectations but only to become frustrated and discontent with one another when they failed to attain the goals and meet the expectations.  

II.                IV.  Tentative conclusion 

In conclusion, the Shanghai Five has accomplished much within a relatively short period of time. It has a promising regional multilateral mechanism for cooperation despite its innate problems. Shared interests, shared norms of international conduct and a pragmatic and gradualist approach have underlined its success so far.

[i] Renmin Ribao Commentator, “Jushi shumu de xieding” (The agreement that holds the world’s attention), Renmin Ribao, April 27, 1996, p.1.

[ii] Renmin Ribao, April 25, 1997, p.1.

[iii] Renmin Ribao Editorial, “Jiaqing mulin youhao, cujin heping fazhan: relie zhuhe jiangzemin zhuxi alamutu zhixing yuanman chenggong” (Enahnce neighborly friendship, promote peace and development: warm congratulations on President Jiang Zemin’s successful trip to Alamutu), Renmin Ribao, July 5, 1998, p.1.

[iv] Renmin Ribao, July 5, 1998, p.1.

[v] Renmin Ribao, August 26, 1999, p.1.

[vi] Renmin Ribao, December 18, 2000, p.7.

[vii] Xinhua News Agency, July 5, 2000.

[viii] Guanming Ribao (Guangming daily), July 6, 2000.

[ix] “Zhongya jiaofei he qi nan” (Why it is so difficult to get rid of the bandits in Central Asia?), Zhongguo Qingnian Bao (China youth daily), August 28, 2000.

[x] Just as Igor Sergeyev, the Russian defence minister, said at the recent meeting between defense ministers of the Shanghai Five: "Today the Central Asian republics are located on the frontline of the fight with the forces of international terrorism and religious extremism." Crescent International, May 1-15, 2000.

[xi] “Zhongya fan kongbu jue bu shouruan” (Central Asia takes a touch approach against terrorism), Huanqiu Shibao (Globe Times), September 1, 2000.

[xii] As P. Stobdan, Research Fellow of IDSA, puts it: “The Uzbeks are everywhere and every other ethnic group lives in Uzbekistan. There are more Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. Besides the Tajik's' core centres are located in Uzbekistan. There are more Pushtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. Eighty percent of Central Asian national boundaries are said to have been drawn arbitrarily, cutting across ethnic enclaves. The destabilisation process is further exacerbated by intra-tribal confrontations which are likely to be more serious than the inter-tribal and inter-regional rifts. Tajikistan provides a clear example, where clans from distinct regions become enemies and make alliances in the pursuit of power.” P. Stobdan, “Central Asia in Geo-Political Transition”.

[xiii] Wang Jianping, Wu Yungui & Li Xinghua, Dangdai zhongya yisilanjiao jiqi yu waijie de lianxi (Contemporary connections between Islamic religion in Central Asia and the outside world) (Beijing: Institute of World Religion of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 2000), pp.155-164.

[xiv] Qingguo Jia,Frustrations and Hopes: Chinese Perceptions of the Engagement Policy Debate in the US”, Journal of Contemporary China, to be published in the forthcoming issue.

[xv] Wang Jianping et al, op.cit., pp.15-16.

[xvi] Ibid., pp.56-57.