Spreading Cyber-Autocracy? The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Diffusion of Norms of “Internet Sovereignty”


It is often suggested that autocracies are on the move, actively expanding their reach in and through regional organizations. Among these regional organizations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is said to be a prime example of an autocratic club that promotes illiberal norms to quell domestic opposition and foreign interference far beyond its borders (Russo 2018: 186-188). While there is much truth to this claim, there is a lot more heat than light regarding the concern about an ever-growing community of autocracies (Way 2015; Libman/Obydenkova 2018a). In practice, all international institutions, including autocratic regional organizations, serve the functions their masters ascribe to them.

Autocracies select the competences delegated to international institutions judiciously, so as not to extend international commitments in ways that constrain national autonomy beyond what their rulers had intended (for an overview: Dreher/Lang 2018). Comparative studies on membership in international organizations stress that democracies not only establish and join international organizations more often than other regime types, they also choose membership for specific reasons (Mansfield/ Milner/Rosendorff 2002; Mansfield/Pevehouse 2008). They further show that democratic and autocratic regime subtypes vary significantly in their membership and engagement with specific forms of international organizations (Rickard 2010; Mattes/Rodriguez 2014; Tallberg et al. 2016). It follows from this strand of literature for governments and commentators concerned with regional autocracy centers that the SCO represents an important case because it raises important questions about the necessary internal and external conditions for an “autocratic gravity center” to emerge.

In turn, studies on autocratic regionalism suggest that these institutions serve both external and internal functions for their member states (Allison 2008; Libman/Obydenkova 2018a; Russo/Stoddard 2018). Externally, they allow for collectively mimicking successful Western practices as well as hiding illegitimate practices behind faqade institutions to provide external recognition and reputation as members of the international community of states. Internally, these autocratic regionalisms help to delegitimize intrusive Western concepts and establish both ideological and material support for promoting alternative norms (Russo/Stoddard 2018: 3-4). In doing so, they establish a regional belt of “protective integration” (Allison 2008) to fend off unwelcome international expectations and to promote domestic regime legitimacy, resulting in a pattern of autocratic cooperation that coincides with democratization pressures from democratic regional organizations such as the EU (Libman/Obydenkova 2018b).

Authoritarian gravity center (AGC) reasoning builds on the assumption that in a set of dense regional interaction, an autocratic country that is both materially powerful and immaterially attractive enough for neighboring autocracies to follow its lead, may thus constitute a protagonist of autocratic policy diffusion (see Kneuer/Demmelhuber 2016; Kneuer et al. 2018). The important point in our context here is that AGCs occur only under certain conditions: on the one hand, an AGC must be a hard- line/moderate autocracy that has the capacity and strong willingness to shape a target state’s policies, the relations with which are characterized by strong interdependence; on the other hand, the target state must have an asymmetrical relationship with the AGC and has to be a hardline or moderate autocracy that is tied to a regional network which is promoted by the AGC (Zumbragel in this volume).1

The SCO, the world’s largest regional organization in terms of geographic coverage and population size, arguably has been a hotbed for the promotion of global counter norms. Under the banner of “respect for civilizational diversity,” Chinese officials in particular have described the SCO way of doing things as the “Shanghai spirit” (Cooley 2016: 52). This spirit, as Thomas Ambrosio has argued, encloses the strengthening of state sovereignty and noninterference, the promotion of a “democratization of international relations,” and the rejection of the imposition of political and economic conditionality by global institutions (Ambrosio 2008). In contrast to the EU, which holds aspiring members to specified benchmarks, the SCO offers a flexible range of options other than membership (see Table 9.1 below).

Beyond supporting autocratic regimes in the region, the Central Asian regional grouping has promoted a new political concept for the cyberspace since the mid-2000s: the so-called “internet sovereignty.” Under this concept, sovereign rights of governments are also extended vis-a-vis citizens and foreign powers to regulate and control all information available within the territorial boundaries of a state (Deibert 2015: 70). As most SCO members have seen a dramatic rise in net connectivity over the past decade, this raised the question how they can preserve the respective core values of their regime. If more and more information became available on the state of affairs in SCO member states, then governments

Table 9.1 SCO Evolution of Membership, Observer, and Dialogue Partner Status

Shanghai Cooperation Organization 2001-present



Dialogue partners

PR China. India (2017), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,

Pakistan (2017), Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan (2001)

Afghanistan (2012), Belarus (2010), Iran (2005), Mongolia (2004)

Armenia (2015), Azerbaijan (2015), Cambodia (2015), Nepal (2015), Sri Lanka (2009), Turkey (2012)

Source: Own compilation.

Note: Names of original Shanghai Five countries appear in bold letters.

increasingly have to control the information their citizens may get (Drezner 2010). The question arises then which role the SCO played for member state governments to address these new information security concerns (Iasiello 2017b).

Paradoxically, the SCO’s cyber cooperation record is mixed: Among SCO member states, cyber cooperation is comparatively low, limited to offline information exchange on terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Similarly, most of the soft- and hardware exchanges seem to take place, if at all, on a bilateral basis. Abroad, however, the SCO appears to aspire to the role of a “global norm entrepreneur” in cyberspace, defending the transfer of the normative status quo of state sovereignty from the offline world to the online world (Lantis/Bloomberg 2018). In the global contestation with the United States and other Western powers, the SCO, but in particular its leading members Russia and China, defends an alternative order in which state agents function as the primary authorities. In contrast, in the US-sponsored multistake holder concept, non-state and civil society actors play an important role to promote liberal rights of citizens against governmental intrusion (Iasiello 2017a; Nocetti 2015a).

All this implies that the SCO primarily serves a defensive, if pro-active, purpose of protecting Central Asia’s autocratic regimes against the intrusion by democratic values rather than (actively) promoting autocratic rule among member or neighboring states (Sharshenova/Crawford 2017: 13). Moreover, it appears to serve two important additional functions: on the one hand, the SCO is an instrument of great power accommodation. It was an important external tool for the Chinese central government to stabilize its unruly northwestern region of Xinjiang (Cabestan 2010). In a similar vein, the SCO has served as a balancing tool for Sino- Russian great power rivalry through the parallel admission of India and Pakistan. On the other hand, smaller and middle powers, in particular Kazakhstan, have utilized the SCO (and increasingly the Belt-and-Road

Initiative [BRI]) to protect their autonomy vis-a-vis great powers, particularly Russia, by emphasizing their “multi-vector diplomacies” and employing different organizations to fend off great power expectations (Ambrosio/Lange 2014; Lohschelder 2017).

This argument holds in particular for SCO cooperation in the cyber realm. In the cyberspace, autocratic great powers promote “internet sovereignty” as an alternative norm to the Western concept of a free and open cyberspace, while lesser authoritarian powers autonomy concerns restrict active cyber cooperation to bilateral software exchanges and guarded online information-sharing about oppositional forces in the offline world. It follows that autocratic regional cyber cooperation patterns in the case of the SCO primarily result from external pressures.

Though necessarily speculative at this point, the article traces this peculiar choice of functions for the SCO by its member states back to a mix of external and internal pressures for the organization’s member state authoritarian governments. External pressures, such as the perceived common threat by democratic revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, the Middle East, as well as the deployment of US and Western forces in and around Afghanistan, have triggered a functional expansion of the SCO in common anti-terrorism, drug, and territorial defense policies (Cooley 2016: 53). Internal pressures, however, such as the Russian violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, have limited the functional delegation of competences to the organization, because the largest members tried to contain relative security or economic gains by their respective rivals (Wishnick 2017; Lanteigne 2018), while smaller and medium powers sought to limit autonomy losses vis-a-vis larger powers or rivaling medium powers (McDermott 2012; Cabestan 2013).

The analysis proceeds in three steps. The chapter first tracks the growth of functional cooperation in the SCO since its inception in the early 1990s, traces the influence of great power rivalry between Russia and China, and explores the nature and role of the autocratic regimes in Central Asia in limiting it. Then the role of the SCO as a global norm entrepreneur is examined and contrasted with the dearth of deep regional cyber cooperation. In the final section, the changing incentives for autocratic cooperation in Central Asia are outlined, and the impact of the recent accession of Pakistan and India to the SCO is discussed.

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