China’s President Xi Jinping (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand on September 15. Photo: AFP
Wai-Hong Tang and Elmira Joldybayeva
Wai-Hong Tang and Elmira Joldybayeva

Did the SCO summit signal a Pax Sinica emerging in Central Asia?

  • Global ambitions aside, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation remains key to tackling regional unrest and economic uncertainty
  • Amid Russia’s struggles in Ukraine, China is likely to play a greater role in Central Asia, although Beijing’s influence will be limited by distrust among the populations of these countries
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) heads of state summit in Samarkand last week drew much international attention, not only because it marked Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first foreign trip in more than two years, but also because it was the regional grouping’s first in-person gathering since the outbreak of the Ukraine war.
Not surprisingly, the focus was on China and other member states’ position on Russia’s “special military operation”. Much as the case was during Russia’s conflicts with Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, the SCO neither endorsed nor opposed Moscow’s action, though Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his concerns to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader also acknowledged that Xi had “questions and concerns” about the war.
Meanwhile, border clashes between Kyrgyz and Tajik troops continued even as the presidents of the two Central Asian states attended the summit. Notwithstanding the Samarkand Declaration’s pledge to create “a more representative, democratic, just and multipolar world order”, maintaining stability in a region in motion remains the SCO’s top priority for now.

Since it was founded in 2001, the SCO has been the subject of speculation and imagination. Some see it as the “Nato of the East”; others dismiss it as a “hollow talk shop with little practical follow-through”. Both perspectives, however, overlook the organisation’s role as a political framework acceptable to all, an institutional platform where member states have equal right to voice their concerns and participate in regional governance.

Heads of member states meet at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on September 16. Photo: Foreign Ministry of Uzbekistan/Reuters
The principle of non-intervention and consensus-based decision-making have certainly constrained the SCO’s impact both on regional security – for example, it lacks the mandate and capabilities to respond to emergencies such as the riots in Kazakhstan in January – and on regional economic cooperation, wherein Beijing’s proposals to establish a free trade area and a development bank have in effect been shelved.

Nonetheless, in light of the vulnerabilities of the region and instability in other parts of the post-Soviet sphere, the SCO has played a crucial role in empowering Central Asian states and stabilising the existing regional order.

China’s deteriorating relations with the West and the growing strategic pressure it is facing in East Asia mean that Beijing will view Central Asia with increasing interest, as shown in the upgrading of the “China+Central Asia” (C+C5) mechanism from the level of foreign ministers to heads of state this year.
To reassure Russia, Beijing has maintained a tacit bargain with Moscow, wherein they recognise and respect each other’s interests in the region. The Sino-Russian condominium is likely to continue amid their tightening strategic partnership against the West. However, Russia’s struggle in Ukraine and the shifting balance of power will change the regional dynamics.


Ukraine’s shock counteroffensive on eastern front pushes back Russian invasion forces

Ukraine’s shock counteroffensive on eastern front pushes back Russian invasion forces

The war and Western sanctions have disrupted supply chains for Central Asian states, brought down remittance flows, and affected other aspects of commercial activity.

Amid increasing uncertainty in the global economy, China’s importance as a market, trade partner and investor will continue to grow. This was manifested in the signing of the agreement on the long-awaited China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, a project that had been opposed by Moscow.
Although it remains unlikely that the SCO will develop rapid response capabilities like the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, uncertainty over Afghanistan’s future, domestic unrest in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and the Kyrgyz-Tajik border clash signify growing security risks in Central Asia.
Kyrgyz refugees from Batken, on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, arrive in Boz-Adir in southwestern Kyrgyzstan on September 17. Photo: AP
The strengthening of China’s cooperation with Kazakhstan in security and law enforcement demonstrates Beijing’s readiness to play a more active role in stabilising the region against the threat of “colour revolutions” and the “three evils” of separatism, terrorism and extremism.

Nonetheless, a Pax Sinica is unlikely to define the regional order in Central Asia, at least in the short term. As regional states seek to reduce their dependence on Russia, they are equally wary of the risks of overdependence on China, as highlighted by Kyrgyzstan’s debt crisis last year.

Although Beijing has painstakingly cultivated its relations with Central Asian governments, lingering mistrust of the rising power among the populations of these countries has continued to limit Chinese influence in the region.

How China is inadvertently yet radically reshaping Central Asia

An ongoing development that might have important implications is the SCO’s expansion, with the accession processes for Iran and Belarus under way. Meanwhile, a number of countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have applied for or been granted the status of dialogue partner.

While it might be too early to see the SCO as the embodiment of a new world order, the organisation has established its central role in the long-term stabilisation of Eurasia.

Wai-Hong Tang is an independent researcher on the international political economy of East and Central Asia

Elmira Joldybayeva is an associate professor in the Institute of Diplomacy at the Academy of Public Administration under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan