The long-awaited meeting between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the September 15-16 Shanghai Cooperation (SCO) summit may have captured media and pundits’ attention, but its outcome was predictable, with the Russian leader endorsing China’s ascendancy in ties between both sides.
However, there was more to the summit, held in the Uzbek city of Samarkand, than met the eye.
Samarkand, a historical landmark, was one of the key caravanserais along the ancient Silk Road. The city reached political and cultural prominence in the 14th Century during the Timurid Dynasty, not only as a crossroads for spices and silk, but also for cultural and religious ideas.
Today, Beijing is connecting the dots between Central Asia, China’s near abroad, and the Middle East, its strategic source of hydrocarbons.
While the media fanfare was focused on the dynamics of the China-Russia relationship, and if Beijing would give a full-throated endorsement of the Ukraine invasion (it did not), the SCO summit was significant for the secondary headlines: Iran being made a full member of the organisation, Egypt and Saudi Arabia becoming dialogue partners, Türkiye bidding for full membership, and other Middle Eastern countries increasing investments and diplomatic engagement with countries in the group.
Born in 2001 as an aggregation point for China, Russia, and former Central Asian Soviet states, the SCO has now become a prominent platform to counter Western influence in Asia and the Middle East, promoting Beijing’s vision for a multipolar world order.
However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s “unlimited friendship” with Beijing created ripples within the SCO, with the former Soviet states in particular fussing over Russia’s territorial ambitions and apparent Chinese support for this.
It was thus not by chance that President Xi made a stop in Kazakhstan en route to Samarkand. Kazakhstan has not endorsed Russia’s invasion, and has instead moved to increase its distance from its one-time overlord.
Indeed, Astana’s wariness about the Kremlin’s intentions – fuelled further by statements such as that by former president Dmitry Medvedev, who called Kazakhstan an “artificial state” – has sharpened its turn to the West. Mr Xi stepped in, and reassured President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of China’s support in maintaining national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Central Asia and the Middle East share three naturally concurrent trends; The first is Washington’s recalibration of its security footprint as it focuses on the Indo-Pacific.
The second is Beijing maintaining a steady flow of investments in both regions under the aegis of the Belt and Road Initiative ( BRI) while its signature foreign policy strategy is losing its lustre everywhere else. Third, Ankara is expanding its geopolitical and security reach in both regions.
Central Asia, it should be remembered, was the starting point for the BRI. Back in 2013, when it was launched in Kazakhstan, the world was a very different place. Russia, not China, was seen as the “big brother” in the relationship, while the perception of the West’s decline was in its infancy.
At the same time, the SCO was considered a paper tiger by analysts – a perception that still holds in some quarters. The organisation’s failure to intervene in 2010 ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan, and during January’s riots in Kazakhstan, contributed to this.
It did not help that Astana requested help from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) either.
After the summit this month, however, it is becoming clearer what Beijing’s ambitions for the SCO are: It is not meant as a Nato of the East, but as a massive, multilateral counter to the current, Western-led international order. From Tashkent to Tehran, Beijing’s messaging seems to be working.
Beijing’s push to expand its influence from the landlocked countries in Central Asia to the Persian Gulf is not limited to using its economic power. A charm offensive is unfolding as well. For instance, unlike the United States, China does not give lectures on authoritarianism or religious freedom.
Even with its strides, the SCO, beset as it is by contradictions, has some way to go before it fulfils Beijing’s ambitions. For one, any organisation that aims to foster collective security – as the SCO’s charter spells out – needs teeth.
Despite its nascent security moves, such as the “Peace Mission” exercises, it has none at the moment. Future military moves may thus be instructive in divining the organisation’s direction, and viability.
Then there is India. New Delhi is a member of the Quad, and its tepid reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is less a reflection of its leanings than it is a case of making hay while the sun shines: Gobbling up Moscow’s excess hydrocarbons capacity at discounted prices, as well as continuing to stock up on top-of-the-line military hardware.
Pointedly, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, no talks were held between the leaders of India and China in Samarkand.
But perhaps the biggest obstacles to the SCO’s ambitions of being an effective grouping are the rising violence between its members, such as the recent flare-up between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the ongoing distrust between its newest permanent member, Iran, and other Middle Eastern powers who are keen to partner with the organisation.
Türkiye, a Nato member, also has designs on the neighbourhood that are at odds with the SCO’s stated objectives. That leaves aside the outright animosity between India and Pakistan, and suspicion of Russia.
Even for China, this will be quite the ball of yarn to untangle.
Dr Alessandro Arduino is the principal research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. He is the co-director of the Security & Crisis Management International Centre at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and an external associate at Lau China Institute, King’s College London.