By Richard Pomfret*
On September 15-16, 2022, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held its 22nd Annual Summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Unlike previous SCO summits, Samarkand made international headlines in a week when mourning for Queen Elizabeth and the Ukrainian counter-offensive dominated the headlines.
The SCO’s origins date back to negotiations in Shanghai to define China’s international borders with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 2001, these five countries were joined by Uzbekistan in a more structured organization, the SCO, with a secretariat in Beijing and annual summits of heads of state and government. India and Pakistan became SCO members in 2017.
Present in Samarkand were fourteen leaders from the eight SCO members, the three SCO observers – Belarus, Iran and Mongolia – and special guests Azerbaijan, Turkey and Turkmenistan. The countries represented make up almost half of the world’s population.
The dual nature of the SCO sparked interest in the meeting. At its formal meetings, regional economic initiatives are discussed, while leaders also take the opportunity to meet bilaterally. The duality is like the APEC meetings, most of which headlines about opportunities for meetings between the leaders of the United States, China and Russia.
For Central Asian countries, the SCO remains a forum to discuss cooperation projects with Russia and China while curbing the influence of incumbent regional power Russia and fast-rising economic power China.
President of the Uzbek Summit, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, proposed an SCO role in promoting digital literacy and information technology. He called on the SCO to set up an aid fund for Afghanistan as a significant humanitarian step. The main infrastructure initiative was an agreement between China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to build a railway link from Kashi to Andijan.
The SCO has at times provided a useful grouping for Central Asian countries to balance the influence of either Russia or China. After the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, the Central Asian countries refused to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, hiding behind China’s resistance to “splitism”.
The 2008 response was repeated in March 2022, when Central Asian countries joined China by either abstaining or voting against the UN bid deploring Russia’s “aggression against Ukraine.” The situation in Ukraine was discussed again at bilateral meetings at the Samarkand Summit.
The landmark bilateral meeting took place between leaders of Russia and China, in their first face-to-face talks since Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed Russian troops to Ukraine in February 2022. For Chinese President Xi Jinping, it was his first trip abroad since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The two leaders vowed to respect each other’s “core interests” — a euphemism in Beijing for Russian support on Taiwan-related matters. Putin thanked Xi for his “balanced approach” to Ukraine. Xi declared that “China stands ready to work with Russia to reflect the responsibilities of a great country and bring stability to a troubled and interconnected world.”
Xi’s position was more measured than his support for Putin at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022. While China shares Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion, stability in world affairs is more important to Xi ahead of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2022 .
Xi is also concerned about maintaining cordial ties with Kazakhstan, where he stopped for meetings en route to Samarkand and Uzbekistan, the two largest Central Asian countries. Central Asian countries are important suppliers of natural resources such as gas and iron ore and serve as transit countries for rail freight to Europe and the Middle East. Uzbekistan is a key component of Xi’s trademark foreign trade policy, the Belt and Road Initiative. The Kashi-Andijan link will provide a southern alternative to rail routes across Russia.
Xi is aware of Kazakhstan’s security concerns. With a 7,644 km undefended border with Russia and a large Russian-speaking minority living near that border, the resemblance to eastern Ukraine is clear. China remains opposed to “splitism” and has little sympathy for Russia’s dismemberment of Ukraine amid restive minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. Xi’s statement of support for Kazakhstan was unequivocal in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
China’s unenthusiastic support for Russia’s war has been more than echoed by India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Putin that “the present time is not a time for war”. Acknowledging India’s concerns about the conflict, Putin echoed the language he had used with Xi the day before, stating that “we will do our best to end this as soon as possible”.
The leaders of Belarus and Iran have criticized Western sanctions against Russia and reiterated their desire to join the SCO. But even Turkey, Russia’s closest ally, offered no support for the war. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a key broker in the limited deals between Russia and Ukraine, telling SCO leaders that efforts are being made “to end the conflict in Ukraine as soon as possible through diplomacy.”
The smaller Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan had little to say about Ukraine. They must resolve their own conflicts as fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and border disputes over water rights between Kyrgyz and Tajik communities left around a hundred dead in September 2022.
After the lack of support in Samarkand for the Russian offensive in Ukraine, Putin responded with a unilateral military solution. In the two weeks following the SCO summit, he announced the mobilization of 300,000 additional troops and annexed four regions of Ukraine.
*About the author: Richard Pomfret is Adjunct Professor of International Economics at Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe in Bologna and Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Adelaide.
Source: This article was published by the East Asia Forum