On 16 September, at the close of the 22nd Meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, the leaders issued the Samarkand Declaration.
The declaration states that the countries continue to rule out “bloc, ideologised and confrontational approaches to addressing international and regional development problems”, and affirm the relevance of initiatives “to promote cooperation in building a new type of international relations in the spirit of mutual respect, justice, equality and mutual benefit, as well as forming a common vision of creating a community of shared destiny for humanity”.
With the inclusion of common ideas and phrases from Chinese diplomacy, the declaration has a clear Chinese flavour, indicating China’s leading role in the SCO.
With the inclusion of common ideas and phrases from Chinese diplomacy, the declaration has a clear Chinese flavour, indicating China’s leading role in the SCO. This status seems even more obvious with the SCO’s other head honcho Russia mired in the Ukraine war.
One important outcome of this SCO summit is its expansion. Iran — the US’s biggest opponent in the Middle East — is in the process of completing admission procedures, while Russia’s key ally Belarus has initiated proceedings to join. Meantime, key Middle Eastern countries Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have signed memoranda of understanding to be dialogue partners of the SCO; the summit also approved the decision granting the same status to Bahrain, the Maldives, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Myanmar.
Expansion of the SCO and worries of an ‘Asian NATO’
The SCO’s expansion shows that this international organisation established in 2001 by China and Russia still holds a strong pull. Even though the SCO has reiterated its three principles of non-alignment, non-opposition and not targeting a third party, some Western observers remain concerned that the SCO might become an “Asian NATO”.
For China, after experiencing hostile containment by the US-led Western alliance in a rapidly changing world, there is no doubt the SCO has given China the wherewithal to resist.
He [Xi] took a central role in the summit, and created a better international atmosphere for the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress next month.
In view of this, in a change from his on-screen interactions with world leaders since the pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the SCO summit in person, and took the opportunity to visit Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
During the summit, Xi met leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and attended the sixth meeting of leaders of China, Russia and Mongolia. He took a central role in the summit, and created a better international atmosphere for the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress next month.
The international community has focused much on the meeting between Xi and Putin. Both sides stressed that they would continue to deepen their strategic partnership. However, China stuck to being a neutral mediator in the Ukraine war and Putin could only express understanding of this position. At their bilateral meeting, he said he understood that Xi had questions and concerns about the situation in Ukraine but praised China's “balanced” position.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price later expressed concern about the deepening China-Russia relationship, but also noted that China has not provided military assistance to Russia or aided Russia in a systematic way to evade sanctions, hinting that the US currently has no reason to find fault with China over its relations with Russia.
Building stronger bridges with the Central Asian region
Apart from affirming China-Russia relations, Xi’s visit has also deepened Chinese cooperation with various Central Asian countries. The latter will help China build influence in Central Asia, promote its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), drive China’s western region development and stabilise security on its northwest border.
Once the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway is built, Russia can be bypassed in favour of Iran and Turkey on the way to Europe. Evidently, Russia dreads this outcome.
For instance, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed a cooperation agreement to construct the roughly 500 km-long China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway. When ready, it would be the shortest means of transporting goods from China to Europe and the Middle East, cutting the freight journey by 900 km and saving seven to eight days in shipping time. It would also be an important conduit for China’s New Eurasian Land Bridge.
The CKU railway plan never got off the ground for over 20 years mainly due to Russia’s opposition. Russia has always seen Central Asia as its turf and would not let other major powers muscle in. Not to mention that Russia reaps economic benefits from the China-Europe Railway Express which passes through Russia en route to Europe. Once the CKU railway is built, Russia can be bypassed in favour of Iran and Turkey on the way to Europe. Evidently, Russia dreads this outcome.
Notably, at the SCO summit, Russia changed its long-held stance and did not oppose the CKU railway project or China’s attempts at expanding and deepening cooperation with Central Asian countries.
However, since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, Russia has faced comprehensive sanctions from the West and serious losses from the war. It has little energy to focus on maintaining its dominance in Central Asia, and is becoming increasingly reliant on China. Notably, at the SCO summit, Russia changed its long-held stance and did not oppose the CKU railway project or China’s attempts at expanding and deepening cooperation with Central Asian countries.
Not all rosy
That said, China’s outcomes at the summit were not all rosy. While six countries including Kazakhstan and Russia endorsed China’s BRI in the Samarkand Declaration, India refrained from doing so. During the summit, Xi did not meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and neither did Chinese media report any sort of interaction between both leaders.
This shows that China-India relations did not improve substantially despite the withdrawal of troops along part of their shared border ahead of the summit. Apart from their border conflict, India also firmly opposes the BRI.
India believes that China is using the BRI to expand its influence. The BRI’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor runs through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, claimed by India. India also joined the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India in large part to counter China’s BRI.
The fact that Xi and Modi did not meet bilaterally or interact much with each other at the SCO summit demonstrates that China-India relations are still strained. It would be difficult for bilateral relations to improve in the short term as well.
Related: Xi-Putin meeting in Uzbekistan: China pulling back from Russia | Implications of Xi Jinping resuming overseas trips before 20th Party Congress | Xi Jinping embarks on Central Asia visit amid a changed world | Will China and Russia join hands to push for an alternative world order? | China's softening stance on its ‘no limits’ relations with Russia