By Richard Pomfret*
On 15–16 September 2022, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held its 22nd Annual summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Unlike previous SCO summits, Samarkand made the international news in a week when headlines were dominated by mourning for Queen Elizabeth and the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
The SCO’s origins go back to negotiations in Shanghai to delimit 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 body, the SCO, with a secretariat in Beijing and annual leaders’ summits. 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 represented countries constitute almost half of the world’s population.
The dual nature of the SCO piqued interest in the meeting. Its formal meetings debate regional economic initiatives, while leaders also take the opportunity to meet bilaterally. The duality is like APEC meetings, whose headlines are most often 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 simultaneously seeking to restrain the influence of the incumbent regional power, Russia, and the rapidly rising economic power, China.
Uzbek Summit host President Shavkat Mirziyoyev proposed an SCO role in promoting digital literacy and information technology. He called on the SCO to launch an assistance fund for Afghanistan as a significant humanitarian step. The most important infrastructure initiative was an agreement between China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to build a rail link from Kashi to Andijan.
The SCO has at times provided a useful grouping for Central Asian countries to counterbalance the influence of either Russia or China. After the 2008 Russia–Georgia war, Central Asian countries refused to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, sheltering behind China’s opposition to ‘splittism’.
The 2008 reaction was rerun in March 2022 when Central Asian countries joined China in either abstaining from or voting against the UN motion deploring Russia’s ‘aggression against Ukraine’. The Ukraine situation was revisited in bilateral meetings at the Samarkand summit.
The standout bilateral meeting was between the leaders of Russia and China, in their first face-to-face talks since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into Ukraine in February 2022. For Chinese President Xi Jinping, it was his first trip abroad since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The two leaders pledged to respect one another’s ‘core interests’ — a euphemism in Beijing for Russian support on issues related to Taiwan. Putin thanked Xi for his ‘balanced approach’ to Ukraine. Xi asserted that ‘China is willing to work with Russia to reflect the responsibility of a major country and inject stability into a troubled and interconnected world’.
Xi’s position was more measured than his backing of Putin at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022. While China shares Russian concerns about NATO’s expansion, stability in world affairs is more important for Xi in the run-up to the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress in October 2022.
Xi is also concerned about maintaining cordial relations with Kazakhstan, where he stopped for meetings on the way 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 economic policy, the Belt and Road Initiative. The Kashi–Andijan link will provide a southern alternative to rail routes through Russia.
Xi is aware of Kazakhstan’s security concerns. Sharing a 7,644 km-long undefended border with Russia and a large Russian-speaking minority near that border, the similarity to eastern Ukraine is clear. China remains opposed to ‘splittism’ and, with restive minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, has little sympathy for the Russian dismemberment of Ukraine. Xi’s statement of support for Kazakhstan was unequivocal in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
China’s less-than-enthusiastic support for Russia’s war was more than echoed by India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Putin that ‘today’s time is not a time for war’. Putin acknowledged India’s concerns about the conflict and echoed the language he had used with Xi the day before by stating that ‘we will do our best to end this as soon as possible’.
The leaders of Belarus and Iran criticised Western sanctions on Russia and reiterated their desires to join the SCO. But even Turkey, Russia’s closest ally, failed to offer support for the war. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a key broker in the limited deals between Russia and Ukraine and told SCO leaders that efforts were being made ‘to finalise the conflict in Ukraine through diplomacy as soon as possible’.
The smaller Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan had little to say about Ukraine. They have their own conflicts to resolve as fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno Karabagh and as border conflicts over water rights between Kyrgyz and Tajik communities left around one hundred dead in September 2022.
Following the lack of support in Samarkand for the Russian offensive in Ukraine, Putin responded with a unilateral military solution. In the fortnight after the SCO summit, he announced the mobilisation of 300,000 additional troops and annexed four regions of Ukraine.
*About the author: Richard Pomfret is Adjunct Professor of International Economics at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe in Bologna and Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Adelaide.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum