Amid the attention paid to the Putin-Xi meeting, Beijing has advanced its goals in Central Asia.
The recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on 15-16 September marked the first time since the start of the pandemic that the Chinese leader Xi Jinping traveled abroad. The summit was also deeply influenced by the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine and especially its recent military setbacks.
As Russia’s fortunes seem increasingly volatile in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin dearly needed a public appearance with Xi Jinping and preferably open Chinese support, too. Yet, Xi did not voice his public support for Russian actions and the tone of the Chinese statement was rather subdued. This was in stark discrepancy with the rhetoric from January when the two leaders proclaimed a partnership with no limits at a pre-Olympic meeting in Beijing.
This time, Putin had to reassure his “comrade” that “We understand your questions and your concerns in this regard [Ukraine]” – a clear sign that Beijing is unhappy. More importantly, China still appears unwilling to support Russia beyond diplomatic and rhetorical support.
Although for Russia, the summit was mostly about China, for the latter, the gathering provided an opportunity to advance its more ambitious agenda in terms of cementing its clout in Central Asia amid flagging Russian influence in the region.
Gaining on Russia’s Losses
China has tried to grasp the opportunities created by Russia’s unsuccessful war. Central Asian countries that fear Russia’s ambition are now more willing than ever before to cooperate with China and others as potential balancers against Russia. These nations’ multi-vector foreign policy is not only about economic benefits, but also geopolitical flexibility.
Xi’s itinerary underlines how Chinese diplomacy seeks to explore these openings. Before the SCO summit, the Chinese leader visited Kazakhstan – a critical node in China’s sprawling Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – and supported the country’s sovereignty against external threats. The official Chinese readout from the meeting was particularly noteworthy in the light of Kazakhstan’s tumultuous internal developments this year. The unrest in early 2022 and the troubled relations with Russia, which has questioned Kazakhstan’s sovereignty amid the war in Ukraine, make the Chinese statement especially interesting. It seems that Xi’s words were directed as much against non-regional powers as against Kazakhstan’s northern neighbor. During his visit to Astana, Xi also signed agreements worth some $23.6 billion.
On the sidelines of the SCO summit, China also inked an agreement with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan on the construction of the regionally critical railway connecting the three countries. Previously beset by delays due to internal unrest and lack of financing in Kyrgyzstan, but also due to implicit Russian opposition, the project is now seemingly going ahead.
The timing of the deal is notable, coinciding with shifts in the Eurasian connectivity. With the routes through Russia now hampered as a result of Western sanctions, China seeks alternatives. The Middle Corridor is an attractive option, but it requires significant investment in infrastructure in Central Asia. China is now devoting efforts and resources to making the alternative route viable.
Beyond the railway project, Uzbekistan, like the neighboring Kazakhstan, is at the core of China’s push for greater influence in the region. In Samarkand, Xi signed agreements with his Uzbek counterpart worth $16 billion, dwarfing the $4.6 billion deals that Tashkent agreed on with Moscow.
The diplomatic mission of Xi Jinping built upon the most recent tour of Central Asia by the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. The foreign minister re-assured the countries of Beijing’s support for their territorial integrity and sovereignty. This comes at a time when the role of Russia as a security guarantor is being put into question, not at least due to the impotence of Russia-led CSTO. The recent deadly border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both members of the grouping, epitomize the weaknesses and growing unreliability of Russian security umbrella.
Expanding SCO and Benefits of Weakness
Another issue on the agenda of Chinese diplomats in Samarkand was the enlargement of SCO. Since the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the race for expansion of various geopolitical blocs in Eurasia has accelerated. Just as the EU laid out significant plans to expand in the wider Black Sea region, BRICS members announced willingness to enlist new regional and global actors such as Iran, Indonesia and others.
For China, the need to have a larger pool of partners has become more urgent as it might be shifting its rhetoric on SCO’s importance – the grouping might increasingly turn into an anti-Western club for Beijing. China wants to show it has partners with whom it can work when necessary in limiting the collective West’s reach in the Indo-Pacific region. Adding new actors such as Iran, Turkey and others serves additional goals of creating a favourable geopolitical situation in the Middle East.
However, expanding the organization may limit its functionality and ability to achieve its aims. The grouping’s charter is already ambitious enough, covering issues from fighting terrorism to deepening economic cooperation. However, little in terms of tangible results has been achieved so far. From China’s perspective, its diplomatic achievements in Central Asia were primarily results of bilateral, transactional agreements, not of multilateral processes.
SCO expansion will also exacerbate the differences between each member’s understanding of the organization and its purpose. For Russia it is mostly an anti-Western club, for China, the organization is about advancing its influence in Central Asia and attaining limited goals of fighting terrorism, extremism and separatism. Finally, for smaller players, such as Uzbekistan, SCO has never been defined in opposition to other actors.
Competition in Central Asia is bound to be rampant. China will be pushing against Russian influence where it sees it in conflict with its own interests. The unofficial division of labor between the two Eurasian powers in the region seems increasingly untenable, given Russia’s weakness that China will use to its advantage. But when it comes to combatting non-regional actors and their involvement, China and Russia might still embrace some sort of a condominium system, as for China, cooperation on geopolitical rivalry against the West ultimately outweighs bilateral disagreements.
The article was primarily published by China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE)