Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first foreign visit since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic – to Samarkand for the SCO summit – seems to have proved largely counter-productive.
China and Russia helped form the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2001, building on its earlier avatar ‘Shanghai Five’ of 1996. Today, the SCO has eight members and several observers, dialogue partners and partner multilateral institutions. It has made some progress in counter-terrorism — through ‘Peace Mission’, ‘Pabbi’ and ‘Solidarity’ exercises — and energy cooperation and multipolarity. Except for China and India, the SCO is still weak in market economy.
When Xi visited Samarkand on September 16, what surprised many analysts was that he made no major headline-grabbing speech nor attended the official dinner. His anodyne address to the summit meeting on “sunny and rainy days” alternating only led to speculation on the domestic and global situation. No significant reports of his bilateral meetings were mentioned, except for that with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which apparently did not go well.
Questionable SCO spirit
The expected meeting at Samarkand between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi did not take place despite the partial disengagement of troops on September 8 at Gogra Heights and Hot Springs in Ladakh. There are at least six more “friction points” where disengagement and de-escalation need to be carried out. The SCO ‘spirit’ is to build mutual trust. However, China’s military aggression against India, a fellow SCO member, has punctured such claims.
Also, the Samarkand Declaration emphasised on fighting terrorism, even as China was putting on hold, once again, sanctions on Pakistan-based terrorists. While Beijing has been bailing out terrorists like Masood Azhar, Zakir-ul-Rehman, Makki and others since 2009, blocking action to proscribe them in the UN Security Council-mandated 1267 Committee, the trend has intensified recently – contrary to the SCO’s spirit and agenda.
The Samarkand Declaration stated that the “global situation is deteriorating alarmingly”. This is in reference to the Ukrainian situation, energy and food crises, supply chain disruptions due to the spread of the pandemic, and others. Xi is also under tremendous pressure due to the persistence of Covid-19 across China, despite his ‘zero covid’ policies, and the resultant relative decline in economic growth rates and social unrest.
However, the undercurrent at Samarkand was the uncertainty brought about by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The supposedly mighty Russian military has been unable to bring Ukraine under its boot even after seven months of fighting. Nor has Putin been able to achieve his stated goals of forcing Ukraine to remain neutral and preventing NATO expansion. The recent withdrawal of Russian troops from Kharkiv further raised doubts in China about Russian superiority.
In early February, a Xi-Putin joint statement had proclaimed their partnership to be “limitless”. Just months later, stark differences have come to the fore between them, including on how far China would go to support Russia against western sanctions. Not just that, Chinese migration to Siberia is changing the demographic profile in Khabarovsk, Krai, Primorovsky and other regions in the Russian Far East. Then there are, of course, issues like Chinese smuggling, IPR theft, espionage for defence technologies, fisheries’ restrictions, etc.
It was reported that at the Xi-Putin meeting in Samarkand, Xi had reiterated his readiness “to work with Russia in extending strong support to each other on issues concerning their respective core interests”. Putin, on the other hand, said he understood China’s “questions and concerns”. A week before the Xi-Putin meeting, Li Zhanshu, the No 3 Politburo Standing Committee member, visited Russia and reportedly assured China’s support for Russia.
Thus, while China-Russia equations on Ukraine, Taiwan and other issues are still shrouded in secrecy, it appears that China is feeling the heat from the NATO countries – together, China’s largest trading partners, with nearly $2 trillion in trade that is heavily beneficial to Beijing. With the Ukraine war dragging on for more than seven months now, China is under tremendous pressure from all quarters. Initially, China justified the Russian invasion, blaming NATO expansion for it. This view is now relatively subdued in Chinese statements.
Xi’s upset apple cart
Increasingly, China is under pressure domestically and internationally for its ties with Russia. Domestically, as China is witnessing relative economic decline, it increasingly needs the support of western countries to resurrect Chinese fortunes. With the 20th Communist Party Congress due on October 16 this year, Xi is under growing pressure from different factions in the Communist Party.
Meanwhile, China’s tacit support to Russian military actions is increasingly alienating Beijing from the western countries. With the Ukrainian conflict at the cusp of the changing regional and international order, Xi must be a worried man. China dreamt of rising to the top to supplant a declining United States. Xi’s apple cart has been upset – the global and regional strategic situation has become more complex.
This article was also published at the Deccan Herald as Xi might want to quickly forget his Samarkand outing on September 25, 2022.
About the Author
Srikanth Kondapalli, Dean, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.
Read more articles by the author at IMPRI Insights