Central Asian SCO Summit Bad News for Putin
Xi didn’t meet Pope or Modi in Central Asia
By: Toh Han Shih
On September 15, Sadyr Japarov, the president of Kyrgyzstan, and Turkish president Recep Erdogan on September 16 each kept Russian President Vladimir Putin waiting during bilateral meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This is a reversal for Putin, who in the past has done that to the late Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, former US President Donald Trump, and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The delays may have been brief, but they were telling, said Temur Umarov, a Fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Vladimir Putin is not in a position to make others wait, but it is okay to let others make him wait,” Umarov said. “Russia needs other countries much more than before.”
To say Putin got roughed up during the two-day meeting of the eight-nation SCO in Samarkand – founded in 2001 by China, Russia, and four Central Asian states – is an understatement. He was lectured by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over his invasion of Ukraine and his pleas for help were largely ignored by Xi, who upstaged Putin with an offer to train thousands of law enforcement personnel in Central Asia over the next five years.
In addition to China and Russia, the SCO includes Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Pakistan and India joined the SCO in 2017. Iran is in the process of joining the SCO.
Russia is not doing well in its war, with Ukrainian troops taking back territory and the Russian Army in disarray. Russia’s economy is in isolation due to international sanctions in retaliation for the invasion, Umarov said. “Russia’s bargaining chip with many countries is much weaker than it used to be.”
Central Asian countries, which used to be part of the Soviet Union, are deeply uncomfortable with Russia’s invasion, wrote Evan Feigenbaum, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an article for the think tank on September 13.
When Putin met Xi on September 15, the Russian leader acknowledged China’s concerns about the war. But while the statement on their meeting by China’s foreign ministry talked of cooperation and said China would strongly support Russia’s “core interests,” it made no mention of the war and expressed no support for Russia in the face of international sanctions. Likewise, when Putin met Modi on September 16, the Russian president acknowledged that the Indian premier had concerns about the war.
“This is remarkable. Xi is not supporting Putin. No weapons, no ammo, no chips, no real words of solidarity. Just a willingness to buy Russian energy at very discounted prices,” tweeted Michael McFaul, a professor at Stanford University, on September 17.
On one hand, China will provide diplomatic support for Russia to counterbalance Washington, wrote Feigenbaum. “On the other, China will continue de facto compliance with Western sanctions to avoid painting a target on its own back, and it will deploy mealy-mouthed language about “peace” and “stability” aimed at placating the Central Asian nations and partners in the Global South that are uneasy about Moscow’s war in Ukraine.”
China Moves in Central Asia
China’s growing economic influence in Central Asia has been a trend in the past two decades, as Asia Sentinel contributing editor Philip Bowring wrote in a September 15 article, pointing out that “Xi has chosen this moment to go to Kazakhstan (as) evidence of a desire to increase China’s influence in a country which, because of its long borders and large Russian ethnic minority, has always been seen to be closer to Moscow than other central Asian states.”
Having long replaced Russia as the biggest trading partner of most Central Asian countries. China is now the biggest provider of credit to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Carnegie’s Umarov pointed out. What is notable about the SCO meeting, he said, was China’s offer to cooperate on security in Central Asia.
In a speech on September 16, Xi said China is ready to train 2,000 law enforcement personnel for SCO member states in the next five years, and to establish a China-SCO base for training counter-terrorism personnel. Xi said SCO member states must “prevent external forces from inciting color revolutions and jointly oppose interference in the internal affairs of other countries.”
Xi’s statement mirrored his concerns about mainland China and Hong Kong. In a speech on September 16, Chinese Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong said the Public Security Ministry must prevent color revolutions. Wang said the Chinese Public Security Ministry must support the police of Hong Kong and Macau, and help Hong Kong turn from the public disorder of 2019 and 2020 to order.
To date, Russia has been the top guarantor of security in Central Asia, Umarov pointed out. But with the army’s recent reversals in Ukraine, Central Asian nations now see China as a provider of security, he added.
“China’s influence with Central Asia will only grow with the years, and Russia’s war with Ukraine will fuel the process,” Umarov said.
No meeting of minds
What is also significant about the meetings in Central Asia is the absence of certain ones that didn’t happen. Xi visited Kazakhstan on September 14, while Pope Francis arrived in Kazakhstan on September 13 and said he is “always ready” to visit China. The Vatican sought a meeting between Xi and Pope Francis in Kazakhstan, but the Chinese government declined, reported Reuters.
Also, when Modi attended the SCO meeting in Samarkand, he met leaders of several countries including those of Uzbekistan, Iran, and Russia, but not Xi. For example, Modi tweeted on September 16, “Had a wonderful meeting with President Putin. We got the opportunity to discuss furthering India-Russia cooperation in sectors such as trade, energy, defense, and more. We also discussed other bilateral and global issues.”
But Modi made no mention of Xi in his tweets on the SCO meeting, a sign of cool relations between China and India whose troops clashed along their borders in 2020 and 2021.
Energy Flows Away From Europe to China
On September 15, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak announced the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany would be replaced by “Power of Siberia 2,” an alternative gas pipeline to China, reported euronews. The minister said Russia and China would soon sign a deal to deliver 50 billion cubic meters of gas per year via the proposed pipeline, close to the maximum capacity of 55 billion cu m per year of Nord Stream 1 between Germany and Russia which has been shut down since September.
Putin, Xi, and Mongolian President Ukhnaa Khurelsukh met on September 15 to agree that the construction of the pipeline, which will pass from Russia through Mongolia to China, will begin in 2024. Starting in 2030, the pipeline will deliver previously Europe-bound gas from western Siberian fields to China. For 2022, Putin predicted a 20 percent growth of energy transfer from Russia to China and Mongolia, of up to 5.2 billion kilowatts.
“In the past, Russia could bargain on natural gas prices with China, but now Russia cannot. Now Putin needs China much more than it did before the war,” said Umarov.
Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consultancy.