In the week before the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Bishkek on September 12, Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping visited four countries on China’s western flank—Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan—and met their presidents. In between these visits, Xi attended the G20 summit in Moscow on September 5, where he affirmed the “sound momentum” of U.S.-Chinese relations with President Barack Obama, congratulated China and Russia on their 50 joint projects with President Vladimir Putin and brushed off Japanese President Shinzo Abe in a five-minute meeting where Abe warned of “great difficulties” that Japan and China were “unwilling to see” in the East China Sea (South China Morning Post, September 7).
At the SCO Summit, Xi also met the president of SCO observer Mongolia and held a three-way meeting with Putin and Ayatollah Rouhani , the leader of SCO observer Iran. Xi’s Journey to the West yielded more concrete results than his visit to California in July 2013, where he generated “positive optics” with President Obama but no specific deliverables. In Central Asia, Xi signed landmark energy and infrastructure deals with all five Central Asian leaders and made key policy announcements on Chinese foreign policy related to NATO, Afghanistan and Syria.
Xi’s deals demonstrated the SCO’s relevance as the diplomatic engine of Chinese-Central Asian relations even though the security and economic purposes for which the SCO was founded take place bilaterally on the sides of the Summit. The structures of the SCO are less relevant than the opportunity that the SCO Summit affords China to network with Central Asian governments, advertise Chinese economic preponderance in Central Asia on the international stage, and portray Central Asian unity on key international security issues.
Silk Road Economic Belt
In a speech in Astana on September 7, promoted as “historic” in the weeks before in official media reports, Xi proposed a “Silk Road Economic Belt,” the term echoing the U.S.-proposed “New Silk Road.” Unlike the New Silk Road, which features Afghanistan as the “Asian Roundabout” connecting South Asia, Central Asia and Europe, the Economic Belt heads eastward from Afghanistan and Central Asia to China’s Xinjiang Province—although, according to Xi, it would also extend to the Baltics. While the New Silk Road has suffered from lack of implementation, the Silk Road Economic Belt is in high gear.
During Xi’s visit to Uzbekistan’s Silk Road hub of Samarkand, he emphasized his roots in Shaanxi Province, whose imperial capital, Xian, was the Silk Road’s eastern terminus. The Economic Belt would revive Silk Road routes, but with silk replaced by oil and gas. The high-profile deals that Xi concluded in the run-up to the SCO Summit included:
- Inaugurating the first phase of production at “Galkynysh,” the world’s second largest gas field, during his visit to Turkmenistan on September 4 (China Daily, September 4);
- Striking a $5 billion deal in Kazakhstan on September 7 that will provide China with a stake in the Kashagan oil project in the Caspian Sea; three months before this Kazakhstan prevented Houston-based ConocoPhilipps from selling the stake to China’s geopolitical rival—India’s state-run company ONGC (Xinhua, September 7; Interfax [Almaty], September 7);
- Signing $15 billion worth of deals in the oil, gas and uranium sectors in Uzbekistan on September 9, while also promising governmental exchanges between China and Uzbekistan and stating that all countries should “choose their social institutions and development paths in accordance with their respective national conditions (SCMP, September 13);”
- Establishing a “strategic partnership” with Kyrgyzstan on September 11, while also agreeing to $3 billion for energy projects, which will fund a 225-kilometer Kyrgyzstan-China gas pipeline to pump gas from Galkynysh via Uzbekistan and Kyrgzystan to Kashgar, Xinjiang (China Daily, September 11)
- Although Xi did not visit Tajikistan, meeting with the Tajik president in Bishkek to launch the construction of Line D of the China-Central Asia gas pipeline, which links Tajikistan to Xinjiang.
Aside from these bilateral deals, there was little to show in terms of institutional economic initiatives, such as the SCO Free Trade Zone, which China proposed in 2011. Rather, China has expanded its rail, road and pipeline routes from Xinjiang to Central Asia bilaterally. These Chinese-Central Asian ties will permanently bind Chinese and the region’s infrastructure and economies together.
Although China may have had the largest economic footprint in Central Asia since 2009, if not earlier, when the China National Petroleum Company completed the Kazakhstani portion of the Turkmenistan-China natural gas pipeline, only now is China marketing its economic deals in Central Asia on the international stage. China may have wanted to avoid sounding alarm bells about its economic activities in the region until Chinese predominance was secured. The SCO Summit in Bishkek and Xi’s launch of the Silk Road Economic Belt was, in this sense, China’s coming-out party to the world in Central Asia.
Syria Takes Center Stage
In Xi’s speech at the SCO Summit, he discussed Syria more times than Afghanistan. This is despite Afghanistan’s role as an SCO observer and its borders with Xinjiang and Central Asia. The SCO’s Tashkent-based Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) is also focused on countering insurgent threats, including those from Afghanistan, but rarely on extra-regional security. And although the 2002 SCO Charter calls for “cooperation in the prevention of international conflicts and their peaceful settlement,” the SCO has never focused on the Middle East, especially with the post-2013 U.S-NATO drawdown from Afghanistan creating new security risks in Central Asia.
However, Xi’s use of the SCO Summit to promote a united SCO position on Syria was based on SCO members’ mutual interests. For Russia, Xi’s support of Putin’s plan to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles assuaged Russian concerns about U.S. unilateralism and the SCO becoming a China-centric institution. China showed that the SCO still defers to Russia as the region’s main power in international diplomacy. Meanwhile, intra-regionally, China has never challenged the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or Russia’s bilateral security deals with Tajikistan to maintain a Russian troop presence in the country until 2042 (Xinhua, June 5, 2012). These incentives are likely to preserve Russian interest in the SCO even despite China’s economic rise.
Xi’s shift in focus from Afghanistan to Syria may also signal a long-term policy for the SCO to serve as a counterweight to U.S. and NATO security operations beyond the traditional NATO area of responsibility. Chinese military experts since 2012 have portrayed the SCO as an “eastern NATO” and blamed NATO for the “turmoil and instability” in Afghanistan and Libya (shijiemil.com, June 10, 2012; sina.com, June 14). Shen Jiru, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argues that because China and Russia are Asia-Pacific powers the SCO should extend its mandate to that region. According to Jiru, this would restrain NATO’s evolving role as the “world’s security center,” which, unlike the United Nations, does not require Chinese and Russian approval to carry out military operations (Phoenix News, May 23, 2012). Other Chinese analysts believe that the country’s lesson from being “bullied” in the South China Sea is that it needs to assert itself more strongly in Central Asia vis-à-vis the U.S. (Author’s notes from panel of Chinese experts on Central Asia at an SCO Conference in Shanghai, July 2013). The SCO provides China with a mechanism to extend its influence from the Middle East to Asia-Pacific without appearing to act unilaterally.
Finally, in terms of national security, Syria is closer to Kashgar, Xinjiang than Beijing is to Kashgar, and Syria has increasingly risen on China’s radar in 2013. There is evidence of Uighur militants as well as North Caucasians, Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs, Tajiks and Uzbeks fighting against the Syrian government, and in early September the Chinese Embassy in Damascus came under fire from the rebels (Global Times, September 4). The Pakistan-based Uighur-led Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which seeks to “liberate” Xinjiang from its “Chinese oppressors” and operates with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), al-Qaeda and the Taliban, has promised support to the rebels. The threat of jihadist veterans from Syria returning to Central Asia resurfaced when Kyrgyzstan reported that it broke up an Islamic Jihad Union cell targeting the SCO Summit on September 11 (Akipress, September 20). Several weeks prior, Chinese security forces killed 34 people in a three-day period of raids on terrorist “facilities” in Kashgar (RFA, September 17). China, Russian and their neighbors in Central Asia would benefit from a negotiated end to the civil war more than U.S. military involvement or a rebel victory that could spur raise the morale of Central Asian jihadists, who could return home after their mission in Syria finished.
The SCO Summit in Bishkek heralded a “Xi era” in Chinese-Central Asian relations and signified Chinese overall leadership of the SCO, while reaffirming Russia’s stake in the institution. The SCO also proved that it is not a monolithic security or economic institution, but an avenue for China to pursue its economic and foreign policy objectives in Central Asia through a multilateral framework. In a world where institutions such as NATO, ASEAN and the African Union are playing more prominent roles in regional affairs and the UN is no longer a check on U.S. power, the SCO has the potential to unite Central Asia, China and Russia on the Grand Chessboard of Eurasian geopolitics.
The SCO still remains untested, however, and the post-2013 Afghanistan security environment could expose its vulnerabilities. An armed incursion into the region by an Afghanistan-based militant group, such as the IMU or its Tajik affiliate Jamat Ansarullah, a breakout of ethnic clashes, such as ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyzs in southern Kyrgyzstan, or the split of eastern regions of Tajikistan from Dushanbe’s control could require external military intervention. In such a scenario, China would not be able to resolve the conflict because, like NATO, its security forces would lack the local language and socio-cultural dynamics of the region. Only Russia would likely be able to intervene under the auspices of the CSTO, but even this would be a major challenge for Russia, which opted not to intervene in the clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyzs in the Fergana Valley in 2010.
This, however, highlights the likely benefits of further coordination between the SCO and NATO on areas of mutual interest, the importance of building Central Asia’s capacity to deal with internal conflict, and the value of the less-reported social and cultural exchanges between China and its Central Asian neighbors.