When China organizes a new space for vassalage

The summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held in Samarkand (Uzbekistan) on September 15 and 16 left its mark for at least three main reasons: First, because each international summit brings together more than twenty states representing more than 40% of world population is a remarkable event; second, because the CSO is increasingly taking the form of a club of non-Western nuclear powers (China, Russia, India, Pakistan… and Iran); finally because the meeting that has just ended, organized in full withdrawal of the Russian army in Ukraine, highlighted Moscow’s loss of influence in favor of China in this vast Eurasian space.

What is SCO?

First, let’s specify what the SCO is not: contrary to what we sometimes hear, it is neither an alliance nor a “Eurasian NATO” or some kind of “G20 bis”. This organization, still too little known in the West, is a product of the reconstruction of the international order after the implosion of the USSR and Beijing’s desire to assert its influence in its Asian periphery.

[Plus de 80 000 lecteurs font confiance à la newsletter de The Conversation pour mieux comprendre les grands enjeux du monde. Abonnez-vous aujourd’hui]

A first meeting took place in 1996 in Shanghai, between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – hence the original name “Shanghai Group”. Little by little, Beijing will institutionalize this regional platform, which will become the OCS in 2001, integrating Uzbekistan in passing. The organization will organize annual summits on security and economic issues and in recent years open up to new members. The six founding countries in 2001 will be joined by India and Pakistan in 2017, then by Iran in 2021.

Since the Deng Xiaoping era (1978–1989), the Party-state apparatus has implemented “multilateral diplomacy” (duobian waijiao) whose primary ambition is to reshape Eurasian trade routes from China by connecting Central Asia, Russia and Europe.

Several institutional levers ensure this, and OCS in particular. Launched by Beijing and Moscow to stabilize and limit Western influence in Central Asia, the SCO is a diplomatic tool fully invested by Beijing as a space for dialogue and influence, trade and military cooperation. Thus, in 2017, China advocated Pakistan’s entry into the SCO to offset India’s entry, supported in part by Russia. Finally, after several years of discussions, Iran became a member in 2021.

The SCO, whose headquarters are in Beijing, has therefore evolved over the years but remains closed to the West and Japan. It thus brings together today all the non-Western nuclear powers (from Israel and North Korea).

The organization’s governance is articulated, as we have said, around annual state meetings of the member states (the next one should take place in India), but also various functional ministerial meetings (security, economy, finance, education, etc.). Beijing has always favored a Chinese or Chinese government structure. At the moment, the Secretary General, Zhang Ming, is Chinese, and among his deputies we find a Kazakh, Yerik Sarsebek Ashimov, and a Russian, Grigori Logvinov. All are career diplomats, both Chinese and Russian speaking.

Xi Jinping as regional leader

Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Samarkand for the 2022 SCO summit. A few days earlier, he paid a brief state visit to Kazakhstan, a neighbor of great importance in Beijing’s regional politics (through its export of fossil resources and minerals).

These two visits, and Samarkand’s in particular, are crucial to understanding the current priorities of Xi Jinping, who had not left China since late 2019. They take place in an international context made particularly tense by the war in Ukraine and the noticeable deterioration in relations between China and the West; moreover, they are on the eve of the 20th CPC Congress (October 16, 2022).

In Samarkand, Xi Jinping said the SCO should “strengthen cooperation and promote the building of a closer community with a shared future”.

No big surprises in the Chinese president’s statement, but a great opportunity to highlight linguistic elements upstream of the institutionalization of his maintenance of power ad vitam aeternam which will take place during the 20th Congress. The Chinese press insisted a lot on the success of this summit and on the various meetings attended by Xi Jiping, rather than the Sino-Russian bilateral issue.

Despite less and less wonderful economic performance (structural slowdown, Covid-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine and intensifying tensions with the US), Beijing continues to whet the appetite for partnerships, especially as Moscow’s influence appears to be waning significantly in large post-Soviet spaces .

For all the countries in the zone (except India), China is the first economic partner of diplomatic interest and increasingly of security. The major infrastructure and connectivity projects within the framework of the “New Silk Roads” were also mentioned – a very difficult project, especially due to indebtedness, corruption and lack of liquidity of Chinese operators. , where the latter was greatly influenced by the war in Ukraine. The rail and road segments (Ukraine, Russia, Belarus) of these new routes are all at a standstill. Projects to open Afghanistan were also discussed, but above all via an axis through the countries of Central Asia, avoiding Russia…

More generally, the summit made it possible to show China’s weight in the region. Successive bilateral meetings (with Putin, but also especially Iran’s Raisi, Erdogan and Pakistan’s Sharif) were held with the leaders of the various member states, apart from Narendra Modi. The OCS allows Beijing to establish its regional influence without major hindrance, the goal being to become the power of reference and to organize a “periphery of vassalage” in the zone.

SCO to the west

A shining example of the non-Western dynamics of international relations, the SCO constitutes a unique space where rival powers and partners meet to establish their diplomatic roadmap without reference to Westerners.

Attracted by the weight of Beijing in the region, the countries in the zone want to woo the other world power and at the same time get rid of Russian influence. Many states want to join the SCO under one of the three statuses (member, dialogue partner or observer): Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Burma, Maldives…

The presence of India shows all the interest that the SCO has for its members. Narendra Modi is dealing within the SCO with both perennial strategic rival China and nemesis Pakistan, while gaining influence in Central Asia and the Middle East and engaging in “Indo-Pacific patterns” since his relationship with Russia has not been soured by the war in Ukraine.

Moreover, the SCO, sensitive to the immediate international context, has made Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (also a member of NATO…) and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, two expected and visible guests.

Internal wars and instability

Both war and internal instability characterize most of the states present: in addition to the open war in Ukraine, we have very recently witnessed an intensification of the conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan and between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and a major rebellion. in Iran…

All these convulsions are signs, on the one hand, of the weakening of Moscow, the traditional actor of influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and, on the other hand, of the post-imperialist restructuring of the ambitions of the regional power poles. (Turkey, Iran, India, China, etc.). If the SCO is a tool of influence for Xi Jinping, the internal spasms (including the issue of Afghanistan and the Taliban) remain. And let’s not forget that the Central Asian states at the heart of all the problems are asking for more exchanges with Europe.


By Emmanuel Veronteacher-researcher – Naval Academy, National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​​​and Civilizations (Inalco)

The original version of this article was published on The Conversation.