international analysis and commentary

China’s clever neutrality over Ukraine and the evolution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

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While the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is promoted by Russia as a global counterweight to US hegemony, China – Moscow’s main partner in the organization – is reluctant to openly engage in the great power rivalry.

China of course pursues its own interests and uses the SCO as a venue for doing this. China and Russia are becoming closer bilaterally, but they remain rivals in Central Asia. Following the Crimea crisis, Beijing positioned itself as a neutral actor that preserved links to both Moscow and Western capitals – in fact, it may even view itself as a potential mediator between the West and the rest of the world.

China is emerging from the Ukraine crisis in a stronger position, with both Russia and the West courting it to take their sides: neutrality is proving very advantageous. Beijing can reap the benefits also in the SCO context vis-a-vis the organization’s other members: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. They have no alternative but to adapt to the new circumstances.

Russia regards Central Asia as its traditional sphere of influence. Moscow uses cultural and political ties as leverage in keeping these states in its orbit. The Moscow-led Customs Union already includes Central Asia’s most prosperous state, Kazakhstan – in addition to Belarus. Neighboring Kyrgyzstan is on track to become a full member next year with Russia promising it $500 million to facilitate the process. Tajikistan is set to join in the medium-term future.

At the same time, China promotes its own New Silk Economic Belt Road project that aims to bolster free trade and investment in Central Asia. On November 8, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the establishment of a $40 billion Silk Road infrastructure plan with the aim to build roads, railways, ports and airports across Central Asia. The project has a symbolic meaning too: it aims to resurrect the ancient trading route that once connected China and the Mediterranean via Central Asia and the Middle East. While announcing the project Xi said that China is ready to welcome its neighbors “to get on board the train of China’s development.”

Russia is still the main trading partner for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but China is either second or third and its share is growing rapidly. Xi’s grand ten-day tour of Central Asian states in September, which culminated at the SCO Summit in Bishkek, made it clear that China wants to be the dominant economic force in the region, and potentially an integrating force. This will inevitably translate into various forms of stronger political engagement.

In Central Asia, both Russia and China will avoid direct confrontation but will remain rivals for economic and political influence. In view of Russia’s ongoing confrontation with the West, Moscow needs political allies, however weak or cautious in their support, in order to justify its claims for the multipolar world vision it promotes.

This situation was directly reflected in how the SCO countries voted in the United Nations Crimea Resolution: they all abstained from condemning Russia’s actions openly, but also stopped short of endorsing them. The members of the Organization will remain united on several key international issues, such as the conflict in Syria and the stability of Afghanistan, while the China-Russia rivalry will be pronounced in the economic sphere. The Central Asian states will tend to remain neutral and work to exploit their own neutrality.

The September SCO Summit’s Bishkek Resolution stated that “The member states have been waging a vigorous and consistent fight against international terrorism, separatism.” It is clear that recent actions by Russia – which promoted Crimea’s separation from Ukraine, whether legal or not – are at odds with this statement.

All SCO states have territories that could potentially claim independence or join other states. Northern Kazakhstan has the largest number of ethnic Russians outside Russia after Ukraine. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely credited with the successful preservation of the delicate inter-ethnic balance in his country, and has maintained careful neutrality on the Ukraine crisis. Kyrgyzstan suffers from ethnic tensions in its southern provinces of Osh and Jalal-Abad, which led to the latest revolts there in 2010.

China has been constantly preoccupied with separatism in the Tibet Autonomous Region and the province of Xinjiang, where Uyghur separatists want to establish the independent state of East Turkestan. Therefore, China was reluctant to wholeheartedly endorse Russia’s Crimea absorption as it could then be used as precedent in its internal politics, including possibly by the activists of the protests in Hong Kong.

In the same vein, Russia has so far refrained from openly supporting China in the South China Sea disputes. Russia enjoys a very strong relationship with Vietnam that dates back to the Soviet times, and good relations with the Philippines. At the same time, China and Russia conducted joint military drills in the East China Sea off Shanghai in May, demonstrating their willingness to cooperate also in military affairs.

In sum, both Moscow and Beijing will continue to use the SCO as a platform to pursue their aims in a rather sophisticated manner. China mostly wants to exploit the economic opportunities in Central Asia, while Russia mostly needs to demonstrate that it is not completely isolated on the international stage. Crimea is nearly irrelevant for China just as the South China Sea is nearly irrelevant for Russia, so the two countries give each other silent support to the extent that it doesn’t harm their economic and strategic interests.

At the same time, Russia is both too big to be treated by China as a subordinate partner, and too small economically to stand with Beijing on an equal footing. The two states will pragmatically exploit the SCO to pursue limited goals, but the profound differences in approach and perspective will not be overcome. It is therefore clear that this organization will not morph into a full-fledged alliance.