When Zhang Ming left his post as China’s ambassador to the European Union and became secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on January 1, Central and South Asia looked a lot different.
The region had already been rocked by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, but in the span of a few decisive days, the path ahead for the career diplomat took an unexpected turn.
Unrest broke out across Kazakhstan in early January, leading to violent clashes sparked by long-simmering, popular grievances and a behind-the-scenes power struggle that culminated in a Russian-led military intervention in the Central Asian country under the guise of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-dominated security bloc.
About seven weeks later, the Kremlin invaded Ukraine, launching the largest-scale conflict in Europe since World War II and triggering a tougher-than-expected Western response that has brought a series of political and economic knock-on effects that continue to reshape both Ukraine's and Russia’s neighbors.
For Beijing, both crises have proved to be revealing tests about the scope and limits of Chinese foreign policy, particularly across Eurasia, where the SCO has been one of China’s main vehicles for engaging with Central and South Asia.
Born from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the multilateral security and economic bloc helmed by China -- which includes India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as members -- must now navigate the fallout across the region from Russia’s Ukraine invasion, including the risk of a food crisis, the ripple effects of Western sanctions against Russia’s economy, and growing anxiety over possible Russian political machinations in Central Asia.
“In general, the war in Ukraine has deeply disappointed the Chinese and also largely derailed their goals for the SCO,” Haiyun Ma, a professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland who studies Beijing's relations with countries in Central and South Asia, told RFE/RL.
For China, the SCO has long been an umbrella for China’s more specific interests in the region and has also come to represent a balance of power between Beijing and Moscow, who cemented their deepening ties together in a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in early February.
But the Ukraine war has thrown that balance off-kilter and experts believe it may never be reset.
“China has been trying to promote bilateral ties with Russia, but also multilateral ones, too, and the SCO was set to play a larger role between Beijing and Moscow,” said Ma. “But Russia’s invasion and the blowback it has brought with the war mean that the SCO is now entering a period of reevaluation. It will need to find a new identity.”
A New Face For Eurasia
Finding that new face will be the task of the 64-year-old Zhang in his three-year term at the helm of the SCO.
During his tenure in Brussels, he earned a reputation as a consensus-maker with an “old-school” approach to diplomacy, in contrast to the brash and confrontational style seen in a younger generation of Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats who have gained headlines in recent years, according to an EU official who dealt with Zhang during his time as ambassador to Brussels.
“He is a man of compromise and pragmatism,” said another EU official who worked with Zhang and asked to remain anonymous.
Both those traits will be needed as Zhang steers around the regional wreckage brought by the Ukraine war.
While not an outright rebuke of the Kremlin, the moves highlight the tightrope the governments in Central Asia are currently walking between their unease and displeasure with Russia’s invasion and the need to preserve what is traditionally a close working relationship.
With brutal fighting under way in Ukraine and nationalism rising inside Russia, countries in the region are eager to avoid getting caught in the Kremlin’s crosshairs while maintaining room to maneuver. They’re also looking to cushion themselves from the effects of Russia’s economic free fall, which has already cut growth estimates across the region.
According to Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center, Russia remains firmly planted within Central Asia, but political fallout from the Ukraine war could lead to Beijing becoming even more appealing as a partner in the region, where it has already invested billions and become its preeminent economic force.
“On the one hand, you have Russia's reputation being damaged and its brand becoming toxic,” Umarov told RFE/RL. “On the other hand, all the Russian assets in Central Asia didn’t disappear. Its economic and security presence is still there and, in addition to that, Moscow still has a deep understanding for how domestic politics works that China does not.”
Founded in 1996 as the Shanghai Five by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, the bloc renamed itself the SCO in 2001 with the introduction of Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan joined in 2018 and Iran’s membership application was approved in 2021, although the country still needs to pass a technical and legal process before it can formally join.
The SCO served as an early format for Beijing to settle lingering territorial disputes with the other members, and China initially had designs for creating a strong economic focus for the bloc. But those efforts were largely pushed aside by Russia, the organization’s other hegemon, who has guarded its influence in Central Asia.
As a result, the SCO consolidated around what it calls the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism and has focused on combatting organized crime and narcotics trafficking, as well as enforcing a loosely defined counterterrorism mandate.
Since its founding, the SCO has faced criticism of being too diluted by competing ideas from its members and bogged down by a lack of funding and underlying mistrust between governments.
In particular, Beijing has been careful about the Kremlin's interests in Central Asia, which it views as within its “sphere of influence,” although in recent years the two countries have strengthened their cooperation.
When Putin and Xi met in Beijing on February 4 and signed a strategic document to hail their “no limits” partnership, they also vowed to strengthen the role and relevance of the SCO with both Beijing and Moscow at the helm.
But now China must navigate the task of embracing many of its members’ desire for more distance from Russia, while still politically backing Moscow in the war, where it has often echoed the Kremlin’s narrative of the conflict and refused to condemn alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
“Due to its size and geography, China’s role will grow, but the SCO won’t have many success stories to point to,” said Umarov. “Beijing is also now seen as a supporter of Russia and as a country that isn't doing much to restrain Moscow when many [SCO members] are seeing it as a potential threat.”
China's Western Neighborhood
Overcoming these problems will be no small task for Beijing.
Zhang and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi have floated the prospect of the SCO playing a mediator role in the Ukraine crisis, but such an idea received little reception outside of Chinese circles and has since vanished from official talking points.
The SCO did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for comment about how the Ukraine war could affect its future, but Giulia Sciorati, a fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, who studies the bloc, told RFE/RL that she believes the organization will look to find new opportunities by broadening its focus more to the Middle East and South Asia and branching out more into economic initiatives rather than the security focus it has taken on in recent years.
“This is an opportunity for China to push the SCO in new directions,” she said. “Beijing will have more on its shoulders than before, but there is still a view from China that the SCO is complementary to other outlets for Chinese power in the region and beyond.”
Prior to his posting as China’s ambassador to the EU, Zhang worked in the Middle East and Africa. Three EU officials told RFE/RL that they view him as one of the architects of Beijing’s policy on that continent, where China has grown into one of Africa's most economically influential actors.
The structure and mandate of the SCO make it difficult for an individual to put a personal stamp on the organization, but EU officials who worked with Zhang in Brussels said his new role should be viewed as a promotion and a sign that he is trusted in Beijing.
As Ma, the Frostburg State University professor notes, this experience could go a long way as both Beijing and the SCO adapt to changes in the region and search for new relevance.
“The SCO has lost a lot of attraction right now,” he said. “But Zhang has a strong [CV] that shows that he could help reform and reframe it as more of an economic mechanism.”