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China In Eurasia Briefing: Beijing's Leadership Gets Put To The Test At The SCO 


Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin will both attend the summit virtually, reinforcing the SCO's reputation as a hollow talk shop with little practical follow-through.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

We’ll be doing things a little bit differently this week. This is a special edition of the newsletter that is focused on September 16’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit and all of the plotlines to watch. In order to not miss a beat, I’ve assembled a special all-star group of experts who follow the region closely.

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what to follow at the SCO summit.

Beijing's Leadership Gets Put To The Test At The SCO

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has taken on many forms in its 20 years, but the bloc now grapples with its greatest test in how it can respond to the situation in Afghanistan.

Finding Perspective: The SCO -- a Eurasian security bloc that consists of China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- has long faced questions over its relevance and been criticized as a hollow talk shop with little practical follow-through.

That reputation will be difficult to shed, especially as both China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin will not attend the Dushanbe summit in person. Although that may have less to do with the SCO than other factors, as Xi has not left China in more than 600 days and Putin is in self-isolation after COVID cases were detected in his entourage. Both leaders will be attending virtually.

But as Luca Anceschi, a professor of Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow, told me, just because the SCO is a talk shop doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant, especially because the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan has created new opportunities for Beijing to allow its own “regional order to emerge.”

This view is shared by Charles Dunst, an associate with Eurasia Group's Global Macro team, who says that while the SCO is far from being a catchall for Chinese leadership, it can continue to grow in the future.

“The Afghanistan crisis has the potential to breathe more life into the SCO,” said Dunst. “But the fact that the group operates on consensus will probably prevent it from making a significant difference there.”

Why It Matters: The bloc has long focused on what it calls the “three evils” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism -- areas where its largely authoritarian members have tended to see eye to eye.

Moving forward, those talks will only become more relevant as China becomes even more preoccupied with terrorist threats coming from Afghanistan.

As Niva Yau, a researcher at the OSCE Academy in Kyrgyzstan, put it, the SCO isn’t the only arrow that Chinese policymakers have in their quiver.

The organization has its limits, especially with key differences over Afghanistan between rivals India and Pakistan, as well between Tajikistan and the Taliban.

But it can still make headway on issues like drug trafficking, refugees, and terrorism in Afghanistan, according to Yau, and agreement on these are the most likely deliverables for a joint statement to materialize from the summit in Tajikistan.

Pulling back, the SCO also fits into Beijing's future ambitions.

“There is this long-term idea that once there is more consensus about things like security and trade, that the region will then bound together around Beijing and see China as the best provider for these matters,” Yau told me.

Read More

● For a wider look at how the situation in Afghanistan shakes up Beijing’s security calculations in the region, check out this article from Radio Mashaal, RFE/RL’s Pakistani service, and myself.

● My colleagues Bruce Pannier and Muhammad Tahir have a new episode of the Majlis podcast focused on how the Central Asian states have accommodated Beijing over its Xinjiang policies.

● For a more detailed look at the upcoming summit, read this breakdown that I did about the SCO’s interesting history and Afghanistan taking center stage.

Expert Corner: Who Rules The Supercontinent?

Readers asked: “Is China now the leader of Eurasia?”

To find out more, I asked Peter Frankopan, a historian and professor of global history at Oxford who wrote the best-selling books Silk Roads and New Silk Roads. Peter was kind enough to offer an extended contribution for this special edition of the newsletter:

“The tumultuous developments of recent years have helped feed assumptions about U.S. decline on the one hand and of the continued rise of China on the other.

"Certainly, the chaotic leadership of President Donald Trump, the existential problems of the European Union (including Brexit), and the shambolic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan seem to suggest the sun is setting on an Age of the West.

"This is often conflated with ideas about ‘power vacuums,’ about regional and global leadership roles, and about how China will steer unwitting states, not only in Central and South Asia, but elsewhere, too, into its arms through a combination of sweet incentives, access to markets, and the poison pill of debt-trap diplomacy.

"Those who know what they are talking about try to keep a safe distance from the hype, the smoke, and the mirrors that have a nasty habit of confirming biases, fanning fears, and shifting narratives from reality into the imagination. The Belt and Road Initiative, for example, has been highly visible but extremely problematic, with many projects failing to deliver their promised fruits.

"There is no question that China plays an important -- even a central role -- in what is happening and will happen in Eurasia, because of the size of its population, its economy, and its role within global supply chains. That is a seismic change from the world of two decades ago.

"But then again, as we mark 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is not just China that has been on the move. The world has been changing and will continue to do so.

"That process is not plain sailing for anyone -- though as a boring historian will tell you, it might be worth looking to the past from time to time to figure out what happens when the wheels of history go through the kind of rapid acceleration that has marked the first 21 years of the 21st century.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From The SCO

1. Tajikistan’s Diplomatic Dance

One of the more intriguing storylines to watch is Tajikistan’s hostile relationship with the Taliban and how this could be a wrench in China’s plans to reach an agreement on Afghanistan.

The Holdout: As my colleague Bruce Pannier explained in a recent blog post, Tajikistan is strongly opposed to the Taliban and there will be no Afghan delegation at the summit, despite the country being an official observer of the SCO.

Dushanbe’s position is driven by Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s authoritarian president, who has called for a more inclusive Afghan government and is positioning himself as a regional protector of ethnic Tajiks, which make up about one-third of Afghanistan.

My colleagues in Dushanbe at RFE/RL’s Tajik Service told me that the local Afghan Embassy had asked to participate in the summit but was rebuffed. There are also unconfirmed reports that Amrullah Saleh, the ousted vice president of Afghanistan, could also attend, but that would be a dramatic development.

A key move to watch, says Edward Lemon, an expert on Central Asia at Texas A&M University, is how much Beijing and Moscow are willing to lean on Tajikistan over the Taliban and how far Dushanbe is willing to bend

“This policy is obviously out of sync with the other Central Asian countries and Tajikistan's main external partners: Russia and China,” said Lemon. “I don't doubt that the Russian and Chinese sides will raise this. And it will be interesting if we see Dushanbe moderate its tone.”

2. Bringing Iran Into the Fold

Beyond the attention being put on Afghanistan, full membership in the group for Iran is said to be on the table at the upcoming summit, with recently elected Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi slated to attend.

A New Member: Iran had faced resistance toward full SCO membership in the past and is currently an observer in the bloc, but as Nicole Grajewski, a fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, explained to me, Tehran’s appeal as a member and the SCO’s own values have shifted.

“[Tehran] has substantial experience in dealing with narco-trafficking and refugee flows from Afghanistan, which in many ways elevates the importance of Iran in regional security,” she said.

Beyond that, ties have continued to warm between China and Iran, with the two countries signing a 25-year cooperation deal in March.

“If Iran’s application for the SCO is approved, it will likely indicate the organization’s attempt to project its identity as a more comprehensive regional security organization,” Grajewski said.

3. The Kremlin Is Ready To Flex

While much attention has been paid to how the Taliban’s takeover is an opening for China, it is also a moment for Russia to bolster itself across the region.

The Big Guns: Moscow still views Central Asia as part of its “sphere of influence” and the Kremlin has long feared spillover from Afghanistan destabilizing its neighbors.

In recent weeks, Russia has stepped up its military cooperation and held several exercises with the Central Asian countries through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-led military bloc that does not include China.

But as Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, sees it, it’s still an open question whether this is Russia’s way of showing its “influence over China, or whether it is in fact a demonstration by Moscow of the value it can offer to Beijing in helping stabilize their shared Eurasian backyard.”

“It has been interesting to see the degree to which China is keen to coordinate with Russia and let them take the lead,” he said.

Across The Supercontinent

The Xinjiang Picket: Police in Almaty, Kazakhstan, have dismantled tents set up by protesters in front of the Chinese Consulate as part of an overnight protest over the disappearance of their relatives in Xinjiang, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reported.

Bidding War: Three foreign companies (one British, one Turkish, and one Chinese) have all expressed interest in getting the contract to build a thermal power plant in Bishkek, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported.

Stonewalled: Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations’ rights chief, said that her attempts to gain access to Xinjiang to investigate the treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have not succeeded.

Breaking Ground: Construction of the first Chinese vaccine factory in Europe, set to produce Sinopharm, began in Belgrade, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported.

A Growing Footprint: A new study from the Center for the Study of Democracy finds a connection between an influx of Chinese capital into a country and a negative impact on its environment and the quality of governance. Read my interview with one of the report’s authors.

One Thing To Watch

Taiwan is sending a delegation to Central and Eastern Europe to bolster ties as it seeks to take advantage of growing disenchantment in the region toward mainland China.

The 65-member delegation will visit the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Slovakia in October. The trip comes on the heels of a deepening spat between Beijing and Vilnius over the Baltic country opening a diplomatic trade office in Taiwan.

Taiwan has long-standing relations with the region that have been boosted during the pandemic as many Central and Eastern European countries have donated vaccines to Taipei.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is a correspondent for RFE/RL focused on China in Eurasia. He previously worked for Foreign Policy magazine in Washington and Moscow and has reported across Europe and Central Asia for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Politico Europe.

About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

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