AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
This week, leaders from more than a dozen Asian nations – including China, Russia, and India – gathered in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for the annual meeting of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The summit featured a number of notable meetings between heads of state, as well as comments from Russian President Vladimir Putin on the ongoing war in Ukraine. But one thing that became clear throughout the two-day event is that, under the leadership of President Joe Biden, the United States is at grave risk of losing its vital influence in Asia.
Created in 2001, SCO was envisioned as a Chinese-Russian alternative to U.S.-led alliances in Asia. Initially comprised of 5 founding members, the organization has now grown to 9 member countries – with the latest, Iran, being officially added on Thursday in what should be an extremely concerning development for U.S. leadership. Though SCO was initially billed as an economic partnership, China and Russia have in recent years worked to expand military cooperation between member states.
A number of other countries in which the United States has strategic interests have also been granted “observer” or “dialogue partner” status with the SCO, including Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Based on details of the talks and negotiations that took place this week, it looks increasingly likely that these countries may be falling into the orbit of China and Russia.
In total, SCO represents around 40 percent of the world’s population and 24 percent of the global GDP. Aside from India, no member nation can be considered a democracy, and member states like Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran represent some of the most repressive regimes in the world.
On the first day of the summit, Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first meeting between the two since the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics. The SCO Summit also marks Xi’s first foreign trip since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though some commentators viewed it as a good sign for the United States and the West that Putin had to admit to “Chinese concerns” regarding the war in Ukraine, and noted that Xi did not express outright support for the war, the overall result of the meetings was an undoubtedly positive one for Russia. A week before the summit, Li Zhanshu, the third-highest ranking member of the Chinese Politburo, assured President Putin that, despite not offering open support for the war against Ukraine, China believed the invasion was “a worthy Russian response to American provocation.” Additionally, at the summit, China and Russia announced plans for a “Mongolia Economic Corridor,” a special economic zone that will connect Russia’s far east regions with northeast China.
As Shi Yinhong, a professor at the National University in Beijing and an advisor to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, explained, it is not Chinese pity that will help Russia, but an increase in Chinese imports of Russian energy. According to reports from Bloomberg, China has increased its spending on Russian energy by more than 75% this year alone. Professor Yinhong also added that for Xi, especially when preparations are underway for the 20th CCP Congress, allowing Russia, a core partner in the SCO alliance, to fail would be disastrous.
Russia also announced closer cooperation with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan at the summit, further illustrating how much the Biden administration has lost America’s foothold in Central Asia. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has long sought to gain more influence over these former Soviet states – particularly Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with their rich natural resources. These nations have long been in conflict with one another, and in recent years Russia has shown a willingness to act as an arbiter and strong central authority to reduce conflict.
But Russian assistance comes with a cost. Moscow has demanded that these nations not participate in further military exercises with the United States like the U.S.-led Regional Cooperation 22 exercises held in Tajikistan in August with forces from the United States, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. Top leadership at the Kremlin has claimed that any U.S. presence in the region threatens Russian national security and must not be tolerated.
According to the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant, next year Kyrgyzstan will open a supply, logistics, and servicing base for Russian hardware. This represents another positive development for both China and Russia, as the two countries have been cooperating closely on a number of economic and military endeavors. As Russia’s influence grows in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, so too does China’s.
For China’s part, Xi Jinping also bound his SCO partners with trade agreements that benefit China in the event of U.S. sanctions, in order to create an “economic pillow” in case of conflict between Beijing and Washington. Additionally, China has announced a number of railway lines through Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that will allow Beijing to extend Chinese influence into Iran, Turkey, and Europe. Notably, the track gauge for these new rail lines will be Chinese.
These developments have directly rebuffed various American efforts to build outposts in the former Soviet Union to serve as a check on Russia and foster a pro-democracy climate in Central Asia. Far from idealistic notions of flourishing free societies, authoritarianism seems to be on the rise in Asia and elsewhere.
What became strikingly clear at this year’s SCO Summit is that Biden’s repeated foreign policy disasters have both emboldened America’s adversaries and frightened her allies. Following the U.S. failure in Afghanistan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Central Asian nations are increasingly looking to Beijing and Moscow as their best chance for security in the region. Clearly recognizing Biden’s weakness, China is forming new partnerships to dominate the global economy with little pushback from the United States. These threats will only continue to grow until U.S. leadership steps up to address them.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.