Sometimes protocol can expose power politics in its rawest form. Upon his arrival in Samarkand for this week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit, Chinese leader Xi Jinping was honoured with a welcome from Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. But when Russian president Vladmir Putin arrived he had to make do with the prime minister. So, even before the summit began in earnest, clues had emerged about which of these two big hitters wields the greater influence in the SCO. It perhaps heralded the difficulties Putin would encounter in framing the organisation as an ‘anti-Western’ alliance – even with the presence of incoming member Iran and “dialogue partner” Turkey.
The SCO began life as the ‘Shanghai Five’ (China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan) – an informal gathering to deal with border security issues between China and its post-Soviet neighbours. In June 2001, the founding members took the decision to transform the group into a formal organisation, with a focus on fighting terrorism and religious extremism. This, in turn, conferred it an international legitimacy in the aftermath of 9/11, while allowing each of its members to address homegrown movements (such as Chechen and Uyghur organisations, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or the Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party). With the successive enlargement of the organisation, the topics it addressed extended to infrastructure and economic development, turning it into a forum for political exchange between Russia, China, and their common neighbours in central and southern Asia. Now, members of the organisation – four of which are nuclear powers – represent 44 per cent of the world’s population.
Recently, Russia has sought to frame the SCO as a sort of anti-NATO. It has pushed for a reinforcement of the organisation’s military dimension, proposing a joint military exercise on Russian soil next year. Moscow sees the SCO as the core of a China- and Russia-led anti-Western bloc. That Putin invited Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to attend a summit that Russia was not even organising speaks volumes about the active role it intends to play in the organisation. At the same time, the fact that two of the SCO founding members – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – experienced violent border clashes on the day of the summit illustrates the limited capacities of the organisation to foster collective security in the region.
Other summit participants, however, may be uncomfortable with Russia’s vision. The Uzbek organisers made it clear that they did not want the summit to turn into an anti-Western gathering, while Kazakhstani officials have repeatedly expressed their refusal to support Russia’s war against Ukraine. In their interactions, both countries’ leaders steer away from global geopolitical issues, preferring to focus on regional projects – plans in which Russia, for its part, is far being pivotal. Rather, they involve mostly Chinese and Turkish investments in infrastructure that will actually allow Central Asian countries to circumvent Russia and diversify their export routes.
As for Turkey, President Tayyip Erdogan was the only NATO leader at the SCO meeting in Samarkand. From his perspective, this will kill two birds with one stone.
Ankara’s main goal is to appease Moscow. Turkey has grown economically and politically closer to Russia over the past few years, even purchasing Russian S-400 defence systems – which prompted US sanctions. Erdogan and Putin get along well; they may stand on opposite sides of various conflicts, but they seem united in their belief that a handshake between strongmen delivers a better international order than the liberal one.
In recent months, Ankara has also grown economically dependent on Moscow to provide the money necessary to prevent a balance of payments crisis before the Turkish elections in 2023. In light of this, Turkey has unsurprisingly not joined the Western-led economic sanctions on Russia. Ankara’s commercial relationship with Moscow – from natural gas to trade – is significant for the former’s balance sheets. The Turkish economy is in a perilous state, mainly due to mismanagement and Erdogan’s adamant pursuit of his own economic theories. But, since the beginning of the year, more than $20 billion of unknown origin serendipitously appeared on Turkey’s balance sheets. Turkish economists assume much of this has come from Moscow, including an upfront payment by Russia’s state atomic energy company, Rosatom – which is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. For now, therefore, despite Turkey’s drone sales to Ukraine, Erdogan’s economic and political survival may depend on Putin.
But Erdogan’s appearance at the summit also serves a purpose in Turkey’s relations with the West – as a signal that Turkey has options. Turkey’s “dialogue partnership” with the SCO sends just about the right message: Ankara is no longer a loyal transatlanticist and wants a non-aligned foreign policy, with a foot in each camp. For Erdogan’s government, this provides Turkey with the leverage to maximise its influence in the region and pursue its geopolitical goals.
This SCO meeting is a golden moment for Tehran. More than a decade after it applied to join, Iran has signed a memorandum to fulfil obligations to become a full member – which it expects to do by 2023. Rumours have swirled for years that Moscow and Beijing were blocking the Iranian SCO application, in large part because they sought to protect themselves and the organisation from tensions between the Washington and Tehran. Prior to the 2015 nuclear deal, China justified denying Iran membership due to the latter’s Iran’s status as a sanctioned country under the UN Security Council.
Now, at a time of geopolitical tensions between east and west, the political optics are advantageous for Tehran. China and Russia – who like Iran now face increasing Western isolation and sanctions – are looking to grow the club of countries pushing to establish a multipolar world, and a less powerful United States.
Just days before the UN General Assembly, Iran is seeking to use SCO participation to show the West that it has options in this multipolar world order. Talks between Iran, the US, and European states on restoring 2015 nuclear deal have once again hit an impasse. Iran can therefore demonstrate that it is not beholden to a deal with the US – and can instead cooperate more intensely with China and Russia to build immunity against Western sanctions and pressures. In turn, SCO membership will provide Iran with an insurance policy in case of a showdown at the UN Security Council over the talks – where Tehran would be banking on Moscow and Beijing to thwart attempts at renewed sanctions.
However, the SCO is unlikely to remedy Iran’s biggest problems so long as US sanctions linger and tensions with Washington remain. The big economic player in the SCO club is China. And the two sides have likely hit the ceiling of trade – mostly comprising Iranian oil exports – that is possible, given US secondary sanctions and while Beijing remains mindful of their repercussions. It is unlikely that other major economies in the SCO, such as India, will be willing to risk coming under US sanctions by boosting economic trade and investment with Iran.
On the security front, if the nuclear talks collapse, Iran will face growing escalation with Israel and possibly with the US. Under these circumstances, it is hard to imagine the SCO stepping in to protect Iran: the organisation does not have a NATO-style collective security arrangement and has remained largely passive in recent conflicts – which is in part because SCO decisions require consensus. China’s and Russia’s responses to recent Israeli attacks against Iran indicate that political outreach with the former would be the extent of their support. Finally, the SCO has also balanced Iran’s membership by inviting Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to become “dialogue partners”.
In short, the SCO brings Iran a degree of prestige and political cover, but does little to advance its core economic and security priorities.
This summit is the first time Xi has travelled outside China since the start of the covid-19 pandemic. But, ahead of the Chinese Communist Party congress next month, the president has grasped the opportunity to reassure his friends and foes inside and outside China that he is firmly in control – and that his diplomatic self-isolation has not resulted in China’s absence from the world stage. Quite the contrary, in fact: China’s power and global heft have only grown.
His appearance at the summit reaffirms China’s partnership with Russia at this crucial time. But it also reasserts Chinese interests in central Asia, and – even more importantly – sends a message to the rest of the world. Earlier this year, NATO leaders condemned China as a threat to global order. The G7, moreover, issued a statement warning China against further escalation in the Taiwan Strait. This SCO meeting is the embodiment of a counter-narrative. It is a version of multilateralism, but one squarely within Beijing’s and Moscow’s comfort zone. For example, Xi has conceded just enough in China’s lingering border dispute with India that Narendra Modi is in attendance in Samarkand. In this way, he is providing substance to China’s claims that the West invoking the “international community” for its causes rings increasingly hollow. China has created an alternative multilateral reality, which is not entirely anti-Western, not fully anti-democratic, but – most importantly at a time of growing system rivalry – is certainly not anti-Chinese.
On the eve of the summit, alongside the border clashes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, two other SCO members – Armenia and Azerbaijan – were on the verge of another war. Against this backdrop, it seems highly unlikely that an organisation which includes long-time foes such as India and Pakistan or China and India will become a closer security alliance – or even manage to settle its own internal conflicts.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.