Leaders of Russia and China to meet in Central Asian summit in a show of deepening cooperation

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet Thursday for the second time in as many months as they travel to Kazakhstan for a session of an international group founded to counter Western alliances.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping

Astana | Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet Thursday for the second time in as many months as they travel to Kazakhstan for a session of an international group founded to counter Western alliances.

Putin and Xi last got together in May when the Kremlin leader visited Beijing to underscore their close partnership that opposes the US-led democratic order and seeks to promote a more “multipolar” world.

Now they'll be attending a session of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in the Kazakh capital of Astana. A look at the summit:

What is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation? The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was established in 2001 by China and Russia to discuss security concerns in Central Asia and the wider region, Other members are Iran, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Observer states and dialogue partners include Turkiye, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Who's attending this year?

Besides Putin and Xi, and summit host President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, other leaders there will be Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif of Pakistan, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, President Emomali Rakhmon of Tajikistan, and President Sadyr Zhaparov of Kyrgyzstan. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus will attend because his nation is becoming a full member.

Iran is still choosing a successor to President Ebrahim Raisi, killed in a helicopter crash in May, with a runoff election Friday, so acting President Mohammad Mokhbar will attend.

Other guests of the SCO include President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkiye and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan.

Also present will be UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who is visiting Central Asia. Guterres wants “to position the UN as an inclusive organisation that's talking to all the big clubs,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre.

What SCO leaders won't be there?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India is sending his foreign minister S Jaishankar.

What are their goals?

Putin wants to show that Russia is not isolated over Western sanctions from the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

An arrest warrant has been issued for him by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for abductions of children from Ukraine. Kazakhstan is not party to the Rome Statute and thus is not obliged to arrest him.

For Putin, the meeting is about “prestige and the symbolic optics that he's not alone,” Gabuev said.

The meeting is another chance for Putin and Xi to demonstrate the strong personal ties in their “strategic partnership” as they both face soaring tensions with the West. They have met more than 40 times.

Putin's meeting with Xi in May showed how China has offered diplomatic support to Moscow and is a top market for its oil and gas. Russia has relied on Beijing as a main source of high-tech imports to keep its military machine running.

The SCO helps China project its influence, especially across Central Asia and the Global South. Xi called for “bridges of communication” between countries last week and wants to further promote China as an alternative to the US and its allies.

Erdogan could use the meeting to hold talks with Putin, who has postponed several visits to Turkiye. The leader of the NATO member has balanced relations with both Russia and Ukraine since the war began, frequently offering to serve as a mediator.

For host Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian nations, the meeting is a way to further their cooperation with bigger, more powerful neighbours.

Kazakhstan, for instance, frequently engages with both neighbouring Russia and China, while also pursuing links with the West, with visits this year from US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and British Foreign Secretary David Cameron.

What will be discussed?

Countering terrorism is a key focus. Russia had what it has called two terrorist attacks this year, with more 145 people killed by gunmen at a Moscow concert hall in March, and at least 21 people were killed in attacks on police and houses of worship in the southern republic of Dagestan in June. In the March violence, the US warned Russian officials about the possibility of an attack — information that was dismissed by Moscow.

The SCO is not a collective security or economic alliance, and there are “significant security differences between its members,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and a former British ambassador to Belarus. The “principal value” of the organisation lies in the optics of non-Western countries gathering together, he added.

Gabuev agreed, saying the SCO is a place for conversation rather than a platform where "collective decisions are made, implemented and have an impact.” This year, close Moscow ally Belarus will become a full member of the organisation, and its admission indicates how Russia wants to bolster blocs of non-Western countries. Gould-Davies said the SCO is raising its profile “by growing its membership rather than by deepening its cooperation."

Are there tensions within the SCO?

Political differences among some of SCO members — such as India and Pakistan over disputed Kashmir — also make it difficult to reach collective agreement on some issues.

China has backed Moscow amid the fighting in Ukraine, but at a meeting of the SCO in 2022, Putin referred to Beijing's unspecified “concerns” over the conflict. India's Modi then called for an end to the fighting without voicing explicit disapproval of Moscow's action.

The Central Asian countries balance relations with Russia and China while also remaining on good terms with Western nations. None of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia have publicly backed the war, although all abstained on a UN vote condemning it.

Guterres may use the meeting to talk to Putin about how Russia is “disrupting the coherence of the UN,” Gabuev said. Russia has vetoed UN Security Council sanctions on monitoring North Korea and a vote on stopping an arms race in outer space.

With Guterres unlikely to visit Moscow, the Astana meeting is likely his best chance to speak to Putin, Gabuev added.

Will Ukraine be discussed?

Neither Ukraine nor any of its Western backers are attending, and major talks — or breakthroughs — on the war are not expected.

But because it's rare these days for any meeting to include the heads of Russia, China, Turkiye and the UN, the possibility of talks about the war might be raised, at least on the peripheries of the summit, probably behind closed doors.

There could be “a lot of sideline discussions on Ukraine, as it is a big issue which concerns all of us,” a senior Kazakh official told The Associated Press. The official was not authorized to talk publicly, and thus spoke on condition of anonymity.

Gabuev said Putin will try to show there's a “big club of countries” that are “ambivalent” toward the war in Ukraine.

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