At the recent SCO summit in Bishkek, both Russia and China sought to increase their diplomatic and economic clout with the increasingly important states of Central Asia.
Russia and China share concerns over regional security in Afghanistan after 2014. Pictured: A deputy of the Afghanistan parliament. Photo: RIA Novosti / Alexander Natruskin
On Sept. 13, both Chinese and Russian leaders arrived triumphantly in Bishkek for the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Vladimir Putin was completing his Syrian diplomatic tour de force that was sealed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva, and was undoubtedly elated by his handling of the recent St. Petersburg G20 summit.
Meanwhile, General Secretary of China's Communist Party Xi Jinping was completing his diplomatic tour of Central Asia – a tour that was extremely successful for Beijing in terms of new economic deals and demonstrating the relentless growth of the Chinese regional footprint.
The Bishkek meeting showed that the Sino-Russian chapter of the New Great Game continues in the form of internal rivalry within the SCO. While members of the organization continue to share concerns over regional security – concerns that are particularly acute in the wake of the 2014 International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) withdrawal from Afghanistan and continuing concerns over Iran – both China and Russia are now emerging as competitors for economic and diplomatic influence within the SCO.
At first glance, it appears that Moscow showcased its strengthened diplomatic credentials during the SCO summit. Putin obtained support for Russia’s position on Syria from the SCO members, but this was hardly high-hanging fruit given the organization’s long-standing criticism of regime change. Indeed, outside the SCO, Beijing’s coordination of its position on Syria with Moscow appeared limited despite continuing calls for bilateral strategic partnership.
Putin’s engagement of the new Iranian President Hassan Rohani and discussion of Iran’s nuclear prospects was a move to promote the Kremlin as an influential mediator for dealing with Tehran, which is a key player for managing not only the Afghan conundrum, but also the Syrian one.
Since 2014 will be a litmus test for the SCO’s security provider capabilities, preparations for shouldering the Afghan transition involving the presence of Afghan President Hamid Karzai were arguably the most significant matter at the summit, albeit less newsworthy. Both Iran and Afghanistan are observer states of the SCO alongside India, Pakistan and Mongolia.
Although the SCO has often been hailed as an alternative pole in global politics and has a history of successful regional cooperation on border issues, institutionally, the SCO is still in search of a viable political raison d’être. As a result, the organization is considering enlargement as one way to increase its profile. While the bloc’s budget remains inferior to that of NATO (its perceived rival for Eurasian security), Beijing steadily continues to use the SCO as part of its own version of the New Silk Road.
(Editor’s note: The New Silk Road and New Great Game are increasingly used to refer to contemporary geopolitics and the great power rivalry in Central Asia and its neighboring states. Scholars of international relations may refer to the comprehensive Central Asian diplomatic strategies of the different powers as "Silk Road" projects, whether or not the official rhetoric of the respective country actually uses the term.)
Meanwhile, Beijing keeps pumping money into Central Asian energy and infrastructure on a bilateral basis. Prior to the Bishkek summit, Xi secured an agreement for a fourth line of the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline, which will pass through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Beijing will provide a loan to finance the pipeline construction. In Uzbekistan, Xi and President Islam Karimov signed $15 billion worth of agreements, including those relating to the pipeline.
Kyrgyzstan will reportedly get more than $2 billion for hosting a section of the pipeline. Chinese pipeline geography thus covers all former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In addition, Chinese oil major CNPC has recently acquired an 8.3 percent stake from KazMunayGaz in the giant Kashagan offshore oil development project in the Caspian Sea.
Energy infrastructure in Central Asia. Infographic by Natalia Mikhaylenko
Most notably, the Chinese initiative of establishing an in-house development bank for the SCO is bound to increase Beijing’s economic clout inside the organization and in the region in general. The supply of financial aid to Central Asia is very competitive: the Silk Road’s countries already benefit both from bilateral relations with numerous donor countries and from cross-membership in several development banks (e.g. EBRD, ADB, IsDB and others) where Russian influence is negligible or non-existent. The past decade marked the apparently irreversible progress of Central Asian infrastructure projects that bypassed Russia with the aim of diversifying the region’s export routes (e.g. TAPI, CAREC).
From this perspective, the Bishkek summit had some limited success for the Kremlin’s diplomacy in the region: the SCO agreed to develop its own transport corridors, while Putin’s offer for creating an SCO Development Fund could be a potential counterweight to the Chinese development bank project. The discussion on both development finance initiatives is scheduled for the November SCO summit between the heads of governments in Dushanbe. However, outflanking China’s high-profile financial expansion throughout Central Asia will require from the Kremlin a genuine diplomatic masterstroke that will be much more complicated than even the one used to broker the Syrian deal.