Beyond Meeting Putin, Xi Promotes China as Asia's Security Leader at Summit

While the first meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia since Moscow launched a war on neighboring Ukraine has taken the spotlight of the ongoing Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, Beijing has outlined a much more ambitious agenda for the high-level gathering.

Xi's tour into the heart of Asia, first to Kazakhstan and then Uzbekistan, where the summit is being held, marks his first trip abroad in nearly 1,000 days. And, at a time of international unrest stemming from crises over Taiwan and Ukraine, both backed by the U.S. in challenges to China and Russia, respectively, Beijing is looking to sow the seeds of a new security order in Asia.

"With its economic and proxy war against Russia and increasingly provocative actions against China, countries around the world can no longer avoid acknowledging the U.S. as one of the greatest threats to global peace and prosperity," Andy Mok, a senior fellow at the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, told Newsweek.

"Not surprisingly," he added, "this has created a much greater need for systemic ways to counter this threat with the SCO and its multidimensional political, economic and security focus and consensus-based approach."

Mok also noted the growing nature of the SCO itself, a bloc established in June 2001 as Moscow and Beijing signed their post-Cold War Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. It now comprises eight full-time member nations: China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Observer state Iran has signed an accession to join as well, and others, including Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have sought greater engagement.

"The SCO is gaining greater momentum and influence," Mok said. "However, perhaps more important than the growing organizational capability of the SCO is the conceptual framework supporting it, namely, China's Global Security Initiative (GSI)."

China, Xi, Russia, Putin, Mongolia, meeting, SCO
China's President Xi Jinping (R), Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Mongolia's President Ukhnaa Khurelsukh (unseen) hold a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) leaders' summit in Samarkand on September 15. ALEXANDR DEMYANCHUK/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images

The initiative debuted in April at the Boao Forum for Asia and has since been broadcast to other regions, such as Africa. It consists of six principles that include "Maintaining common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security; Respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries; Respecting the purposes and principles of the United Nations charter; Peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries; Maintaining security in traditional and non-traditional domains; and Upholding 'indivisible security.'"

Mok said that this last principle specifically was "the one likely to receive the greatest attention and interest in both resolving the Ukraine conflict and neutralizing destabilizing American provocations in the Pacific."

Global instability has also brought with it economic uncertainties, including sanctions levied by a broad coalition led by the U.S. and its allies against Russia, and new threats of economic restrictions mounted by Washington against Beijing over its claims to Taiwan.

"In parallel," Mok said, "the economic dimension of the SCO is likely to also become more important to its participants."

He cited recent reporting by the Tehran Times showing that Iran's imports from SCO countries have increased by some 68% over the past year. The Islamic Republic continues to be targeted by stringent U.S. sanctions put in place when former President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear accord, which has yet to be revived despite more than a year and a half of negotiations among signatories.

This situation, along with other interactions with SCO member states, serves as an opportunity for the People's Republic to back up its vision with real-world value.

"China's GSI, and how it is manifested at the SCO, is a great example of how China is increasingly a provider of global public goods that promotes a more just and benign global order," he said.

Sana Hashmi, a fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation in Taipei, told Newsweek that Tehran's accession to SCO membership "will be beneficial for Iran as it is looking to deal with sanctions." She noted that the bloc's expansion began years earlier with the membership of nuclear-armed South Asian rivals India and Pakistan, whose leaders were both in attendance at the SCO summit despite their tortured bilateral ties.

On the issue of security, however, Hashmi, who previously served as a Taiwan Foreign Affairs Ministry fellow at National Chengchi University's Institute of International Relations and as a consultant to the Indian External Affairs Ministry, said that the "dominant" group was still the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

The CSTO is a Moscow-led alliance comprised of half of the SCO as members, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. Despite conducting joint military exercises, Hashmi said that "SCO has not yet acquired a latent security role in the region."

"China has been hesitant because SCO was not established as an anti-West grouping," she said. "It simply existed for member countries to address the immediate concerns within the region."

Hashmi argues that in this mission the SCO's growing relevance has been a win for Beijing, especially in light of the host region for the summit.

"For China, it has been getting support for its fight against the so-called 'three evils' [extremism, ethnic separatism and terrorism] and keeping a check on Uyghur's activities in the region," Hashmi said. "China has not sought to forge alliance partnership in the region but the relations with the SCO members are based on mutual benefit, and the SCO has been a successful case of China's diplomacy in Central Asia."

Beyond the immediate region, Hashmi said that "China's priorities lie in the ASEAN and South Asian region," and "its focus is on challenging U.S.' ascendancy in the Indo-Pacific region, noting that Xi would likely gather support for its "aggression" against Taiwan, which is claimed by Beijing and backed informally by Washington.

The Taiwan Strait was subject to its most serious crisis in decades last month, after China responded to a controversial visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with massive People's Liberation Army exercises.

Unlike regional reservations toward Russia's war in Ukraine, however, Hashmi said that "China is more secure vis-à-vis One China Policy" when it comes to the Taiwan issue, "and all members barring India strictly adhere to the One China Policy."

As for India, Hashmi said the disengagement by Indian and Chinese forces along the Line of Actual Control just before the SCO summit "was a positive development," but "it remains to be seen if this extension of an olive branch is actually a peace offering."

"Convincing countries that they should stay away from the great power rivalry, then try to shape the narrative in its favor, are two of the major objectives for Xi." she added.

Shanghai, Cooperation, Organization, flags, Samarkand, summit, Uzbekistan
The flags of Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states and affiliates are seen as a man rides a bicycle in downtown Samarkand on September 13. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Uzbekistan could prove to be an ideal venue in which China could pursue this goal, according to Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

"The fact that Xi has chosen to visit Central Asia and attend this SCO summit on his first overseas trip in more than two years does not come as a surprise to me," Hart told Newsweek. "Under Xi, China has elevated the importance of 'periphery diplomacy,' which calls for focusing on relations with its neighbors, and I think this visit is a clear signal that China prioritizes its Central Asian neighbors and the SCO."

"China specifically views the SCO as a critical mechanism for shaping regional order," he added. "I think Beijing also hopes to use the SCO as a testbed for larger ambitions to shape global order."

Echoing Mok, Hart said that "Xi has promoted his Global Security Initiative (GSI) during his trip and I think China aims to enmesh the GSI into the SCO as a means of legitimizing the concept."

"There are already signs that many Central Asian countries are receptive to the GSI in principle," he added, "but it is not yet clear what this will mean in practical terms going forward."

Still, Hart argued that the SCO was not "a perfect mechanism for shaping global order" in its current capacity. Like Hashmi, he pointed out the position of India, which is simultaneously a member of the U.S.-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue alongside Australia and Japan. Given their lasting geopolitical differences, he said Beijing's efforts may face "pushback" from New Delhi.

He also said that China's focus on Central Asia would require a careful balancing act.

"While China and Russia have achieved significant levels of security cooperation through the SCO," Hart said, "their interests are not always aligned."

So far, Beijing and Moscow have sought to unite Xi's Belt and Road Initiative with Putin's Eurasian Economic Union, but the dawn of the Global Security Initiative could prove to be yet another Sinocentric project in a traditionally Russophone region.

"If Moscow perceives that Beijing is pushing too hard to shape security dynamics in the region through initiatives like the GSI," Hart said, "it may push back in an effort to retain its influence there, where it has long held sway."