By Lukas Fiala
With all eyes on Xi Jinping’s first foreign trip since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a flurry of commentators have been dissecting the significance of Xi’s meeting with Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on Thursday. In the absence of an official confirmation, we weren’t sure if the meeting were to take place at all. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs further procrastinated on giving us a final confirmation during their routine daily press conference on Thursday, stating that they ‘…will release information if there’s any.’
Proceeding with caution in terms of diplomatic signaling makes sense, given the obvious sensitivity of a Putin-Xi summit in the context of Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine and allegations that Beijing may extend a helping hand to Moscow. Yet, the importance of the meeting notwithstanding, we shouldn’t miss two other interesting trends the SCO summit crystallizes.
The fact that Xi traveled abroad is significant in the first place. As we’ve noted a few weeks ago, with a ravaging debt crisis across the Global South and increasingly polarised views on China globally, Xi is returning to in-person diplomacy at a critical time for China’s future as a global power. Domestically, Xi has to grapple with a flailing economy hit by stringent zero-COVID measures in the run-up to China’s most important political event, the Party Congress on October 16th. While we may never know for sure, the fact that Xi chose to travel abroad one month before this important event suggests he is confident in his power base within the Party.
Beijing’s messaging provides interesting insights in this regard. Thursday’s People’s Daily, the Party’s chief mouthpiece, placated Xi’s trip to Kazakhstan on the front page, including a detailed description of Kazakh President Tokayev’s praise of Xi’s ‘outstanding’ (卓越) leadership capabilities. The fact that Xi’s first foreign trip in almost three years was publicized to this extent shows the intersection of foreign policy priorities and domestic regime and leadership legitimacy in Xi’s China. Being seen as a respected world leader is more important than ever for Xi in the context of the upcoming political reshuffle.
In this context, we shouldn’t neglect a second aspect of the SCO meeting: the role of alternative and non-Western institutional arrangements in discussing security policy during times of crisis. As our colleagues Eric and Cobus have been analyzing this week, the SCO meeting is taking place at a time of enlargement with Egypt signing an MoU to become a dialogue member and Iran signaling intentions to proceed to full membership.
India, already a full member since 2017, also has a role to play at the summit, given New Dehli’s involvement in the QUAD and overall US strategy to balance China in the Indo-Pacific. India has further been buying large amounts of Russian oil, limiting the effectiveness of Western sanctions and last week Modi signaled India’s willingness to cooperate with Russia on matters relating to the Arctic at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in the context of refusing to sign on the G7 price cap for Russian oil. Just as his counterpart Xi, Modi is also set to meet Putin at the summit, reflecting how the SCO has emerged as a non-Western forum to discuss crisis-related issues in a non-Western setting.
However, as news from the summit is slowly coming in, it seems bilateral cooperation under the mantle of the SCO also encounters limits. The highly-anticipated Putin-Xi meeting appears to have produced little in terms of concrete policy commitments in favor of the usual talking points. Xi argued that ‘China is willing to work with Russia to play a leading role in demonstrating the responsibility of major powers, and to instill stability and positive energy into a world in turmoil.’ Putin, on the other hand, lauded China’s stance on the war, reiterated support for the One China principle, and reportedly stated Russia ‘understands your [China’s] questions and concerns about Ukraine.
While Russia thus publicly admits some degree of difference in how Beijing and Moscow see the war, the significance of this should not be overblown as it may well cater to China’s interests in framing itself as a more neutral and constructive actor in the Ukraine crisis; an aim Beijing has been struggling to fulfill in the context of its close relationship with Moscow.
This supports Evan Feigenbaum’s argument from earlier this week that China continues to attempt a ‘straddle’ between its interests in maintaining a partnership with Russia while avoiding crossing red lines that may lead to secondary sanctions or alienate Chinese partners in Central Asia already skeptical of Russia’s expansionist ambitions.
It is still early days and we are working with incomplete information about the Xi-Putin rendezvous, but it seems the meeting has consequently not resulted in any major policy shift on China’s side. Xi Jinping might be back on the world stage, but unsurprisingly with China’s own interests in mind.