Xi Jinping made the first overseas visit by a Chinese leader since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last week when he traveled to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. The visit to Kazakhstan was meant to deepen the permanent comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Kazakhstan, and expressed appreciation to the nation’s President Tokayev for attending the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. The Chinese leader also traveled to Uzbekistan, where he participated in the Samarkand Summit (Council of Heads of State) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and held consultations and exchanges with the leaders of the member states, observer states and dialogue partners to discuss the future development of the SCO.
Relations with Central Asian countries are an important part of China's diplomacy. Central Asia is located in the hinterland of the Eurasian continent and is a key link to the ancient and modern Silk Road. Since the launch of the Silk Road Economic Belt, China has been an active contributor to the socio-economic development of Central Asian countries, which has largely advanced their infrastructure. This has helped the Central Asian nations improve their logistics efficiency and attract significant foreign investment, which has also led their export value indices to increase by significant margins. In addition, China’s development banks and policy banks (financial institutions) have launched micro-credit schemes and programs in Central Asia, which has spurred the development of small and private enterprises and enabled more Central Asian residents to realize their dreams of prosperity.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are the two key powers in Central Asia and a focal point for China's Central Asian diplomacy. In terms of energy cooperation, the China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline has delivered a total of nearly 190 million tons of crude oil to China, and the southern gas pipeline under construction in Kazakhstan will help solve the problem of gas consumption for four southwestern Kazakh states. The Central Asian gas pipeline through Uzbekistan has already benefited more than 500 million people in China. Additionally, for some Central Asian countries, 90% of the technology used for projects such as oil refineries and hydropower stations are sourced from Chinese energy companies. Thanks to China's long-standing position on seeking mutual benefit and win-win cooperation, Central Asian countries have actively aligned with China to deepen their strategic partnership. On January 25, 2022, the leaders of China and the five Central Asian countries issued a Joint Declaration on the 30th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations. The document announced that China and the five Central Asian countries have ushered in a new era in their relations. The six countries are determined to continue to work together to build a strategic partnership that features enriched substance, fruitful outcomes and lasting friendship, and to build a China-Central Asia community of shared future while accommodating each other's interests.
The SCO is much more challenging for China’s foreign policy than the participating Central Asian countries. The most prominent structural issue is that an expanded SCO faces heightened uncertainties in managing both internal and external relations, including the relationship between old and new member states, and the relationship between them and the international community, all of which will affect the effectiveness of the SCO's multilateral cooperation. As for this SCO summit, Iran and Sino-Russian relations were two focal points, both of which are related to the U.S. and Western relations. Iran's relationship with the SCO dates back to 2005, when the fifth SCO summit decided to accord observer status to Pakistan, Iran and India. Seventeen years later, with Pakistan and India having already become full members, Iran officially signed the Memorandum of Understanding to join the SCO, largely because the Iranian nuclear issue had hindered its accession to the SCO.
However, in May 2018, the U.S. Trump administration unilaterally announced its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, and restricted Iran's oil exports through economic sanctions, forcing Iran to resume negotiations on the Iran Nuclear Deal as demanded by the U.S. As a result, the SCO membership is to some extent a tool for Iran to circumvent the negative effects of U.S. sanctions. In the aftermath of the Ukraine war, the U.S. and its NATO allies listed China as a "systemic challenge" and characterized Sino-Russian relations as a threat to NATO due to its dissatisfaction with China's position on the Ukraine crisis, and even label the SCO as an "anti-West alliance" in spite of its long-standing non-aligned, non-targeted and open principle. However, this perceptual bias does not make the world any more peaceful, but rather vulnerable to more division.
There is a “threshold of peace” for any country to join the SCO, which requires member states to be committed to the aims and principles of promoting peace, cooperation, prosperity and harmony in the SCO member state region. At the SCO Summit in Samarkand, the heads of the participating member states will sign a raft of documents on peaceful development of the region. Nevertheless, for China, the international environment is always in a state of flux, and change brings uncertainty and challenges in inter-state relations. Particularly as the global balance of power waxes and wanes, China and other global powers have to learn and adapt to new roles so that they can better compete and interact with other powers.