(CNSNews.com) – Beijing confirmed on Monday that President Xi Jinping will travel abroad this week for the first time in more than two years, to attend a summit of a growing Eurasian association viewed by some of its member-states as a rising counterweight to Western blocs like NATO.
Alongside the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Xi will also hold bilateral talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other participants. China’s foreign ministry said Monday the trip would incorporate state visits to Uzbekistan and neighboring Kazakhstan.
Xi has not traveled beyond China’s borders since the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe after an outbreak in Wuhan.
The three-day trip comes at a time when China and Russia are deepening their partnership and jointly pushing back against the post-World War II “rules-based order,” which they portray as little more than a Western drive to dominate the globe.
Asked for the Biden administration’s view on the planned Xi-Putin encounter, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the White House would leave it to the two leaders to “speak to their meeting.”
“We’ve made clear our concerns about the depth of China alignment and ties with Russia, even as Russia prosecutes a war of aggression in Ukraine,” she said. “But again, I’m not going to speak to their meeting. They can speak to that themselves.”
Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov told reporters the meeting between Putin and Xi “will be very important, for obvious reasons.”
The SCO summit will provide the two with the opportunity to showcase Eurasian unity in the face of their heated disputes with the West, even though some members of the 20-year-old organization routinely stress that its underlying vision is one of “win-win cooperation.”
“The basis for SCO’s international attractiveness is its non-bloc status, openness, not negatively targeting third countries or other international organizations,” Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who will host the summit, wrote in an op-ed Monday that was republished in China’s Global Times.
However, a separate article in the same paper – a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) organ – cited one Chinese analyst as saying the SCO would play a pivotal role in “showcasing new forms of international relations,” and another as saying the SCO supports “the establishment of a new, democratic, just and rational political and economic international order.”
A Russian diplomat close to Putin, former leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party Boris Gryzlov, was quoted by the TASS state news agency, meanwhile, as saying the SCO promotes the building of “a democratic and fair world order” and describing the Eurasian region as “a new pole of power.”
In addition to China and Russia, the SCO comprises four former Soviet republics in Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan), as well as India and Pakistan.
The two next in line to join the grouping, Iran and Belarus, have their own deep-seated disputes with the West. Iran is due to become a full member at this week’s summit, with Belarus put on track to follow suit.
Other countries on the SCO fringes are either observer states (Mongolia and Afghanistan), “dialogue partners” (Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia), or soon-to-become “dialogue partners” (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.)
‘Not aimed at third countries’
The SCO was established with a focus on regional security, in particular combating what Beijing calls the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism and separatism (the same phenomena cited by the CCP as justification for its controversial security policies in Xinjiang.)
There is also a growing economic element, not least because most current and prospective SCO members are involved in the massive Chinese infrastructure program known as the Belt and Road Initiative.
Despite persistent claims that the SCO is “not aimed at third countries,” there have been signs to the contrary over the years – even if some member-states may hold differing views.
In 2005 the United States requested observer status, but was turned down, even as SCO leaders responded favorably to an Iranian request. (Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld commented that it was “strange” an organization claiming to be against terrorism would consider admitting “the leading terrorist nation in the world.”)
Later that year, SCO member Uzbekistan expelled the U.S. from a strategically-located airbase that was being used in support of the mission in Afghanistan. It took the step after an SCO summit called for the U.S. to set a deadline for withdrawing its forces from Central Asian countries.
As Russia’s relations with the West deteriorated over Ukraine in 2014, Moscow’s rhetoric over the SCO began to shift. Months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the start of its initially covert support for separatists in the Donbass, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a Russian newspaper article described the SCO as “an important factor in the emergence of a new polycentric world order.”
More recently, the SCO waded into China’s dispute with the U.S. over Taiwan.
“The SCO adheres to the one-China principle, firmly opposes interference in the internal affairs of its member states by any external force, supports all member states in safeguarding national unity and defending their own sovereignty and territorial integrity,” SCO Secretary-General Zhang Ming said in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan, which saw China launch its biggest ever war games around the island.
Last week, Zhang spoke again about Taiwan, telling China’s state-owned CGTN television that SCO member-states have “expressed a clear position in support of China’s defense of its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
He said the SCO “will continue to firmly support our member-states in safeguarding their fundamental national interests and territorial integrity, and defending their national sovereignty and the long-term interests of their own people.”
The summit in Samarkand is scheduled for Thursday and Friday.