China and Russia present united front at summit as Ukraine war risks exposing regional divisions | CNN

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Hong Kong

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When Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin sit with other Asian leaders at a summit in Central Asia on Friday, they will seek to present a united front to balance the United States and its allies.


But within their “no-limits” relationship, potential differences are beginning to emerge over Russia’s faltering invasion of Ukraine. The brutal war has also sparked tensions within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security group led by Beijing and Moscow.

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Since Thursday, leaders of the grouping, including India, Pakistan, Iran and four Central Asian countries, have convened in Uzbekistan’s Samarkand city, sparking a flurry of high-level talks, including the first one-on-one meeting. Between Xi and Putin since the invasion.

During their talks, Putin acknowledged that Chinese officials had “questions and concerns” over his protracted military offensive, which appeared to be the first – though somewhat – acknowledgment of their differences over the conflict.

Putin’s appearance with Xi at the high-profile summit comes just days after the Russian military suffered a major defeat on the Ukrainian battlefield. Moscow’s invasion has left it diplomatically isolated, and its economy has been severely weakened by punishing Western sanctions.

In recent months, China has offered tacit support to Russia and subsidized its neighbor, pushing bilateral trade to record highs. But as the conflict escalates into the winter, analysts question how far Xi will be willing to go to continue supporting Putin – and at what cost.

“The economic situation in Russia is deteriorating, and this gives China an upper hand in relations,” Alexander Gabuev saidA Senior Fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The relationship between Moscow and Beijing has been asymmetrical before Russia was a needy partner, but it is now an oddity on steroids where China has a commanding position, and will certainly not hesitate to use it when moving forward. ”

China has publicly pledged to strengthen ties with Russia. An official Chinese readout of the Xi-Putin meeting on Thursday made no mention of Ukraine. Instead, it quoted Xi as saying that China would “work with Russia to enhance strong mutual support on issues relating to each other’s core interests” and “to inject stability and positive energy into a world of change and disorder.” will play a leading role in it.”

For his part, Putin highlighted Moscow’s value to Beijing – namely joining hands to balance the West and create “a just, democratic and multipolar world order”.

In a thinly-veiled reflection on the US, the Russian leader said that “attempts to create a unipolar world have recently acquired an absolutely ugly shape, and are absolutely unacceptable to most states on the planet.”

The SCO summit could have given Beijing and Moscow a chance to make a case for that “multipolar world order”, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sowed divisions within the grouping and left some countries isolated.

Central Asian leaders in former Soviet regions are concerned that Russia may encroach on their lands, after seeing Russian tanks rolling in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine.

Kazakhstan in particular has refused to obey the Moscow line. It has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and its president, Kasim-Jomart Tokayev, has publicly refused to recognize Russia-backed separatist areas in eastern Ukraine, angering some Kremlin officials.

Experts say China’s refusal to condemn Russia has also caused unease in Central Asian countries. The risk of hindering China’s efforts to forge stronger ties with its Central Asian neighbours, an effort in which China has invested heavily for two decades.

During Xi’s state visit to Kazakhstan on Wednesday – his first overseas trip in nearly 1,000 days – the Chinese leader sought to address such concerns.

According to Chinese state media, Xi told Kazakh President Tokayev, “China will always support Kazakhstan in maintaining national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Also complicating the picture is India, which plays a unique role in the SCO.

Delhi, which has not condemned Russian aggression like Beijing, has had strong ties with Moscow since the time of the Cold War. According to some estimates, India gets more than 50% of its military equipment from Russia.

In recent months, despite Western pressure to cut economic ties with the Kremlin following its aggression in Ukraine, India has made significant increases in purchases of Russian oil, coal and fertilizer.

But Delhi has also seen ties with Beijing weaken due to conflicts along its border, and has drawn closer to Washington and its allies in the Indo-Pacific. India is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the US, Japan and Australia, a grouping together to counter threats from China.

An Indian foreign ministry source told CNN that Modi, who arrived in Samarkand after midnight on Friday, is expected to hold one-on-one meetings with his Russian, Uzbekistan and Iranian counterparts.

But based on his tentative schedule, Modi has no scheduled meeting with Xi. The two leaders have not met since the start of the China-India border conflict more than two years ago.

Last week, Delhi and Beijing began separating from the Gogra-Hotsprings border area in the western Himalayas.

Apart from its territorial disputes, Delhi is also wary of Beijing’s growing economic influence on its smaller neighbours.

Manoj Kewalramani, Fellow of China Studies at Taxila Institution in India, said, “Ever since Modi came to power, we have seen relations (between India and China) continue to deteriorate.”

But Kewalramani said the SCO could provide a place (for India) to engage with China and Russia.

“Particularly, when China and Russia are together, being at the table, because the closer this relationship gets, the more difficult it becomes for India,” he said.

Established in 2001 by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to counter terrorism and promote border security, the SCO was initially shrouded in relative obscurity for years.

Under Xi’s leadership, it expanded in size and profile, granting membership to India and Pakistan in 2017. After years on the waiting list as an observer, Iran will become a full member of the summit.

Afghanistan is also an observer, and the Taliban – which captured Kabul last year after a chaotic US withdrawal – is sending a delegation to Samarkand.

But it is Iran that has raised the most alarm bells in the West. Since 2019, Iran, Russia and China have conducted three joint naval exercises amid deepening ties. Now, Iran’s joining the SCO has long been feared by some observers that the group is emerging as an anti-West bloc.

But some experts say that in the current situation, the SCO is not really the ideal platform for China and Russia to advance an anti-West world order.

As a multilateral organization, the SCO is a much weaker regional bloc than the European Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“Actually there has been some tension within the SCO at times. Russia has tried to advance some of its interests that are not always aligned with China’s in the region. I don’t think it is fully set up for such a platform to shape a new world order,” said Brian Hart, a fellow on the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“But I think it is an important organization, one that Beijing hopes to continue to support and lead – and one that it appreciates for the Russian purchase.”

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