China Power

China’s SCO Road to Nowhere

China and Russia have less and less in common on Central Asia. It showed at the latest SCO meeting.

Chinese and Russian leaders have used the latest St. Petersburg meeting of prime ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as another chance to talk past each other. The topics raised at the meeting show that North Asia’s two super states have increasingly little in common over relations with their Central Asian neighbors and the United States. Russia used the meeting to push for the accession of India and Iran to the regional organization, while China talked economic integration and free trade with Central Asia – both pet initiatives that would dilute the other party’s power in the group and which have been stalled for years.

In a telling illustration, the two sides didn’t even manage to get their stories straight – the Russian foreign ministry told journalists that there would be talks about expanding the group, while China's official Xinhua news agency covered the meeting extensively without even a passing mention of India or Iran. While both sides talked up their relationship, the rival accounts of the meeting represent diverging visions of the organization and the future of North Asia.

The SCO began life as a Chinese initiative to counterbalance APEC, a group of Pacific Rim countries in which the United States has a major role. During the last decade, it focused on “separatism, extremism, and terrorism” – issues on which China and Russia can agree, both being concerned about breakaway Muslim provinces facing toward Central Asia. But as China has grown more confident – and more interested in the natural, and especially energy, resources of the continent's interior – it has sought to push the group toward a focus on economic cooperation. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao used his speech to call for cooperation in trade, agriculture, and energy – areas important to China, which is a major importer of food and energy.

Russia, meanwhile, has nothing to gain from free trade between China and Central Asia. It has announced ambitions to envelop the region’s countries’ in a “Eurasian Union,” which would force China into the backseat in the region’s markets. Many see its push for Indian membership as a ploy to sabotage SCO integration, reckoning that with a 1.1 billion-person democracy added to the mix, the group is unlikely ever to be able to agree on anything.  Instead, it hopes with the inclusion of Iran to make the group a gigantic rival to NATO.

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China, in turn, is even more unlikely to accept Iran than India.  While generally sympathetic to the West’s least favorite states, China has already got an irresponsible nuclear client state, and has no reason to adopt another.  And with European leaders already traveling to Beijing to grovel before them, Chinese leaders have less reason than ever to sympathize with Putin’s quixotic quest to humble NATO.