China and Russia have presented a united front at the regional summit, despite their differences

Hong Kong

When Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin sit down with other Asian leaders for a summit in Central Asia on Friday, they want to present a united front to counter the US and its allies.

But within their “borderless” relationship, potential differences over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are beginning to surface. The brutal war has created friction within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security group led by Beijing and Moscow.

Beginning Thursday, leaders of the group, which includes India, Pakistan, Iran and four Central Asian countries, met in the Uzbekistan city of Samarkand for a series of high-level talks, including their first face-to-face meeting. between Xi and Putin since the invasion.

In their talks, Putin admitted that Chinese officials had “questions and concerns” about his prolonged military offensive, in what appeared to be the first acknowledgment of differences over the conflict.

Putin’s appearance with Xi at the summit comes just days after Russian forces suffered a series of major defeats on the battlefield in Ukraine. Moscow’s invasion has left it diplomatically isolated, and its economy severely weakened by a series of Western sanctions.

In recent months, China has offered tacit support to Russia and increased economic aid to its neighbor, achieving record bilateral trade. But as the conflict drags on into the winter, analysts question how far Xi will be willing to go to continue protecting Putin, and at what cost.

“Russia’s economic situation is deteriorating, which gives China the upper hand in the relationship.” said Alexander GabuevSenior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The ties between Moscow and Beijing have been asymmetric before Russia was the poorer partner, but now it’s an asymmetry on steroids where China is in a dominant position, and it certainly won’t be shy about using it going forward.”

Publicly, China has pledged to deepen ties with Russia. The official Chinese readout of the Xi-Putin meeting on Thursday made no mention of Ukraine. Instead, Xi said China will “work with Russia to expand strong mutual support on issues of mutual core interest” and “take the lead in injecting stability and positive energy into a world of change and disorder.”

For his part, Putin highlighted Moscow’s value to Beijing, namely joining hands to confront the West and creating what he calls “a just, democratic and multipolar world order”.

In a thin clap against the US, the Russian leader stated that “attempts to create a unipolar world have recently taken on a completely ugly appearance, and are completely unacceptable to the majority of states on the planet.”

The SCO summit may have given Beijing and Moscow a chance to push for a “multipolar world order,” but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have sown divisions within the group and alienated some countries.

After watching Russian tanks roll into Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, leaders in Russia’s Central Asia and former Soviet territories are worried that Russia might also enter their lands.

Kazakhstan, in particular, has rejected Moscow’s line. It has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has publicly refused to recognize Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, angering some Kremlin officials.

China’s condemnation of Russia has fueled unrest among Central Asian countries, experts say. This risks hampering China’s efforts to build stronger relations with its Central Asian neighbors, an effort in which China has invested heavily over two decades.

During Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan on Wednesday – his first trip abroad in nearly 1,000 days – the Chinese leader sought to dispel those concerns.

“China will always help Kazakhstan maintain its national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Xi told Kazakh President Tokayev, according to Chinese state media.

The picture is also complicated by India, which plays a special role in the SCO.

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

In recent months, India has significantly increased its purchases of Russian oil, coal and fertilizers, despite pressure from the West to cut economic ties with the Kremlin following its aggression in Ukraine.

But Delhi has also soured relations with Beijing over border disputes and has drawn closer to Washington and its Indo-Pacific allies. India is a member of the Security Dialogue Quadrilateral with the US, Japan and Australia, a group drawn together by threats from China.

Modi, who arrived in Samarkand after midnight on Friday, is expected to hold one-on-one meetings with his counterparts from Russia, Uzbekistan and Iran, a source in India’s Ministry of External Affairs told CNN.

But based on his tentative schedule, Modi has not scheduled a meeting with Xi. The two leaders have not met since the China-India border dispute began more than two years ago.

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

Apart from their territorial dispute, Delhi is also concerned about Beijing’s growing economic influence over its smaller neighbours.

“Since Modi came to power, we have seen a steady deterioration in relations (between India and China),” said Manoj Kewalramani, a fellow of China studies at India’s Takshashila Institute.

But Kewalramani said the SCO “can give a space (to India) to engage with China and Russia”.

“Especially as long as China and Russia are on the table together, the closer that relationship becomes, the more difficult it is for India,” he said.

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

Under Xi, it expanded in size and profile, with India and Pakistan joining in 2017. After years of being on the waiting list as an observer, Iran will become a full member at this summit.

Afghanistan is also an observer, and the Taliban – who took over Kabul last year after a chaotic US withdrawal – are sending a delegation to Samarkand.

But it is Iran that has raised the most alarms in the West. Since 2019, Iran, Russia and China have held three joint naval exercises as they deepen their ties. Now, Iran’s entry into the SCO is fueling long-held fears by some observers that the group is emerging as a bloc against the West.

But some experts say that in its current state, the SCO is not really the ideal platform for China and Russia to promote this world order against the West.

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

“There has been some tension within the SCO. Russia has tried to advance some of its interests in the region, which are not always aligned with China. I don’t think it’s perfectly equipped to be that kind of platform for the formation of a new world order,” said Brian Hart, a fellow at the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“But I think it’s an important organization that Beijing hopes to continue to support and lead, and that appreciates Russian buy-in.”