It’s a day of firsts for President Xi Jinping. The Chinese leader held his first in-person talks this afternoon with President Putin since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on Uzbek soil, as he made his first foreign trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic two and a half years ago.
A host of other word leaders – from countries including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Mongolia – have also travelled to Samarkand, a city in southeastern Uzbekistan, for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit.
The SCO is a regional security group formed by Beijing and Moscow as a counterweight to the influence wielded by the United States. And Putin wasted no time today in blasting what he described as an “ugly” effort by the US and its allies “to create a unipolar world.”
For the Kremlin, the summit comes at a pressing moment: after a bruising week for Russia’s military in northeastern Ukraine, Moscow will be desperately seeking to shore up support.
Boosting ties with China – and ensuring the “no limits” friendship still stands – will likely be his number one priority.
“We highly appreciate the well-balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis,” Putin said today at the start of his talks with Xi.
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The Russian leader was also keen to express solidarity with Beijing over its “One China” policy, declaring: “We condemn the provocations of the U.S. and its satellites in the Taiwan Strait.”
So far, Beijing has refrained from explicitly saying that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was justified. However, it has refused to criticise Russia’s military actions, instead preferring to blame NATO for provoking the war.
What’s more, alongside India, it has helped Moscow to offset the impact of Western sanctions, by boosting its purchases of Russian oil and gas.
The Kremlin will want guarantees that this will continue. In fact, Xi and Putin held a three-way meeting with Mongolian President, Ukhnaa Khurelsukh, which is thought to be all part of Putin’s plans to boost energy exports to China with a possible pipeline through Mongolia.
Beijing, meanwhile, has an agenda of its own. Much like for Russia, China’s tensions with the West make it crucial to seek out alternative allies. But also, the countries attending the summit are significant because this region is a key part of Beijings’s multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative: to expand trade by building railways, ports and other infrastructure across dozens of countries.
According to China’s foreign ministry, Xi had a productive talk this afternoon with President Sadyr Zhaparov of Kyrgyzstan about the “early operation” of a railway linking China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Ironically, while Putin’s number one mission at the summit is likely to cosy up to Xi, China’s summit aims could spark some tension with Moscow.
Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative poses something of a threat to Russia, which has always viewed the Central Asia region as its sphere of influence.
But at present, Putin is unlikely to protest too much. Having China on his side right now is far more important.
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