China and the expanding Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Domestic and regional security implications
Judging from an important speech delivered by the Chinese President Xi Jinping in the meeting of the Council of Heads of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states on September 16, China has not only attached immense importance to the SCO but also demonstrated its domestic and regional security concerns and strategies.
First, President Xi Jinping delivered a significant positional address emphasizing mutual political trust, mutual cooperation and dialogue, mutual equality and discussion, persistent openness and tolerance, and persistent justice and fairness.
The point on the persistence of equality and mutual discussion among all countries, regardless of big and small states, was particularly important, pointing to perhaps the reason why the Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed that the Chinese side had “concerns” but a “balanced stance” on the Russian-Ukrainian conflicts.
A few pundits were surprised by the position of the People’s Republic of China (PRC); nevertheless, the Chinese stance has remained very consistent. On the one hand, China has not been adopting a high profile approach to commenting on the Russian-Ukrainian conflicts, as Xinhua’s report on President Xi’s meeting with President Putin on September 15 did not really touch on the so-called Chinese “concerns.” However, in the meeting with Putin, Xi might have raised the Chinese “concerns” about the importance of dialogue between countries, big and small, implying that China would like to see peaceful discussions and negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.
The implication for regional security is that China adopts a peaceful approach to handling territorial disputes first, emphasizing the importance of equality and dialogue. This position is consistent with how China deals with other regional security issues, ranging from the dialogue with India on the border issue to the emphasis on dialogue over the question of denuclearization of northeast Asia. In a sense, China wants to maintain a degree of neutrality over the Russo-Ukrainian conflicts on the one hand and the US call for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula on the other. Reversely speaking, China’s relative neutrality in international disputes aim at portraying itself as a potential arbitrator, mediating in the international disputes in the Russo-Ukrainian conflicts and the call for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Second, the SCO is expanding its membership quite rapidly, signaling the importance of China’s foreign policy attaches to multilateralism and emphasizing win-win situation in international cooperation. China has vowed to provide more financial support to SCO members states in the areas of food aid, cataract surgery, health care delivery, and the training of 2,000 security personnel responsible for curbing drugs-related crime, Internet crime and cross-border criminal activities. Championing multilateralism and inter-states cooperation in sustainable development has remained a major theme in President Xi’s foreign policy – a phenomenon that can be easily seen in his remarks in the SCO meeting.
More states in the world are trying to join the SCO. Iran has already signed a memorandum of understanding to join the SCO, while Belarus is likely following suit. Other states interested in becoming SCO members include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Maldives, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Myanmar, which will all likely become the new partners of dialogue in the coming years.
The SCO will likely develop into a large regional bloc with domestic and international security implications for China and all member states. From China’s perspective, the SCO originally helped the PRC curb domestic terrorism that used Central Asia as a political base and transit point. Now, the SCO is developing so rapidly and successfully that it will become a bloc led by China and Russia to counter the Western alliance in the coming years, even though China’s leaders have been emphasizing the importance of “creating a common destiny for the mankind.”
The expanding SCO is likely to have tremendous benefits in economic terms. Multilateralism fostered by SCO is going to bring concrete economic results as logistical supply chains are cutting across all its member states through the usage of big data and artificial intelligence. China has advocated the idea of setting up a big data center between the PRC and SCO with the participation of ministers of different member states in a forum to be held in 2023. China’s Belt and Road Initiative will achieve a breakthrough by witnessing the SCO expansion, including the acquisition of energy supply from varying member states, the exchange of agricultural technologies, and the enhancement of cooperation in various industries. In other words, the SCO is emerging to be one of the largest bloc vis-à-vis the US-led regional organizations in the coming years.
When President Xi emphasized the importance of the “Shanghai spirit,” he referred to need for consolidating solidarity and support among the SCO members, maintaining strategic autonomy and regional stability, promoting economic vitality, and expanding its memberships. In short, his vision of “creating a common destiny for the mankind” is going to be concretized through the SCO’s regional cooperation and expansion.
China’s political bottom line in its participation of regional organizations, like SCO, can be discerned when President Xi said in his speech that the PRC opposes any pretext used by foreign countries to intervene in the domestic affairs of other countries – a remark pointing to the undesirability of creating any “color revolution.” By implication, China is opposing any foreign country to intervene in its domestic affairs. Obviously, President Xi’s remarks in the SCO meeting touched on China’s domestic security concerns.
The President did not attend the dinner of the heads of member states on September 15 on the grounds of considering anti-Covid measures. When President Xi arrived Samarkand in Uzbekistan, he and his officials were mostly wearing masks, although his visit to attend the SCO meeting was the first time in the recent two years. The PRC President will visit Indonesia and Thailand in the coming November – an indication that China would gradually open its door to outside tourists if Covid-19 is under control not only in the mainland but also other countries.
President Xi’s visit to attend the SCO meeting was also interpreted by some pundits as a sign of his political self-confidence in the current run-up to the Party Congress in October, meaning that he will continue to be the most supreme leader in China.
(220916) — SAMARKAND, Sept. 16, 2022 (Xinhua) — Chinese President Xi Jinping poses for a group photo with other leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states before the restricted session of the 22nd meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the SCO at the International Conference Center in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Sept. 16, 2022. Xi attended the restricted session here on Friday. (Xinhua/Li Tao)
Last but not the least, during President Xi’s meeting with President Putin, the Russian side said that it supports the one-China principle, and that it adheres to the fact that Taiwan is part of China. Xinhua’s report on the Xi-Putin meeting stressed this Russian position, adding that “no country is entitled to act as a judge on the Taiwan question.”
Judging from the remarks and position of the PRC leadership, China is still keen to resolve the Taiwan question peacefully, emphasizing the importance of dialogue with those Taiwan people supportive of the 1992 consensus. This PRC position will continue. It remains to be seen whether the October Party Congress would witness either a revision of the Anti-Secession Law or an enactment of a new reunification law, thereby laying the legal groundwork for the reunification of Taiwan in the near future.
If Taiwan is going to be a priority issue that will be tackled by China under the leadership of President Xi in the near future, the regional security implication will be clear. The Sino-Indian relations would likely take a turn for the better, as evidenced in the most recent withdrawal of some troops on both sides in a disputed border region. The Sino-European relations will continue to evolve, but the Taiwan issue will have to be tackled by the EU member states more cautiously. However, the Sino-US relations will continue to be rocky and contentious mainly because of the Taiwan question.
In conclusion, President Xi Jinping’s visit to attend the SCO meeting and his remarks were politically significant in two major aspects. In terms of domestic security, China is determined to maintain domestic social stability. In the realm of regional security, the SCO is becoming an expanding organization that can and will achieve China’s objectives of achieving “a common destiny for the mankind,” fostering sustainable development with other states, forming a bloc with like-minded states in its emphasis on multilateralism, and persisting in the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states. China’s position on the question of Taiwan is noticeably clear; states which are the PRC friends must adhere to the one-China principle – a stance reiterated at a time when some foreign states attempt at “playing the Taiwan card” at the expense of maintaining harmonious and friendly relations with China.