Xi to Central Asia to build a new Cold War bloc

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Xi Jinping will visit Kazakhstan before landing in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Thursday for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit, marking the leader’s first trip outside of China since the start of the global pandemic in January 2020.

China, Russia, India and Central Asian leaders will meet face-to-face at the SCO Summit in Uzbekistan on Thursday and Friday, according to China’s foreign ministry. The meeting will aim to bring the organization’s members closer together in what has the makings of an anti-Western, new Cold War bloc.

In that direction, the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet Xi at the meeting to discuss the situation in Ukraine. It will mark the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since they met in Beijing on February 4 this year, just weeks before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. 

This year’s summit is expected to focus strongly on energy cooperation as internationally sanctioned Iran will gain full SCO membership while Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will become dialogue partners. Chinese media noted Beijing intends to boost oil and gas imports from Iran and Russia, both of which have been sanctioned by the West.

On the energy theme, in early August, international media reported that Xi could visit Saudi Arabia in mid-August. However, Xi did not ultimately make the trip amid his government’s “zero Covid” restrictions that continue to lock down various Chinese cities for a smidgen of discovered cases.

The policy has been strictly upheld ahead of the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress on October 16, presumably to prevent big viral outbreaks and Covid-related deaths during the event, where Xi is widely expected to win an unprecedented third term as president.

Xinhua in an article published on Monday (September 12) evening said Xi’s visit to the two Central Asian countries will show that China has opened a “new era” and started a “new journey” in building a community of nations with a shared future for mankind.

The article said Xi and other leaders would discuss at the summit how to jointly address global challenges and promote security and development.

It also said this year’s event marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the SCO Charter and the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on Long-Term Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation of the SCO Member States.

China is living up to those agreements through various big-ticket projects and other initiatives in a region that historically has been part of Russia’s sphere of influence.

Xi visited Uzbekistan in 2013 and 2016, and China-Uzbekistan relations were upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016. That same year, the Angren–Pap Railway Line, which connects China’s Kashgar to Uzbekistan’s Tashkent through Kyrgyzstan, started operations.

China has also recently commenced a number of projects including the Pengsheng industrial park and the Ming Yuan Silu Corp-funded plate glass manufacturing and deep-processing facility in Uzbekistan.

Zhang Ming, secretary-general of the SCO, said: “Within the framework of the SCO, the member states are witnessing significant economic development, great improvement in people’s lives and closer relations with each other, which has attracted countries outside the organization.”

He said the SCO has always been committed to true multilateralism and opposed to hegemonic, domineering and bullying tactics, and would never attempt the forming of “cliques.”

Last year, the SCO initiated procedures to admit Iran as a full member state despite being internationally sanctioned over its nuclear program. However, Tehran is still holding out hope of a new deal, particularly as Europe faces an energy crisis caused by Russia’s withholding of gas shipments.

On August 24, Iranian Oil Minister Javad Oji said Tehran could supply oil and gas to Europe this winter to make up for Russia’s stopped shipments.

A Chinese article said on August 25 estimated that Europe would have to find at least 20 million barrels of oil per month from other sources, probably Iran, to get through the winter season.

However, it said even if Iran supplied oil to Greece, Italy, Spain and Turkey, it would take at least six months to gradually increase its output as many facilities had stopped running since Iran was sanctioned by the US in 2018.

Another Chinese media article noted China had defied the US sanctions and continued to buy oil from Iran in the last two years. It said China had benefited by purchasing Iranian oil at a discount in recent years as Iran’s currency had sharply depreciated due to US sanctions.

The article also noted Iran’s oil output had fallen to about 1 million barrels per day from a peak of 2.5 million barrels back in 2018. It said China imported 30 million barrels of crude oil in March, or about 1 million barrels per day, meaning that almost all of Iran’s exported oil was shipped to China.

However, the article added that China would not put all its eggs in one basket and intended to diversify its energy supplies from the Middle East to other countries such as Angola, Venezuela and Russia.

In May, China imported more oil from Russia than Saudi Arabia, the same article noted. It said in the future China would enjoy stable energy supplies from both Iran and Russia, and aim to export more manufacturing products to them.

In March last year, China and Iran signed an agreement to start a 25-year cooperation plan, which kicked off in January this year.
 
On August 1, the United States sanctioned six companies for helping to sell millions of dollars worth of Iranian oil and petrochemical products to East Asian buyers. 

The US Treasury Department named three Chinese firms and another based in the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, the State Department identified a China-based firm and another in Singapore for busting the sanctions. 

Read: US chip-export ban throws wrench into China AI works

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3

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