Archive for the ‘South China Morning Post’ Category

And now another (very short piece) for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at the implications to Russia of the opening up of Iran and what this means for the Silk Road Economic Belt vision.

China’s new silk road is designed to cut Russia out of Eurasian trade

Raffaello Pantucci says the ‘One Belt, One Road’ trade initiative is likely to sideline Moscow and give Beijing the upper hand in their awkward relationship

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 February, 2016, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 February, 2016, 2:00pm

China Tehran train

The first Chinese cargo train, following Iran-China efforts to revive the Silk Road, arrives in Tehran on February 15. The 32-container train arrived after a 14-day journey from northwestern China. Photo: EPA

President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) visit to Tehran – the first by a foreign leader since the lifting of sanctions – highlights the potential centrality of Iran to China’s broader regional foreign policy. The opening up of Iran, a country in which China has long maintained substantial interests, means Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” vision can now go cleanly across Eurasia without ever going through Russia. Moscow can be cut out.

Rouhani XJP

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left) shakes hands with President Xi Jinping in Tehran in January. Photo: Reuters

Visiting Tashkent, one can see the ancient routes laid out by the Timurid empire that constituted the ancient silk road. Rather than track through Russia, most would go below the Caspian and Black seas to reach Turkey and Europe. An iron silk road has been established that will track the old silk routes

Soon after Xi visited Tehran, a train laden with goods left Yiwu, Zhejiang province (浙江), headed to Tehran following this route. On February 10, it crossed the border from Turkmenistan and arrived in Iran this week. The Ukrainian minister of infrastructure announced at the same time that, by the end of the month, a direct rail line would open between Ukraine and China, cutting across Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea and Kazakhstan. An iron silk road has been established that will track the old silk routes.

Train carriage Tehran China

The first Chinese cargo train arrives in Tehran after passing through Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Photo: EPA

Moscow has long been an awkward partner for Beijing and the question of how Russia fits into the belt and road vision was always unclear. Some incorrectly saw the Eurasian Economic Union as an effort by Moscow to push back on China’s dominance in Central Asia. This misinterprets both powers’ interests: Moscow is aiming to recreate a former space of control, while China is building trade corridors. For China, the existence of a common economic space with a single tariff barrier from its borders to the edges of Europe is a benefit to trade.

Putin and XJP Sochi

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Xi Jinping meet in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. Photo: AFP

The reality is that cutting a path across Russia is a long rail route that is only going to be attractive to high-value small objects which are still fairly limited in production volume in Xinjiang – and can now instead go along the route to Ukraine. Mass-produced, high-volume goods for which China is famous are much better placed going by sea to Europe. Unless, that is, the ultimate market is in the heart of the Eurasian continent. And this is where the route across Iran is interesting – connecting China’s markets directly to the bustling bazaars of the Middle East.

In paving an iron silk road, China is gradually reducing Moscow’s importance. This will further strengthen Beijing’s hand in their bilateral relationship and reduce Russia’s power on the international stage. Isolated by the West and increasingly sidelined by China, Moscow’s decline will only be highlighted by the opening of these new routes across Eurasia.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

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Finally posting my second piece from last week around the SCO Summit, this time for the South China Morning Post. Focuses more on the China-Russia side of things. Beyond this, spoke to the Independent about the elusive Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, the Daily Mail about ISIS and women, and Reuters about Chinese intelligence dealing with the counter-terrorism questions outside the country.

Russia holds the door to Central Asia open for China

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Raffaello Pantucci says to a region in need, the Chinese offer of funds and expertise is too attractive to resist, as agreements at the Moscow-hosted BRICS and SCO meetings show

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 12:05pm

Late last week, the leaders of almost half the world’s population gathered in Ufa, Russia. The collision of the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summits was orchestrated by Russia to guarantee exposure and attention, and highlight to the world how many friends Russia has. Dig below the shallow surface, however, and the links between the countries of the two international organisations are barely skin deep, with everyone attending for their own reasons.

For China, the two summits provide another opportunity for global engagement, as well as helping Beijing advance two international financial institutions. A timid player in many ways on the international stage, Beijing has found that its capital is one lever that it can use without raising too many hackles, and the meetings in Ufa gave it another opportunity to flex these financial muscles.

Fixating on the slow path to SCO membership for India and Pakistan, the world largely missed the key takeaway from the summits: China’s growing financial domination of Russia and its immediate backyard.

In the wake of the first Ufa summit, greater clarity was cast around the BRICS development bank, a new financial entity to emerge from the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, with an initial market capitalisation of US$50 billion. The leaders also created a US$100 billion currency exchange reserve, of which US$41 billion was offered by China, while Russia, Brazil and India each gave US$18 billion, and South Africa contributed US$5 billion.

A day or so later, the SCO members agreed once again to try to advance the concept of an SCO development bank or at least a joint fund.

China has been pushing the idea of an SCO financial institution for some time.

Seeing economic engagement as its major advantage in Central Asia, many years passed before Chinese interlocutors first presented the idea of an SCO development bank.

However, the idea has never quite taken off, with Russia in particular concerned that the vehicle would simply leave the door to Central Asia wide open for Beijing.

We live now, however, in different times, and, rather than be concerned, Russia has opened the door to Beijing. Indeed, Moscow appears to be helping to hold the doors open as China uses its lever in Russia’s backyard. Already endowed with the Silk Road Fund (focused on China’s western partners in Central and South Asia) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China’s external constellation of economic firepower has been further enhanced by Ufa.

Russia itself has further opened up its own economy to Chinese investment, offering Chinese state-owned firms majority stakes in its oil and gas fields.

Eager for foreign investment and unable to look west anymore, Moscow is reaching east and apparently willing to throw open not only its backyard, but also Central Asia’s.

The result is a further strengthening of China’s hand in Central Asia, as the country pours finance and infrastructure into a part of the world that is crying out for it.

While in the short term there is little to worry about this investment (these are infrastructure-poor countries that will benefit from China’s appealing combination of low-cost construction firms and cheap loans), over the longer term, Chinese leverage will certainly offer Beijing a grip over the region. The lesson from Ufa is that the region’s one great resistor, Russia, has largely lifted its objections and is now welcoming all the Chinese investment it can attract.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Russia holding the door to Central Asia open for China

A new op-ed in the South China Morning Post with Lifan looking at China and Russia’s relationship and China’s foreign policy more grandly as part of the discussion around the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) currently going on in Shanghai. I also spoke to Agence France Presse about the meeting.

China relishes its new role fostering regional cooperation

Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci study China’s rising profile as a big power

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 9:12pm

UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 4:02am

The Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, which begins today in Shanghai, largely passes unnoticed most years. But this year it is being touted as a major global event, largely due to Russia’s current awkward relationships elsewhere and China’s growing global profile.

It also offers a window into President Xi Jinping’s vision for China’s foreign policy.

First proposed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan in 1992, it took 10 years for the conference to hold its first summit in Almaty. Now with 24 members, nine observer states and four observer organisations, the conference offers an interesting forum where countries with difficult relations can interact.

This year, there are high expectations of what it might mean for regional engagement in Afghanistan in the post-drawdown world.

The group’s first summit in 2002 was held in the shadow of the September 11 attacks and concluded with a declaration on eliminating terrorism. Non-traditional security threats have always been high on the agenda; in the current environment, they remain a priority.

But in many ways, this year’s event will be overshadowed by the interaction between Russia and the various members.

Both China and Russia have already hinted that this is finally the year when they will resolve their long-standing gas pricing dispute, and both have indicated they will have substantial bilateral interactions, including military exercises near the time of the conference.

The benefits for Russia are obvious. At a time when its relations with Europe and the US are soured over Ukraine, this is an opportunity to interact with a friendly community of nations and show how Russia has other geopolitical options.

One has to take a step back, however, to appreciate the benefits for China. For China, the conference is an opportunity to showcase itself as a major power at the heart of a number of different international forums (China is host this year), as well as a moment where Xi can offer a glimpse into his vision for China’s foreign policy.

This vision needs to be understood in the context of Chinese strategic considerations. One is the four trade corridors: the Silk Road economic belt (through Central Asia); the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation; and the maritime Silk Road. These are really four strings of the same instrument – one that flows from Xi’s comments about the importance of China’s border relationships late last year.

Foreign policy under Xi is one in which China will play an increasingly proactive role, founded on practical economic relationships, but also one that is heavily focused on multilateral cooperation. Xi wants his foreign policy to be seen as all about regional cooperation and integration.

For China, the meeting is in many ways an expression of this. Bringing together contentious partners and old friends alike, it highlights China as a major power that can convene important conferences with all sorts of actors around the table. Its concepts of “peaceful development” and “new great power relations” are both captured within this bigger vision.

The reality, of course, is that this is the natural state of international relations between states, where contentious relations sit alongside necessary cooperation. But it is significant that Xi has seen it as such a critical concept.

Li Lifan is secretary general of the Centre for SCO Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Raffaello Pantucci is senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post and was re-posted on China in Central Asia, however, this expanded version was done for my institutional home RUSI. An interesting topic a bit adjacent to my core interests, an aspect I may return to is the impact of events in Ukraine on Central Asia and China’s relations with the region.

Tensions Over Ukraine: Where Does China Sit?

RUSI Analysis, 11 Apr 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

On the growing crisis over Ukraine, China has remained quietly supportive of Russia. Yet, Russia overestimates and exaggerates China’s level of support that is closer to acquiescence rather than actual support for the turmoil that Russia is engendering.

Putin and Xi Jinping

China has largely sat on the sidelines of the current dispute over Ukraine. Hawkish Chinese commentators have stated that this approach of standing aside and watching is part of a bigger Chinese strategy to encourage a multipolar world, while the official position has largely been quite bland. In contrast, Russian commentators and officials have used every opportunity to highlight the fact that Beijing was on the same page as Moscow.

Recently, in an interview on Russian state television, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov characterised China as ‘our very close partners’ of whom he has no doubts. For Russia, asPresident Putin put it when he formally announced Crimea’s annexing in the Duma, ‘we are grateful to the people of China, whose leaders have always, when considering the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, taken into account the full historical and political context.’

Chinese Conern

On the face of it, these interpretations of China’s support are accurate, but the reality is far more complex, with China uneasy about Russia’s actions though it may share Moscow’s concerns.

For all the bombast in its Pacific seawaters, it could be argued that China remains largely a status quo power that sees advantage in letting the current global order proceed along what it perceives as a natural trajectory in which it is ascendant. For policymakers in Beijing, this is a path that ends with China atop a constellation of new and old power centres from the UN Security Council to the G20 and BRICS.

China can see that its economic might and physical size places it in a position that current global trends favour. The question is how to manage this rise in a smooth manner so as to ensure the Communist Party can maintain supremacy in this complicated world.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine do little to smooth this path. In fact, they cause chaos and instability in a number of key Chinese markets, from Russia to Europe, as well as stirring up concerns in adjacent Central Asia.The former Soviet states of Central Asia worry about Russia’s long-term intent and the implications to them of sanctions. They have little interest in becoming involved in Russia’s spats with the West and are concerned that Moscow may try to exert its considerable leverage over them in some manner contrary to their interests.

China is the ascendant power in the region, but the Central Asians have little interest in completely re-aligning themselves towards Beijing and, in any case, China lacks the weight (and interest) to become the main regional security guarantor. In Europe, markets are in turmoil as leaders fret about how to punish Russia in a way that is not damaging to themselves while also worrying about the longer term implications of growing tensions between themselves and Russia.

All of this will doubtless have a knock-on effect on Chinese markets, be this through shrunken global trade or weakened regional trade: these factors might damage China’s already slowing economic growth. The Chinese leadership has little interest in such tensions that do nothing but disrupt markets.

Moreover, China does not look favourably on people recognising separatist states and has traditionally maintained, at least rhetorically, to its sacred non-interference principle (though this is in fact an increasingly obsolete principle). China fears the dangerous precedent that has been set in recognising a separatist province. Previously, when Russia carried out similar behaviour in Georgia in 2008, China was clear in using the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) to block a call of support for Russia’s actions. Both China and the Central Asian members of the SCO have their own set of concerns about separatist or minority communities – the last thing that they are interested in is supporting a new international trend of recognising breakaway states.

Explaining Chinese Acquiescence

Yet behind all these concerns, there is also a sense of agreement with Russia’s actions, something that helps explain China’s quiescent pose on Ukraine.These are captured in an attentive reading of Lavrov’s comments. As he put it: ‘Our contacts with Chinese partners have shown that they not only understand the lawful interests of Russia in this entire affair but that we have the identical understanding of the initial causes of the current deep crisis in Ukraine’

This is a more nuanced comment than it might sound, explaining in part how China recognises the validity of Russian concerns, but does not express its own views of Russian actions. China fundamentally agrees that the chaotic governance that led to the collapse of the Yanukovich regime and subsequent trouble is a bad thing. China, like Russia, sees great potential danger in public protests that culminate in the overthrow of a government.

Both countries were appalled at the chaos stirred up by the ‘colour revolutions’ in Ukraine (2004), Georgia (2003) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) and have looked on unhappily as the West has watched the Arab world implode in response to public protests during the Arab spring:as emphasised in particular in Syria. The Arab world has yet to really recover, while arguably, the ‘colour revolutions’ in former Soviet countries are still resonating today with difficult governments in all three.

In this analysis, Ukraine today is merely the latest iteration of this trend, and it is one that both China and Russia fear might lead to repercussions or even emulation at home. This fear, added to China’s unwillingness to turn completely against Moscow seeing it as a long-term geostrategic ally on important international issues like Iran, Syria or others, will ultimately bind the two countries together and will see China continuing to play a largely observer role in events in Ukraine.

For outside observers, the lesson is an important one. China is a passive ally of Russia over Ukraine, something borne out of an ideological and geopolitical concerns rather than an appreciation of the Russian heavy-handed response.

How Best to Appeal to China?

This difference is key to note if the West is going to find a way to get China to grow into a bigger role internationally. China is not the same sort of difficult global power like Russia, it is rather a power that sees trends going in its direction and is happy to continue to nurture them along.

This means that China’s interests can be appealed to if care is taken to understand China’s motivations. In the longer-term China wants a stable Ukraine, Europe and EU-Russia relationship. All of these will provide it with the sort of economic partners that it can profit and grow from. China may be sitting on the sidelines in the current difficulties, but their eye is on longer-term global picture where they see themselves triumphant.

And a final update for this evening, this time an op-ed I had appear in this week’s South China Morning Post focusing on the grim troubles in Xinjiang this past month. More on this coming soon, and I did a number of media interviews about this.

Xinjiang violence a sad indictment of Beijing’s policy

It is proving to be another hot and violent summer in Xinjiang . In quick succession, incidents of violence have erupted across the autonomous region, leading to double-digit casualties. Beijing seems torn between blaming the incidents on foreign terrorists and pointing the finger at domestic turmoil, a focus that ultimately misses the point that whatever is being done to fix the region’s problems is not working.

The problem is complicated. First, there are individuals in Pakistan’s badlands who are plotting to attack China. Just last week, a video emerged on jihadist forums in which the emir of the Turkestan Islamic Party praised the incident in April in Bachu county, just outside Kashgar , in which 15 policemen and officials and six attackers were killed. Last month, the group published a video in which a senior al-Qaeda ideologue gave them advice in their struggle.

This relatively limited group, however, seems far apart from the violence erupting in the province. In incidents reported from Hotan , it seems a mob launched an assault on a police station.

This sounds like a replay of events in 2011 when a group attacked a police station in the prefecture, leading to 18 deaths and dramatic pictures beamed around the world in which armed police were photographed trying to take their station back.

The violence is a sad repetition of history that is becoming a marker of Xinjiang’s summers.

It is not as though Beijing has not made efforts to try to improve the region’s lot. The annual China-Eurasia Expo brings billions of dollars of investment into the province, aspiring party cadres agree to relocate to the region to try to bring their expertise to bear on developing its economy, and foreign investors are courted by Xinjiang officials. The decision to appoint governor Zhang Chunxian after hardliner Wang Lequan’s removal was seen as a conscious effort to give the region new leadership, and one that would be more open in a media age.

Founded on good intentions, this strategy has, nonetheless, not been working. Rather than a reduction in violence since the grim 2009 riots in Urumqi that claimed some 200 lives, trouble has spread.

Travel around Xinjiang and you can see construction, and an effort being made to rebuild. Talk to local officials, often cadres sent from other provinces, and you find competent staff eager to engage and create opportunities in the region. Yet, clearly, it is not working.

Part of the problem may be that entrenched interests there are not allowing economic development to flow in as it could. Talk to most Uygurs in the province and you will find people who do not feel they are personally benefiting from the economic boom that is purportedly happening. The trickle-down effect isn’t working.

Furthermore, while the government tries to advance quite progressive policies towards minorities, there is still clearly a strong sense that their voices are not being heard. In numerous accounts recently, individuals have reported that trouble was sparked by the imposition of regulations regarding religious conduct. A sense of persecution is evident.

There is no easy solution. However, it’s clear that the economically driven strategy is not having the desired effect. Trouble continues to escalate, whether or not outside forces are helping to stir things up. The long-term answer lies in local security, and that is what Beijing’s new leadership needs to focus greater attention on.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London

A new op-ed in today’s South China Morning Post, this time a solo number. Looks at the relationship between China and Russia, and how not all that is BRICS is united. They may agree on some things, but this is not some new geopolitical alignment. Touches also upon my China in Central Asia work, about which there is going to be a lot more over the next few weeks.

China and Russia are no more than allies of convenience

State councillor Dai Bingguo’s visit to Russia this week for strategic security talks has once again focused attention on the supposedly close relationship between the two BRICS powers.

An image of alliance thrown up by their parallel voting in the UN and Western analysts’ inability to look beyond former cold war alliances mean that suspicion is often cast on a relationship that has as many fractures as it does cohesion. The reality is China and Russia disagree as often as they agree.

On the chaos in Syria, the two have shown they are willing to support each other by holding up the UN as a reason for their refusal to countenance action on Syria. But while both may see eye to eye on this issue, this is not always the case. Looking in the annals of Security Council resolutions over the past few years, one can find a few instances where China or Russia found themselves abstaining alone.

Disagreeing in the UN Security Council on lesser resolutions is one thing, but far more contentious is the long border they share and the countries in between.

These concerns have two key aspects: on the one hand, Russia fears the loss of its economic and strategic influence in Central Asia, while, on the other, it fears China may overwhelm its vast and empty eastern provinces. Back in 2000, then prime minister Vladimir Putin enunciated how fundamental these concerns might become when he stated that “if we don’t make concrete efforts, the future local populations [in Russia’s East] will speak Japanese, Chinese or Korean”.

Russian analysts often talk in alarmed tones about the huge demographic disparity between China’s northeastern provinces like Heilongjiang (38 million people) and Amur Oblast on the Russian side (830,000)

And, economically, Russia can also see that it is increasingly losing out in Central Asia, previously its economic backyard. While Russian remains the language of choice in the region, it is China that is being seen as the economy of the future. Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uzbek traders all go to Guangzhou and Urumqi for goods to import, and the China National Petroleum Corporation has signed and brought online with extraordinary speed a growing array of pipelines and oil and gas contracts from Central Asia.

The loser in this growing pipeline orientation to China is of course Russia. Not only because its firms are losing control of the Central Asian resources, but also since a growing reliance on Central Asian energy is playing against Russia in its direct negotiations with China over bilateral energy sales. The two sides have been unable to agree on the pricing of gas for almost a decade – in which time China has built a major gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, one of the world’s richest gas reserves, something that strengthens China’s hand in its negotiations with Russia.

Losing economic might and the potential fear of Chinese demographic pressure are fundamental concerns for Russia. And they build on tensions that were left over after the cold war, where the Chinese and Russian communist parties never quite saw eye to eye.

It may be the norm for elder Chinese officials to know some Russian language from that time, and for Dai to speak of how a “healthy relationship” has been forged over the past decade. But often when China looks to Russia, it sees an example of how not to manage the opening up of the state from a socialist regime. And from a Russian perspective, the new Muscovites see themselves as more European and transatlantic in their outlook and international gravitas than as members of the up-and-coming BRICS community.

So, Dai’s visit to Russia, for all the usual reassurances uttered from both sides about close co-operation, should not be taken as further evidence of some great geopolitical alignment reflective of a shifting global order. China and Russia are occasional allies of convenience, not geopolitical brothers in arms building the “other” world order.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

Somewhat belated posting of an op-ed with Lifan from last week in the South China Morning Post, timed to come out with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit (that I was in Beijing at the same time as, hence the picture below which I took in Tiananmen Square). This has been something of a focus of late, and will continue for a while (for all of this work in a concentrated form, have a look at China in Central Asia, though I have a number of large terrorism projects that I am working on for those more interested in that.

Clashing Interests in Central Asia Strain Sino-Russian Co-operation

June 6, 2012

By Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci

On the surface, this week’s Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) summit will be another marker in the organisation’s steady development as a serious player in regional and, increasingly, international affairs. Below, however, a growing tension between China and Russia is starting to show.

The two powers increasingly see their interests diverging in Central Asia. They are close allies in the UN Security Council, but on the ground China and Russia are steadily moving in different directions.

And it would seem that the SCO is not the only reason for his visit. In initial discussions, the summit was to be held in Shanghai. But, primarily at Moscow’s instigation, the decision was made to hold the conference in Beijing. Given that this was Putin’s first visit to China in his new role, he was eager to ensure that it was held in the capital so he could combine the summit with a state visit to Beijing, highlighting the importance of the bilateral over the multilateral in Russian minds.Russia’s hesitation with the SCO is observable in several ways, not least in President Vladimir Putin’s travel schedule. His first foreign visit since regaining the reins of power took him to Belarus, Germany and France, before coming to China this week.

In addition, in a pre-election article laying out his vision for foreign policy, Putin highlighted his nation’s potential for co-operation with China in “the UN Security Council, BRICS, the SCO, the G20 and other multilateral forums”. This is the only mention of the SCO in the article – while the other blocs get repeated mentions, with elaboration on what Russia might do with them.

Most significantly, Putin speaks repeatedly of a proposed Eurasian Union that aims to bring the former Soviet republics together in an economic union and semi-free trade zone. As Putin has put it, the bloc will co-ordinate economic and currency policy, bringing direct economic benefits. Besides, it will help its members “integrate into Europe faster and from a much stronger position”.

However, such a bloc will also erect higher tariff barriers between the SCO states, specifically along the Chinese border alongside Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This will not only have a direct impact on Chinese trade with these countries, but also render somewhat complicated further SCO economic development.

And while China may lose some trade as a result, the greater loss will be felt on the ground in poorer countries like Kyrgyzstan that will lose significant proportions of their gross domestic product.

Much is made of the vaunted Sino-Russian co-operation in the UN Security Council. And while the two clearly have coinciding visions of a global order, on the ground, tensions are far more obvious. China and Russia’s inability to negotiate gas pricing and direct energy links is in stark contrast to China’s rapid development of energy connections with other Central Asian states.

Of course, the Russia-China connection is not the only factor on the table at this week’s summit. The expected decision to admit Turkey as a dialogue partner is important, but even more significant is the agreement to let Afghanistan in as an observer member.

Member states are also set to approve a strategic plan for the medium-term development of the SCO, the first time they will agree on orienting the development of the SCO over the next 10 years.

Terrorism continues to be a priority, as members are expected to approve a co-operation programme for the next three years to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism.

Discussions will also continue about a proposed SCO university – a programme that will allow students from member states to undertake joint degrees in a selection of universities across the organisation – and the potential for an SCO development bank.

But all of these ambitious plans will be for naught if Russia and China fail to agree on the fundamental issue of the importance of the SCO. Russia is increasingly a questioning partner. At the same time, while China has continued to try to focus on the SCO as a key vehicle for development in Central Asia, it has not hesitated to guarantee its bilateral relations with nations in the region.

While Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in town for the summit, he will sign a strategic agreement with Chinese leaders clarifying Beijing’s role in Afghanistan for the near future. Furthermore, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan will also use this opportunity to sign a declaration of strategic partnership.

And in the run-up to the SCO summit, General Chen Bingde , chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, visited Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The SCO remains a relatively young organisation, but it is currently stymied by tension at its core between its two largest members. Always sceptical of China’s role in Central Asia, Russia is increasingly showing its hand, and the development of a Eurasian Union will directly clash with the future strengthening of the SCO as an economic body.

Sometime allies, Russia and China’s clashing interests in their border regions will increasingly express themselves, and this will slow the development of the SCO. Greater concord must be found; otherwise, little tangible progress will be made.

Li Lifan is secretary general of the Centre for SCO Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the academy