Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has a vision. Photo: Sarvar Urmonov / Uzbek Presidential Press Service

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit is historic in more than one sense. The fact that the meeting is Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s first trip abroad since 2020 conveys some of its significance.

It is also the first time that the group of Eurasian leaders will have met in person since the start of Russia’s war with Ukraine, which has opened some gaping fault lines in the group. Most strikingly, however, it is the first time that the leaders will meet in Uzbekistan’s renowned Silk Road city of Samarkand.

Uzbekistan, which is chairing this year’s SCO, is convincingly positioning itself as an emerging Eurasian kingmaker.

Uzbekistan is the driving force behind two ambitious international railway projects; it has made its presence felt by proposing no fewer than 54 initiatives to the bloc in the last five years; and regional powerhouse China is increasingly making overtures for closer cooperation.

But with war continuing in Europe, repeated outbreaks of fighting between summit guests Armenia and Azerbaijan and border skirmishes flaring up between fully-fledged members Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, uniting the group is a tall order. 

In an article he penned for various outlets including Economic Times and China Daily, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev recognized that his country’s chairmanship of the SCO has come at a time of change. “It is in moments of crisis that countries – large, medium and small – must set aside their narrow interests and focus on interaction,” he wrote.

Through layers of diplomatic hedging, Mirziyoyev’s piece affords an insight into the Uzbek premier’s thoughts on the upcoming summit and its implications for a shifting Eurasia.

Silk Road statecraft

A staging post on the Silk Road between China and Europe, Samarkand is known as a trading hub and crossroads – a fitting destination for a summit that will focus on transport and trade. Observers expect as many as 30 agreements to be signed at the summit, including on customs, joint infrastructure projects and economic relations.

With trade flows between China and Europe heavily disrupted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, new routes are desperately needed to help ship the US$75 billion worth of goods that travel between Europe and China each year.

Currently, most of those goods travel through Kazakhstan and Russia, but Western sanctions have rendered that route ineffective. Some companies are resorting to shipping their products across the Caspian Sea to cut out Russia. Uzbekistan’s location could be a valuable asset in the search for alternatives. 

Uzbekistan is strategically placed in the region. Map: iStock

A proposed 280-kilometer railway connecting China’s Torugart Pass to Jalal-Abad in Kyrgyzstan could create a new artery between China and Europe known as the “Middle Corridor.” Traveling through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey, the new route would shorten the journey of freight to Europe by 900 kilometers.

Plans for the railway were originally drawn up in 1997, but Russian opposition and the difficulty of agreeing on a route kept them from being realized. Now, it seems the new line may finally be built. In May, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov announced that construction on the line will begin in 2023.

Erkinbek Osoyev, Kyrgyzstan’s transport minister, says the new route will carry between 7 and 13 million tonnes of freight a year.

Mirziyoyev was instrumental in campaigning for the line. After the death of Soviet-era dictator Islam Karimov in 2016, he implemented a raft of reforms that improved the country’s relations with the West. He’s therefore in a strong position to win the support of foreign investors and international financial organizations. 

For Uzbekistan, the new route will bring jobs, transit fees and trade. “It will link us to Asia-Pacific countries, paving the way for new economic opportunities,” Mirziyoyev said.

Central Asian states including Uzbekistan are also keen to increase trade and connectivity with their neighbors to lower the risk of future dominance by outsiders. With an east-west line all but locked down, Mirziyoyev can use the Samarkand summit to lobby for another axis of Eurasian connectivity from north to south.

A proposed route connecting Uzbekistan to Pakistan’s ports via Afghanistan is high on Mirziyoyev’s agenda. It would tick a lot of boxes, including providing access to the Arabian sea for landlocked Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. It would also assist China in its efforts to turn Pakistan’s port at Gwadar into a shipping hub and help bring Afghanistan into the SCO fold.

“This country is an integral part of the large SCO space. More than ever, the Afghan people need good neighbors and support. We have a moral obligation to lend a helping hand and to offer Afghanistan effective ways out of its long-standing crisis,” Mirziyoyev said.

In total, the new line would cut the time taken to get goods from Uzbekistan to neighboring Afghanistan from around 35 days to as few as four. Uzbek officials say they have already turned to the World Bank for help funding the project.

Elephant in the room

Uzbekistan has aspirations beyond simply being an international transport hub, however. In his recent article, Mirziyoyev is particularly vocal about the need for greater cooperation in the face of de-globalization and bloc thinking.

“The modern system of international cooperation, based on universal principles and norms, is beginning to malfunction significantly. One of the main reasons for this is a deep crisis of confidence at the global level, which, in turn, provokes geopolitical confrontation and risks reviving stereotypes of bloc thinking,” he writes.

“Armed conflicts in different parts of the world destabilize trade and investment flows and exacerbate the problems of ensuring food and energy security,” Mirziyoyev adds.

But finding common ground on political matters will be a struggle in a constellation that includes China and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and India and Pakistan.

In order to reach a consensus on international affairs, the members will have to overlook their differences on contentious problems like China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang and the border between Pakistan and India.

Police watch as Uighur Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after morning prayers in the old town of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP/ Johannes Eisele

The biggest sticking point, however, remains Russia’s war in Ukraine. In light of Ukraine’s recent successes in the Kharkiv region, China will have a delicate balancing act trying to maintain a strategic partnership with Russia while distancing itself from its northern neighbor’s military failures.

The matter is complicated by a suspicious attitude toward Russia’s war among Central Asian states, which used to be part of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan’s recent announcement that it was complying with anti-Russian sanctions and handing the EU and US access to data on sanction-sensitive deals exemplified the direction of travel among Central Asian states.

China and Russia have had a “quiet rivalry” over influence in Central Asia for decades, and the war in Ukraine has only strengthened China’s hand in this regard. This in turn gives Uzbekistan and its close neighbors more bargaining power, but cooperation with China will need to be managed in a way that keeps Russia onside.

Uzbekistan’s solution to the considerable gaps between the member countries of the SCO is to focus attention on the topics on which they agree. This is what Mirziyoyev means in his call for “effective international cooperation” in place of “bloc thinking”, and it is the reason why Uzbekistan’s chairmanship of the fractious group has been so successful.

Repairing rifts

In previous stints as chair of the SCO, Uzbekistan has overseen the introduction of a mechanism to grant outside countries observer status (which Afghanistan has availed itself of this year) as well as a counter-terrorism cooperation agreement and security council meetings.

Now, Uzbekistan has turned its attention to the further expansion of the SCO group.

“Our slogan is, ‘The SCO is strong if each of us is strong.’ Implementing it in practice, we have made serious efforts to make the Organisation even stronger from within and more attractive from the outside – to our international partners,” Mirziyoyev writes.

It is with this in mind that the attendees of the Samarkand Summit are expected to sign a memorandum admitting Iran as a member. Afghanistan’s accession will take longer. Tajikistan’s government refuses to work with the Taliban, and many members of the group are similarly wary.

In the meantime, the SCO is focusing on economic and trade relations. Uzbekistan has prepared a Comprehensive Plan for the Implementation of the SCO Treaty on Long-Term Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation for 2023-2027.

This document, which will be adopted at the Samarkand Summit, commits the members to cooperate on industry, investment, energy and agriculture, and it designates the agencies responsible for implementing joint projects.

An earlier Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Photo: AFP / Iranian Presidency / Handout / Anadolu Agency

Uzbekistan’s chairmanship in the SCO is a logical continuation of the active and open foreign policy course pursued by our country over the past six years,” writes Mirziyoyev. “This policy is being implemented primarily in Central Asia, the geographical center of the SCO, where positive and irreversible processes of strengthening good-neighborliness and cooperation are taking place today.”

“We are full of optimism and are convinced that the decisions of the upcoming summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will make a realistic contribution to strengthening dialogue, mutual understanding and cooperation both at the regional level and on a global scale,” he adds.

The SCO is now the world’s largest regional organization, accounting for around 60% of the area of Eurasia and 40% of the world population. Rifts between members are huge, perhaps even unassailable. But Uzbekistan is providing a masterclass in the rewards that the group can reap as long as they can avoid politics and keep talking trade.

Theo Normanton

Theo Normanton is the Moscow correspondent for bne IntelliNews.