While the attention of the US was focused on the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018, China was busy hosting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. Because the G7 meeting was held close to the SCO gathering, some did not fail to notice the contrasts between the two. Perception-wise, observers noted that there appeared to be strong unity within the SCO compared with the G7 which ended in a disagreement between the leaders of Canada and the US. This has taken attention away from the work of both organizations, which is to tackle the world’s trade, environment and security issues.
Consequently, because of the disagreement, US President Donald J. Trump did not sign a communique with the other G7 members before leaving for the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. The US President also left before a G7 meeting on climate change and other important issues related to the global environment. At one point after the G7 meeting, Trump even called the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest and weak.” The Canadian PM struck back and said his countrymen may be polite but they would not be willing to be pushed around. However, overall Canadian and US bilateral relations remain strong and should be able to weather this small storm.
In the G7 meeting, Trump also questioned the G7 leaders over why Russia was removed from the grouping. Russia was previously asked to leave the group in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea, its support for rebels/separatists in eastern Ukraine, and accusations that it shot down a passenger jet. Russia has since turned its sights eastwards towards China and other Asian powers for economic exchanges.
In the G7 meeting, Trump had differences in opinion with the other leaders over scuttling the nuclear deal with Iran. Some media perceptions of disunity amongst G7 leaders may be somewhat overplayed, given that complementary interests amongst the Western countries remain very strong. It is unlikely there can be any permanent fissures arising from the G7 meeting alone.
On the other side of the world, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 8. China worked hard to present a common front amongst SCO members in the summit meeting in Qingdao. It was clear that Beijing and Moscow were in the frontline leading positions of the organization. Russia had been keen in the past to leverage the SCO to buffer against Color Revolution encroachments in its Eurasian backyard that it suspects were fomented by the West.
In a stronger Russo-China embrace, Russian President Vladimir Putin was feted with a Friendship Medal by Beijing, the first ever such award given by the Chinese government to a foreigner. The award ceremony was highly publicized in China, intricately elaborate, and was the first of its kind. In the high-context cultural background of Northeast Asia, the symbolism represented by the awards ceremony was highly significant in extending friendship to another major power. The common interests of both countries were forged a step further through this ceremony.
Both countries have been rallying around complementary interests while managing internal SCO rivalries like the traditional competitive instincts between India and Pakistan, India and China, and others. The aim of all regional organizations is to reduce such competitive instincts and focus on economic cooperation for a win-win situation. This principle goes for the G7 as well. Russian influence remains strong in the Eurasian region with its own regional organization, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
Some see the SCO as Beijing’s counterbalance to the advanced developed countries and their groupings like the G7.
The other major powers that were new entrants to the SCO were India, represented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Iran, represented by President Hassan Rouhani. A close ally of Beijing (described as “ironclad brothers”), Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain’s participation was also hailed by China. The expanded membership offers China a chance to push for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is the single most important economic diplomatic plan of the Xi administration.
In addition, in the post-Doklam standoff period and Chinese anxieties over India’s role in the Indo Pacific strategy and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), Chinese courtship of India has begun. Xi’s meeting with Modi, the second such meeting within two months, concluded agreements on non-basmati rice exports and data-sharing related to the Brahmaputra River which meanders through the boundaries of India and China.
As a keynote speaker at the Shangri-La Dialogue held earlier in Singapore, Modi’s speech appeared to focus on ASEAN centrality rather than alignment against China. This may have been a relief for the Chinese observers. India and China are staking out each other’s positions as they try to skirt around and prevent future conflicts and tensions through understanding and participation in regional meetings like the SCO.
Both Russia and China supported the Trump-Kim summit and they wanted to ensure the Kim regime’s survival, an incremental approach in denuclearization and act as security guarantors for Pyongyang. Interestingly, during the Trump-Kim Summit, the US also provided security guarantees for Pyongyang, wrote off regime change as an option, and sought a cautious approach to denuclearization. Even as rapprochement takes place between Washington DC and Pyongyang, Moscow and Beijing are closely guarding their influence over North Korea — in the case of China and North Korea, it is an alliance once described as close and complementary as “teeth and gums.”
At the SCO, Beijing pushed the agenda of maintaining regional security (including border patrols, anti-terrorism measures and denuclearization in Iran and North Korea), enhancing economic development and bringing about good global governance. The denuclearization agenda has come to the forefront with some success in the Trump-Kim summit and disagreement between the US and Europe over the Iran nuclear deal.
Some see the SCO as Beijing’s counterbalance to the advanced developed countries and their groupings like the G7. Realists go further to attribute the formation of the SCO as a counterbalance to US’s war in Afghanistan. However, these are speculations rather than absolute truths. Both the G7 and SCO are working hard to cope with global issues in trade and security issues like counterterrorism. Recent trade tensions between Beijing and Washington DC may have driven Beijing to warm up to Russia, India and Japan, but the fact remains that the fate of the two largest economies in the world are closely intertwined.
This time round, the world has noticed how Beijing tried to forge unity and how the G7 had disagreements over trade tariffs. The SCO has also expanded with the new members of Pakistan and India. With the addition of India, the demographics of SCO countries have increased to 3 billion (India and China account for the majority of the SCO’s population). They collectively make up about 1/5th of the world’s economic output.