The latest (virtual) summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has given Xi Jinping, with Russian President Vladimir Putin hanging on to his coattails, a new opportunity to promote a coalition that is specifically anti-western.
The Belt and Road initiative provides a physical backbone and widening of the group with observer nations and dialogue partners including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, China is also trying to build up the so-called BRICs group following its Beijing summit last year. It now has almost a dozen applicants from Argentina to Algeria, Iran to Ethiopia wanting to join the existing bloc of Brazil, India, China, Russia, and South Africa.
There has even been talk of a BRIC currency as an alternative to the US dollar – a bizarre notion given the disparate economic systems of the member states. Both the SCO and the BRICs reflect a common desire not to be bossed around by western countries with their histories of imperialism and economic domination.
However, positive agendas are more difficult to identify and China’s dominant role to date as its attempts to equal the US as a global player has drawbacks for others who may have very different economic interests or, as in the case of much of Latin America, are closer culturally and physiologically to the west.
Xi, however, may be finding that Chinese leadership is not as much appreciated as he may have thought and that getting good press in Venezuela or Ethiopia is worth rather less than being seen as a good neighbor in East Asia.
Compounding difficulties is a growing sense felt by others, whether linked to the SCO or not, that China’s rise is being accompanied by a surge of ethno-nationalism which makes many others uncomfortable if not fearful.
This SCO summit was hosted by India, which has explicitly rejected being a cog in the Belt and Road for the obvious reason that it enhances China’s influence at a time when India itself wants to be recognized as a major player, and indeed as a foundation stone of what used to be called the non-aligned bloc when the world was divided between US and Soviet spheres.
With China now aspiring to be the equal of the US, non-alignment requires maintaining distance from both China and the US. That is easy enough for countries in Africa and Latin America, but not so in Asia where many countries have land or sea disputes with China.
Fresh from a visit to the US which underlined a shift in India’s perceptions of the global balance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi berated SCO members who used cross-border terrorism as a policy instrument, a remark aimed mainly at Pakistan but also a reminder that China has blocked the listing of some Pakistan-based groups as terrorist.
Also, while Modi spoke of regional security, he was careful not to bring up New Delhi’s persistent problems with China over the 4,000-km-long Line of Actual Control between the two countries, which has seen repeated clashes between Indian and Chinese troops, with tensions persisting to this day.
More surprising perhaps is that Iran, which has just joined the SCO, appears ambivalent about the Belt and Road despite its current international near-isolation The economic gains may be modest, and with a history at least as long as that of China, Iran is not anxious to see China become the dominant influence in Central Asia. The same is true of Turkey.
China, meanwhile, is trying to play a race card — one which could come to haunt it. Foreign Minister Wang Yi wooed South Korean and Japanese guests by saying that they and the Chinese were quite similar and that westerners could not tell the difference in their looks. The three countries had similar (Confucian) background and should lead Asian progress.
That was not a remark likely to appeal to the larger number of Asians who live in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, and who mostly look quite different from Chinese and have very different histories and cultures from those of northeast Asia.
Wang’s version of Asia for the Asians may remind many of the words from George Orwell’s famed satire on Communism Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others” Wang criticized racism towards brown and black people in western countries as though China had any recent record of absorbing immigrants from Asia or Africa.
Instead, it has over centuries a long history of treating foreigners in general and brown skins in particular as inferior. Indonesians, Filipinos, and others working in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore are well aware of the durability of such attitudes.
Meanwhile in the “racist” United Kingdom, the prime minister and two of his three most senior ministers (Foreign, Home, and Finance) are non-white. As for the US, its white population is now about 59 percent.
In Southeast Asia where tensions between ethnic Chinese and others occur sporadically, Wang’s remarks could be troubling. They came almost the same day as former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed was attacking multiracialism in his country. Both reflect ethnic prejudices which can easily override any amount of declarations at SCO and BRIC meetings.