Smiling broadly as he strode into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in June 2018 alongside a group of world leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping had never looked stronger.
Less than one week later, however, the United States imposed its first tariffs on tens of billions of dollars of Chinese goods, kicking off what would become a raging global trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
On Friday, Xi returns to the SCO under markedly different circumstances.
Now more than ever, the Chinese leader will need to solidify ties with allies amid an escalating trade war with President Donald Trump’s administration and a slowing domestic economy.
In the Kyrgyzstan capital Bishkek, Xi is expected to meet with his “best and bosom friend” Russian leader Vladimir Putin and a newly reelected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, fresh from his landslide victory in May.
While it’s reasonable to think Xi will be seeking their endorsement and support, China’s relatively diminished position also increases the bargaining power of the SCO’s other participants.
“It gives all those countries an opportunity to see if they can actually get something out of the Chinese,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.
“They see that Xi Jinping probably feels a bit more vulnerable than he was a year ago.”
Shoring up allies
Founded in 2001 as a forum to resolve border disputes in Central Asia, the annual SCO has grown rapidly in both membership and scope.
According to Chinese state media, its eight permanent members – China, Russia, India, Pakistan and four Central Asian states – account for “nearly half the global population, and over 20% of global gross domestic product (GDP).”
As a result, the forum has become a key place for members to thrash out security and economic issues in the region.
“If you have (an economic) decoupling between the US and China in a globalized world, you want to have more allies on your side than on the other side, even if they’re not formal allies but countries that are willing to work with you,” Tsang said.
With Putin and Xi’s close relationship reaffirmed in Russia this month, the Chinese leader will likely be turning his attention to Modi.
China and India have often had a fractious relationship, almost coming to blows in 2017 over a dispute on their Himalayan border near Bhutan. But in the past two years, in the face of growing pushback from the United States, Xi and Modi have sought to strengthen ties, including meeting for an informal summit in Wuhan in April 2018.
“The Chinese want to see their economic relationship with India grow, particularly if they could get the Indians to use Huawei technology for their 5G network,” Tsang said. “It would certainly be very useful for the Chinese government in terms of sustaining Huawei as an alternative to the West.”
Earlier this month, Huawei signed a deal with Russia’s largest telecoms operator, MTS, to develop 5G technologies and launch a fifth-generation network in Russia within the next year.