Apr 10, 2023 Djoomart Otorbaev

Djoomart Otorbaev

Writing for PS since 2020
13 Commentaries

Djoomart Otorbaev, a former prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, is the author of Central Asia’s Economic Rebirth in the Shadow of the New Great Game (Routledge, 2023).

Saudi Arabia’s turn toward China reflects its dissatisfaction with US policy. But while this is hardly the first time the Saudis have employed this approach to political bargaining, familiar does not mean harmless.

BISHKEK – Just a few years ago, it would have been practically unimaginable for Saudi Arabia, America’s longtime strategic partner, to join an economic and security organization led by China and Russia. Last month, however, the kingdom approved a memorandum of understanding granting it the status of “dialogue partner” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – the first step toward full membership.

The SCO’s foundations were laid in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union and China were attempting to navigate tensions over their shared border. After the Soviet Union’s dissolution, two parties became five: the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In 2001, the so-called Shanghai Five agreed that they should move beyond demarcation and demilitarization of borders to deepen regional cooperation, and the SCO was born. Today, the SCO includes the Shanghai Five, plus India, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan, with Iran expected to join this year. The SCO also has nine dialogue partners – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Egypt, Nepal, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and now Saudi Arabia – with five more countries having embarked on the same path. Three countries – Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia – have observer status. While the SCO is not a military alliance comparable to, say, NATO, nor is it a mere economic association. On the contrary, the SCO charter establishes security cooperation as central to the organization’s purpose, and SCO members regularly hold joint military and anti-terrorism exercises. For example, joint “counter-terrorism exercises” are planned for August in Russia’s Chelyabinsk oblast. Saudi Arabia’s move to join the SCO represents a victory for China, which has been seeking to boost its geopolitical influence and challenge the current United States-led international order. The diplomatic component of this effort has been crucial. For example, less than three weeks before Saudi Arabia approved the SCO memorandum, it agreed to a China-brokered deal to restore diplomatic relations with Iran. No one should be surprised if China soon sets its sights on mediating a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But it is China’s economic clout that makes such diplomatic achievements possible. It is no coincidence that on March 27 – two days before the Saudis signed the SCO memorandum – the state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco announced that it had acquired a 10% stake in China’s Rongsheng Petrochemical Co., Ltd., in a deal valued at $3.6 billion. Saudi Aramco – which was already supplying more than four times as much crude to China as to the US – has now agreed to supply refineries in China with 690,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

Saudi Arabia appears to be selling its loyalty to the highest bidder. In addition to the SCO, the kingdom has formally asked to join another China-dominated grouping, the BRICS, which also includes Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa. Conceived in 2001 by Goldman Sachs as an asset class, the BRICS grouping soon took on a life of its own. In 2006, it emerged as a trade alliance, and it has been attempting to position itself as a geopolitical alternative to the G7, even discussing the launch of a single currency that could act as an alternative to the US dollar. Given that China accounts for 72% of the BRICS’ total GDP, the bloc – possibly in an expanded form – could well decide to start settling trade payments in renminbi. Even if that does not happen yet, China may decide to settle its hydrocarbon purchases from Saudi Arabia in renminbi, as it has been doing with Russia. Given that China accounts for 15% of global oil demand, and 10% of the global oil trade, other nearby oil-producing countries may be drawn into the same arrangement. To be sure, China is not likely to drive the US out of the Middle East any time soon, not least because America remains a top security partner for most of the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia continues to host US military bases, and last month the two countries completed their first joint counter-drone exercise at a new military testing center in Riyadh. In the same week, two Saudi Arabian airlines announced plans to order 78 planes from US manufacturer Boeing and take options to buy 43 more. Nonetheless, China’s growing footprint in the Middle East has the US worried. While US officials have played down the implications of Saudi Arabia’s move to join the SCO, saying that it was long overdue, they have expressed concern about the adoption of Huawei 5G technology in the Middle East, and urged the United Arab Emirates to shut down what they view as a Chinese security facility. Cooperating with China, the US warns, could undermine countries’ relationships with America. In Saudi Arabia’s view, it is the US that has been damaging bilateral relations. During the 2020 election campaign, US President Joe Biden threatened to make the kingdom a “pariah” for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Though Biden has since softened his position, a few fundamental restrictions – for example, on the supply of weapons – remain in place. Moreover, US Senators Chris Murphy and Mike Lee recently introduced a “privileged resolution” to require the State Department to investigate Saudi Arabia’s domestic human-rights practices and its involvement in the war in Yemen. According to the resolution, all security assistance to the kingdom would be cut off unless the report is submitted within 30 days. Saudi Arabia’s turn toward China thus reflects its dissatisfaction with US policy. And while this is hardly the first time the Saudis have employed this approach to political bargaining, familiar does not mean harmless. Enabling China’s efforts to corral Middle Eastern countries into political and economic blocs could have far-reaching strategic consequences.

India: Drawn To The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

A recent visit by the Secretary-General of the SCO to India highlights the latter’s interest in joining the SCO.

By Sanjay Kumar

February 27, 2014

Dmitry Fedorovich Mezentsev, Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO), visited New Delhi on a two day visit from February 23 to 25. The visit failed to attract any meaningful media attention. Nonetheless, the visit is significant and highlights the importance of the SCO in India’s larger relations with Central Asia and South Asia.

The trip comes against the backdrop of a momentous change in Afghanistan that will see an almost complete withdrawal of foreign combat troops from the country as uncertainty about the future grows in the landlocked country. The visit also comes at a time when New Delhi is more keen than before to become a full member of the six-member group. India enjoys the status of an observer state at the SCO.

“We have also indicated our willingness to play a more active, more constructive, broader and larger role in the SCO as and when the SCO decides to expand its membership,” the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs Syed Akbaruddin said while announcing the arrival of Mezentsev in India.

Can India become a member of the SCO?

“India is already an observer member of SCO. It is regularly attending the SCO summits. Its members, including Central Asian countries, support India’s full membership in the organization. The expansion policy of the SCO has not yet been finalized by the major stakeholders of the grouping,” says Dr Zakir Hussain, a fellow at New Delhi based think tank Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA).

Speaking with The Diplomat, Hussain underlines that “agreement between India and China is one of the important factors which can pave the way for New Delhi’s inclusion in the grouping. However,China seems to be a bit reluctant vis-a-vis India. Beijing wants to use the SCO as a bargaining card with India to get an entry to the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), while Russia may want to balance China’s growing economic footprint in the region by including India in the grouping.”

Why is membership important for New Delhi?

Hussain highlights three points in response to this question.

“First, some of the member countries of the grouping are rich in energy resources – both hydrocarbons and uranium – and they want to connect with big energy markets like India. The proposition of the SCO’s energy club is a proactive move to connect the resource rich region with resource hungry market like India. Second, the Asian-Eurasian block can play a key role not only in stabilizing Afghanistan post-2014, but also help form a joint platform against terrorism, reducing and minimizing the menace of drug trafficking, and ensuring energy security to all stakeholders. Third, an important factor is the promotion of India’s economic integration with the Central Asian republics, which is in line with India’s Connect Central Asia policy. Greater engagement of India with the SCO will undoubtedly add to the organization’s capability to enhance regional economic prosperity and security,” the scholar opines.

Can the SCO be an answer to West’s political narrative in South and Central Asia?

Opinions are divided. There are critics who argue that the inbuilt contradictions in the group are holding it back from emerging as Asia’s NATO.

A deep trust deficit between Russia and China is not allowing the regional alliance to make a forward-looking move and devise a cohesive strategy. That is the reason the SCO Development Bank is still grounded. Moscow fears that Beijing might use it as a tool to entrench its economic interests in Central Asia, thereby  weakening Russian influence over the region.

It is this distrust that is coming in the way of  formulating any cohesive security arrangement in the region.

Even the expansion of the six member grouping will not sort out the contradictions. Instead it might further aggravate the differences. India, Pakistan, and Iran are pitching to be included in the list. If that happens, the  political differences and contradictory geopolitical visions of these nations will come in the way of realizing the real value and potential of the SCO.

Therefore, critics contend that unless internal differences are sorted out the novel experiment which started in 2001 might not live up to its potential.

However, despite the differences, the SCO’s importance cannot be understated. The region covers almost 60 percent of the total Eurasian landmass, with over 1.5 billion in population, including some of the world’s leading energy-rich nations.

It is this richness and political potential of the area that attracts India towards the SCO.


bargainingторги, переговоры, заключение сделки
attemptпытаться, пробовать; сделать попытку
dissolutionраспад, роспуск, расторжение
embarkначинать, браться (за что-л.); предпринимать (что-л.)
seekискать, стремиться, добиваться
restore восстанавливать, возобновить, возвращать
accountотчитываться; давать отчёт, отвечать, нести ответственность
footprint след, отпечаток, зона охвата, зона влияния 
overdueпросроченный, запоздалый
far-reachingдалеко идущий, чреватый серьезными последствиями


  1. approach to
  2. tensions over 
  3. embarked on 
  4. comparable to
  5. solution to
  6. stake in 
  7. alternative to
  8. accounts for
  9. remain in place
  10. involvement in 


bargainingначинать, браться (за что-л.); предпринимать (что-л.)
attemptотчитываться; давать отчёт, отвечать, нести ответственность
dissolutionпытаться, пробовать; сделать попытку
embarkискать, стремиться, добиваться
seekпросроченный, запоздалый
restore торги, переговоры, заключение сделки
accountдалеко идущий, чреватый серьезными последствиями
footprint распад, роспуск, расторжение
overdueслед, отпечаток, зона охвата, зона влияния 
far-reachingвосстанавливать, возобновить, возвращать


intergovernmental formal demand, appeal, petition
inception provisional, tentative programme, draft of a document
ongoing occurring in regular time intervals or patterns
entitlerelevant; suitable; appropriate
high-ranking representativecontinuing without ending or without interruption
preliminary agendaone of the parts into which an organization is divided for political, judicial, military, or other purposes
requestthe beginning, as of a project or undertaking
on a regular basisgive a rank or right
divisionthe authorized delegate or agent having an important position in a government, company, or organization
applicable conducted between or involving two or more governments


bargainingpursue, try to obtain, strive for, ask for, request
attemptdisintegration, decomposition, termination; dismissal
dissolutionvalue, consider, rate, reckon, deem, estimate 
embarkbehind schedule, delayed; unsettled, delinquent
seektry, endeavor
restore effect, impact, track, mark, imprint, impression
accountnegotiating terms, reaching agreement, doing a deal
footprint begin, commence, undertake
overdueextensive, profound, comprehensive, all-embracing, radical
far-reachingreestablish, reinstate, reinvigorate, revive, revitalize


bargainingon a plan, strategy, mission, campaign
attemptfor the disparity, difference, mistake/ actions, decisions
dissolutionfor life, a promotion, a discount/ over a proposal, price
embarkproject, task, assignment/ compensation, recognition
seekeffects, consequences, significance, reforms
restore to make, find, get, provide, keep, persuade, explain
accountto improve, provide, ensure, understand/ destroy, obtain, find
footprint leading, trailing, coming from; reduce
overdueperiod, of status position, partnership, board
far-reachingorder, control, balance, peace, confidence, belief, pride, faith (in)


  1. approach ___
  2. tensions ___
  3. embarked ___
  4. comparable ___
  5. solution ___
  6. stake ___
  7. alternative ___
  8. accounts ___
  9. remain ___ place
  10. involvement ___


purchase to one’s advantage, esp. at less than the usual cost; an agreement between parties

negotiating terms, reaching agreement, doing a deal

bargain for [his life, a promotion, a discount]bargain over a [proposal, price]
to make an effort at; try; seek, undertake

try, endeavor

attempt to [make, find, get, provide, keep]; attempt to [persuade, explain]
a bringing or coming to an end; termination; the breaking up of an assembly or organization, bond, partnership; dismissal

disintegration, decomposition, termination; dismissal

dissolution period, of status position, partnership, board
браться (за); предпринимать
to start or participate in an enterprise, project, venture

begin, commence, undertake

a embark on a plan, strategy, mission, campaign
to try to obtain, to search or explore, attempt

pursue, try to obtain, strive for, ask for, request

seek to [improve, provide, ensure, make, understand]seek to [destroy, obtain, find]
to bring back into existence, use, former condition, position, rank; reestablish

reestablish, reinstate, reinvigorate, revive, revitalize

restore [order, control]restore the [balance, peace]restore smb’s [confidence, belief, pride, faith] (in)
давать отчёт,
to give an explanation for; to cause; to regard; consider as

value, consider, rate, reckon, deem, estimate 

account for the [disparity, difference, mistake]; [actions, decisions]
зона охвата, 
зона влияния
a trace suggesting that something was once present or felt or otherwise important; the area taken up by some object

effect, impact, track, mark, imprint, impression

footprints [leading, trailing, coming] from; reduce a carbon footprint
просроченный, запоздалый
having passed the time when due or expected; needed or expected for some time but not yet having been done

behind schedule, delayed; unsettled, delinquent

an overdue [project, task, assignment]; overdue [compensation, recognition]; the [promotion, apology] was long overdue
далеко идущий,
серьезными последствиями
extending far in influence, effect

extensive, profound, comprehensive, all-embracing, radical

effects, consequences, significance, reforms