On 15 September 2020, the first-ever online General Assembly of the United Nations opened in the year of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the organisation. The Covid-19 global pandemic has revolutionised the habits of most international institutions and the UN was not spared, with national leaders speaking to the General Assembly via pre-registered messages. The unusual format and circumstances put the meeting under an even stronger spotlight and made it pivotal to understand how Coronavirus is impacting countries’ international agendas and priorities. This commentary will discuss the positions of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)’s founding members (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and China) whose speeches show very compatible rhetoric and main themes while diverging in tone and assertiveness.
Covid-19 and the related economic crisis were the initial focus in the addresses of all SCO members with a general focus on the need for enhanced cooperation, the role of the World Health Organisation and the necessity of a global and depoliticised effort to discover a vaccine. Besides, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev underlined the strong effect of Covid-19 on Central Asian economies. Central Asia has been affected by the pandemic very strongly in both social and economic domains with more than 250,000 cases of Coronavirus since March. The World Bank forecasted that Central Asian economy will shrink 1.7% in 2020, with only Uzbekistan still showing a positive GDP growth. Accordingly, Uzbek President Shavkat Miziyoyev tried to project a positive image of the situation focusing on political and economic reforms and recovery from the crisis, echoing China in depicting connectivity and global integration as solutions to restart national economies. Chinese President Xi Jinping also supported the need for debt relief in the developing world, line supported by Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, while Russian President Vladimir Putin focused more on COVID-related security implications for food, healthcare and IT.
Security was an important topic in most speeches, with President Enomali Rahmon elevating terrorism as a central theme of his address, asking the United Nations to take “bold measures” for the “elimination” of the menace of terrorism. Furthermore, the Uzbek and Tajik leaders focused on Afghanistan, stressing the need for economic integration and security/peacebuilding respectively. Finally, Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, together with Kazakhstan’s Tokayev, expressed preoccupation about the erosion of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. It is to be noted that Central Asian countries dismantled their Soviet nuclear facilities soon after independence, with Kazakhstan renouncing to 1,410 Soviet nuclear warheads, and therefore lack any form of nuclear deterrence. Russia and Kazakhstan also focus on the threat of biological weapons and arms control, with Putin directly calling on the United States to boost cooperation on regulating arms proliferation.
In parallel, regional cooperation and climate change are other two pivotal interlinked topics. The region has been hit by man-made natural disasters since the 1960s when the USSR started the water management policies that would lead to the almost complete desiccation of the Aral Sea. Since independence water has been the most divisive issue in Central Asian cooperation as interconnected water resources were the reason for most regional tensions. Therefore, water was the most quoted issue about Central Asian regional cooperation in Central Asian leaders’ speeches. Climate change is a linked subject in that it contributes to worsening an already fragile environmental situation leading to the reduction of glaciers, natural disasters, and desertification. To tackle environmental degradation, Uzbekistan focused on regional cooperative strategies to shelter the Aral Sea, while Kyrgyzstan invoked common efforts for the conservation of mountainous ecosystems. Besides, carbon emissions were tackled by both Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, with the former underlining the country’s leadership on the use of renewable sources and the latter planning to reduce emissions by 15% by 2030 and plant 2 billion trees. The focus on climate change was not very strong in President Putin’s address, while it represented a central point in China’s remarks. The Asian giant not only called for a green revolution but also pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060 boosting the hopes for the survival of the Paris Agreement.
Finally, another important theme is the future of the global system and the tense environment sparked by Sino-American rivalry. Among Central Asian leaders, the Kazakh and Tajik Presidents took the lead in depicting the dangers of protectionism and nationalism, harshly criticising the lack of confidence between world leaders that leads to trade wars and tensions, while the others produced more indirect comments on the issue upholding the common values of mutual trust, mutual respect, and cooperation. These discourses fit perfectly with the Chinese perspective that denounced protectionism, unilateralism and bullying practices, to then reaffirm Xi Jinping’s concept of a community of shared future based on win-win cooperation, trade liberalisation and multilateralism. Moreover, while China seems to completely embrace its global role and responsibility and its globalist policies, Russian take seems more conservative, due to strong support for the maintenance of veto powers in the Security Council, and regionally focused in the Eurasian community. While all six SCO founders upheld similar principles, Chinese and Central Asian leaders tackled global issues upfront, while Russian remarks seemed more a vehicle of Russian power projection.