Samarkand

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 27 Sep 2022

Abdel-Moneim Said registers the phenomenon of developments that defy reason

 

An especially disturbing and bewildering phenomenon of recent times is the rush of developments that so defy classification and logic that the mind cramps up and one’s vision blurs in the attempt to sort them out. The planet is facing rising temperatures, unprecedented floods and droughts, and other climate-related threats that jeopardise human life. At the same time, a state of anarchy is spreading across many borders and regions, behind which terrorism lurks, waiting for its chance to strike. 

Of course, the war in Ukraine never ceases to surprise with its rapid twists and turns. One moment Russian troops were amassed on its borders; the next, they invaded, reaching the gates of Kyiv. Then the tables turned and Kyiv managed to repel the assault and put paid to Moscow’s plans for changing and disarming the Ukrainian regime. At that point, Russia shifted its targets and restricted its focus to the Donbas region and Odessa. But Ukraine, bolstered by military, technological and intelligence assistance from the West, launched a counter offensive in the northeast and the south, compelling Russian forces to retreat and claiming a victory in Kharkiv that led many to declare Russia’s defeat. Amidst all these global crises, there remains the question as to whether the Covid-19 pandemic is ongoing or whether it has breathed its last. 

The state of the world today has afflicted all countries with spasms of uncertainty powerful enough to create worldwide crises in energy, food and everything else. With inflation running rampant and economies reeling, many are wondering when and where governments will collapse and civil wars break out. 

Against the backdrop of such global conditions, when 24 states, including Russia and China, came together for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in the historic city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on 15-16 September, one could not help but to ask how any of them could hope for cooperation at all and whether this meeting, itself, was a manifestation of the polarisation that is pitting the participants in Samarkand against the Western camp led by the US.

In the SCO conference, one was struck by how Chinese President Xi Jinping included “beauty” among the criteria for a world of hope. The title of his address was, “Ride on the Trend of the Times and Enhance Solidarity and Cooperation to Embrace a Beautiful Future.” In it he lays out a vision for a world inspired by the UN principles plus aspirations for international cooperation free from intervention in the domestic affairs among the conference participants, whether full SCO members or participants in the organisation’s dialogues.

The speech by the leader of the world’s new superpower was as remarkable for its affirmation of the spirit of Shanghai as it was for what it did not say. President Xi did not say a word about the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. On this matter, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s discourse during the conference was different. He referred to the harm the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused in a world where the last thing needed was more trouble. 

Also unmentioned in the conference were the international disputes and conflicts that erupted even as the “spirit of Shanghai” prevailed in an important SCO meeting. Border clashes flared between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and renewed skirmishes broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Then there was the irony that, while several Arab countries were on hand in Samarkand as dialogue participants, the SCO had just accepted Iran as a full member even though Tehran continues to meddle in the domestic affairs of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, not to mention its relations with many terrorist organisations. These inconsistencies are odd, unless the international order that China is calling for turns out to be not all that different from the one the US had championed. 

It is hard to look at an emergent superpower and apply the same criteria to preceding superpowers. The Chinese president may have put this in a nutshell in his speech when he told his colleagues: “Long as the journey is, we will surely reach our destination when we stay the course.” China’s “strategic patience”, here, appears to have a varying rhythm. 

It is informed by China’s immediate interests which are connected, first, to the Chinese view on globalisation in the framework of its Belt and Road project; secondly, to Chinese-US/Western trade, commercial and technological relations, and Chinese investments in the US, Europe and even Israel; and, thirdly, to its anticipated international order which should not exclude anyone, neither Iran nor Afghanistan and certainly not Russia which has been compelled to draw closer to Beijing and will be more modest after its adventure in Ukraine. In this regard, it is little wonder that after his meeting with Xi in Samarkand, Putin praised China’s “balanced” approach, perhaps even as he was preparing to conscript another 300,000 troops in the hope of resetting the scales in Russia’s favour in Ukraine. 

The conference in Samarkand was not just a meeting of a regional organisation that has convened regularly since 2001. It was a mirror of a state of international affairs that has brought together many countries that take issue with the US and its international behaviour since the end of the Cold War. The circle has gradually broadened to include countries that are making significant inroads in development and that have found that a new war, coming on top of the pandemic and global warming, has encumbered them with intolerable burdens, especially given that they had nothing to do with the war. Such re-sorting of roles is normal at times of shifts in the world order. In the end, when all is said and done, and the cameras stop rolling, we can only wait for the outcome of the war, for only then does the moment of revision come; and, as the dust settles, the contours of the new world order will become visible. 

Pessimists hold that a war of this nature will not end before spiralling into a third world war in which the world will be irretrievably lost. Or, they believe that the current Russian mobilisation in order to counter the Ukrainian counter-attack combined with the likely annexation of the Donbas following a referendum in the region would create a “balance of victories.” Given the previous annexation of the Crimea, this would present an imperialist problem reminiscent of the Tsarist and Soviet eras. 

On the other hand, Ukraine would emerge independent and released from the Russian bear hug it had suffered under the Soviet Union. It would remain open and not landlocked, as it would have unhampered access to the Black Sea through the port of Odessa. In addition it would receive membership in the EU which is ready to reconstruct Ukraine from the bottom up. A situation such as this would be conducive to a peace settlement such as the one Henry Kissinger has previously suggested. But more will be needed than wise words, just as Chinese wisdom needs to shed silence when words are needed.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: