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Heads of China, Russia and India were among the world leaders at security forum

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Further east in Central Asia, an important summit has been taking place this week. China's Xi Jinping, Russia's Vladimir Putin and India's Narendra Modi were among the world leaders in Uzbekistan for a security forum which just wrapped up. And joining us now to discuss the significance of this meeting, we have NPR's India correspondent, Lauren Frayer, in Mumbai. Our Moscow correspondent, Charles Maynes, is in the Russian capital. And NPR's Beijing correspondent, Emily Feng, is on the line as well. Thank you all for being here.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: All right, Charles, let's start with you. What was Moscow hoping to achieve with this summit?

MAYNES: You know, this event was promoted by the Kremlin as an alternative to Western institutions and one far more representative. It's a gathering of leaders from 15 countries whose population makes up a whopping half of the planet. So along with that comes a chance to show that, despite sanctions and Western condemnation over Moscow's actions in Ukraine, Russia is far from isolated. Putin came to woo leaders of countries that perhaps don't endorse the Kremlin's military campaign, but are at least sympathetic to Russian arguments that the U.S., in expanding NATO alliance, forced Russia's hand. In particular, there was intense interest in Putin's meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and a much-touted Chinese-Russian partnership that Xi and Putin, in their last meeting, famously declared had no limits. But the moment that caught everyone's attention was this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here's Putin, looking very subdued yesterday as he told Xi how much he appreciates China's balanced approach to the Ukraine crisis, but also acknowledging that China had questions and concerns, which sure sounded like a tacit admission that there are frictions in the relationship over a military campaign that's faced setbacks, even as Putin today again insisted that his military would stay the course.

SUMMERS: OK, Emily, and for Xi, this is his first trip out of China in nearly three years. Why did he pick Central Asia first?

FENG: It's because China has invested a lot economically and politically into the region. Central Asia is important for China's security and for its economic interests. And now, as Russia, which normally dominates this region, looks distracted - perhaps even expansionist - to Central Asian republics, including Uzbekistan, these countries are now looking to China, according to Temur Umarov. He's a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

TEMUR UMAROV: Every time Russia has conflicts with the West and becomes more isolated and toxic, Uzbekistan understands that it needs to replace Russia where it's possible. And the first country that can replace Russia is China.

FENG: But China has to perform a difficult diplomatic balancing act. It needs to maintain this partnership with Russia that Charles just mentioned, but it also needs to reassure these Central Asian republics it's sympathetic to their plight.

SUMMERS: OK. And, Lauren, what is India's role at this summit?

FRAYER: Yeah. Well, India's foreign policy has always been a balancing act. India is the biggest democracy in the world, friendly with the United States, though not an official U.S. ally. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also maintained ties with Russia, despite Western pressure to sever them over Russia's invasion of Ukraine. So India is still buying Russian weapons, Russian fertilizer, Russian oil. And Modi met with Vladimir Putin today. He delivered some of his strongest comments yet about the Ukraine war. He said this is not the time for war. And Putin responded that he understands Modi's concerns. He said the same thing to Xi Jinping yesterday, actually, and he told Modi that he wants to end the war as soon as possible, but he blamed Ukraine for prolonging it.

SUMMERS: OK, Lauren, so India and Russia - there are relatively friendly relations there. But what about China and India? How did their leaders interact at this meeting?

FRAYER: Yeah. So they actually didn't. There was this awkward photo op where Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping were next to each other on the stage, and they, like, didn't even glance at each other. India and China are the two most populous countries in the world. They also share a more than 2,000-mile disputed border. And soldiers clashed there two years ago, and dozens of Indian troops were killed in that fighting. And this is the first time that Modi and Xi were in the same room since then. Now, the U.S. has played on that tension to try to get India to abandon its traditional neutrality - its non-alignment - and join Washington's anti-China push. Modi held bilateral meetings with several leaders at the summit - I mean, handshakes and all smiles with Putin, with Iran's leader, but not with Xi.

SUMMERS: Emily, this meeting has just wrapped up. Do you think that, in the end, China got what it wanted?

FENG: Overall, yes. China got to strengthen its regional partnerships with Central Asia at the same time that the U.S. is enlisting its allies globally to help contain China. Here's how Liu Chang, a researcher on Central Asia and Russia at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, framed Xi's visit.

LIU CHANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She's saying, "it's a time of crisis, but it's also a time of opportunity for China. The strategic cooperation between China and Russia has reached a new high, for example." And she also says China is getting an opportunity to deepen cooperation with Central Asia. And what she means is, yes, there's global instability, particularly with Russia's war in Ukraine, but that gives China an opening to deepen its ties to its neighbors while the U.S. and Europe are distracted by the war in Ukraine.

SUMMERS: And Charles, speaking of global instability, another topic that was addressed was food insecurity resulting from the war in Ukraine. What did we learn there?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, again, this was Putin really doing what he came for - tailoring Russian grievances to a wider audience. It's Russia's blockade of Ukrainian grain and, to a degree, Western sanctions on Russian agriculture - or Russian trade, I should say - that's clogged up shipments to global markets and exacerbated food shortages around the world. Under a deal brokered by Turkey and the U.N. over the summer, some of those shipments are now making their way out of the Black Sea region.

Today Putin met with Turkey's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and made the case that, A, Western countries still haven't eased restrictions on Russia to allow its grain and fertilizer to market, and, B, that what is making it out is going out to Europe. And so this is hoarding, Putin argues, by wealthier countries. Now, Putin says Russia wants its grain to make it to the neediest and even offered to donate shipments of its fertilizer currently in Europe to the poorest countries. Now, whether that's a genuine offer or just show, we'll have to see. Certainly, it's part of a wider idea Putin stresses often these days, including at this summit, that the West isn't just against Russia - it's against all of us.

SUMMERS: That is NPR Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes, Beijing correspondent Emily Feng and India correspondent Lauren Frayer in Mumbai. Thanks to all three of you.

FENG: Thanks, Juana.

MAYNES: Thank you.

FRAYER: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PHARCYDE SONG, "SHE SAID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.