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Foreign Policy

China-Central Asia Summit: A Strategic Upgrade

May 23, 2023
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

The first China-Central Asia Summit, a multilateral meeting mechanism that evolved from the China Central Asia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, will be held in Xi’an, Shaanxi province. A city with 1,100 years of history and a rich cultural heritage, Xi’an was a pivotal hub of the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Silk Road not only empowered the prosperity of the people along the route but also promoted exchanges of ideas and cultures between East and West. Its influence stretched across the Eurasian region, from Rome in Europe to Osaka, Japan. Therefore, the inaugural China-Central Asia Summit sends a message to the world that China not only inherits the Silk Road spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and tolerance, mutual learning and win-win cooperation but also demonstrates China’s commitment to expanding high level opening up and advancing on the path to modernization.

Building neighborly relations

Chinese path to modernization is the second centenary goal proposed by the Communist Part of China. The realization of this goal cannot be achieved without establishing a systematic national strategy, including three major pillars — domestic affairs, foreign affairs and security — and developing stable neighborly relations is an important part of the national diplomatic strategy. Among China’s neighboring relations, Central Asia is the core area for building the Silk Road Economic Belt. The region consists of five countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — all of which have successively established comprehensive strategic relations with China.

The comprehensive strategic partnership has laid a solid foundation for two-way economic and trade cooperation between China and Central Asia. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, China and the five countries achieved a trade target of $70 billion in 2022 (ahead of schedule), and trade volume from January to March this year increased by 22 percent year-on-year. As of the end of March this year, China’s direct investment stock in the five Central Asian countries exceeded $15 billion, and the cumulative construction contracting turnover was $63.9 billion, helping Central Asian countries upgrade their industries, enhance connectivity and improve people’s livelihood. The rapid development of China’s relations with Central Asian countries has created conditions for the China-Central Asia Summit.

The Chinese leadership offered five proposals on growing China-Central Asia relations at a video summit on the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and the five Central Asian countries in January 2022. First, cultivate demonstration projects of good-neighborliness and friendship between China and the five countries; second, build a cooperation belt for high-quality development; third, strengthen the protective shield for peace; fourth, build a community of diversity and interaction; and fifth, uphold peaceful development of our global village.

In China’s view, the development of friendly and cooperative relations between China and Central Asian countries will be conducive to its own path to modernization by creating a favorable external environment, extending development space westward and fostering a more diverse development pattern.

Multilateral cooperation mechanisms

In a region of strategic partnerships, China and Central Asian countries have launched various types of multilateral cooperation efforts under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Belt and Road Initiative As of the end of August, China Development Bank had delivered 63 cooperation projects with member and partner banks of the SCO banking consortium, with a total loan disbursement of $14.6 billion. China has signed Belt and Road cooperation documents with all Central Asian countries. Projects in Kazakhstan amounted to $27 billion and accounted for more than 40 percent of the total foreign investment in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The China-Central Asia Summit is a strategic upgrade of the existing multilateral cooperation mechanism. This change is reflected in five aspects: First, it raises the level of the meeting mechanism and steers relations between China and Central Asian countries through head-of-state diplomacy; second, it elevates the status of Central Asia in the all-around diplomatic architecture and is a key cooperation region and an important part of joint development under the BRI; third, it enhances political trust, assuring that China will remain a good neighbor, good partner, good friend and good brother of Central Asian countries; fourth, it enhances the level of cooperation and exchanges and expands the resilience of practical cooperation with Central Asian countries; fifth, it enhances the ability of Central Asian countries to fend off interference by external forces, and supports Central Asian countries in playing a leading role in regional affairs.

In short, on the basis of mutual benefit and win-win situation, China-Central Asia relations will see  a strategic upgrade in three major areas — politics, economy and security — which will consolidate the comprehensive strategic partnerships and become a model of new international relations.

Proactive diplomatic strategy

The China-Central Asia Summit is a byproduct of profound changes in the global landscape, and it demonstrates China’s pursuit of a more proactive diplomatic strategy regarding Central Asia. This is because the Russia-Ukraine war has left Russia with insufficient capacity to preserve order in Central Asia, whereas the United States and other Western powers continue to wield influence in the region, thus aggravating the situation.

As Central Asian states believe in pluralistic and balanced diplomacy, developing relations with China is safe: It will not provoke pressure from the West, nor antagonize Russia. Although China’s choice of strategic escalation in Central Asian diplomacy may come across as offensive realism, it is in fact more a case of defensive realism that injects peace and stability into its own neighborhood relationships.

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