Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to host the China-Central Asia Summit this week which will feature leaders from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The two-day conference will be held in Xi’An, northwestern China, and will start on Thursday, a day before G7 leaders meet in the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The Chinese summit will be the first in-person high-level meeting between Xi and Central Asian leaders since Beijing established diplomatic ties with their countries more than three decades ago.
According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Xi is expected to deliver a keynote speech before exchanging views with regional leaders, both on cooperation between China and Central Asia as well as major international issues of common concern. The leaders are also expected to sign “important political documents” at the end of the conference.
Beijing is trying to build a “regional unity” to support its goals, said Niva Yau, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.
“The summit is a new format that has been under experiment for several years now, and it’s really levelling up the status of China-Central Asia engagement,” Yau told DW.
As the world’s second-largest energy consumer, China has poured billions of dollars into Central Asia to ease access to the region’s natural gas reserves. Additionally, railroads between Europe and China that pass through Central Asia are an important part of Beijing’s flagship infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“Due to sanctions on Russia, Central Asia is taking up a more prominent role in international affairs,” said Bradley Jardine, Managing Director of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. “With the Belt and Road initiative, Central Asia is seen as a transit under which trade can flow between China and Europe.”
Visa-free agreement to boost economic and trade ties
China is also looking to revive economic relations with Central Asia after the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted growth over the last three years. According to China’s Ministry of Commerce, China’s direct investment in all Central Asian countries exceeded $15 billion (13.8 billion) by the end of March this year, Chinese state-run newspaper The Global TImes reported.
“Prior to the pandemic, China was on its way to be the biggest trading partner for all Central Asian countries, and while the numbers dipped dramatically during the pandemic, I would expect China to be back as the top trading partner over the next year or so,” said Raffaello Pantucci, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.
After the summit in Xi’an, Beijing is expected to launch new visa-free initiatives with several Central Asian countries. Currently, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have both reached agreements with China regarding visa-free regimes while Kyrgyzstan is still negotiating the terms with Beijing.
Yau from the Atlantic Council told DW that the visa-free regime is connected to the opening of Central Asian exports to China, as countries in the region have been trying to sell a bigger variety of products to China for years. “[The visa-free regime] is a card that China will play with Central Asia and this can’t be done without the free flow of businessmen,” she said, adding that China had already established similar agreements with nations in Southeast Asia.
Pantucci from RSIS noted that several Central Asian countries border the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, where Chinese authorities have been cracking down on the Uyghur ethnic minority.
“What’s important to China about Central Asia is the fact that it’s next to Xinjiang, and therefore, Xinjiang’s development is quite intimately connected to this part of the world,” Pantucci told DW.
Will China play a bigger role in regional security?
Though Russia has long been viewed as the main provider of security to Central Asia, Beijing has been deepening security arrangements with countries like Tajikistan in recent years. The country is also conducting joint anti-terrorism drills with Chinese forces every two years. Pantucci told DW that China focuses mostly on bilateral counter-terrorism engagements.
“[China’s] answer in dealing with security threats wouldn’t be the same as what the Russians might do, which is to mobilise or deploy a large number of troops,” he said, adding that China isn’t an expansionist power in the region.
Yau from the Atlantic Council added that rather than aiming to replace Russia’s security role in Central Asia, China is introducing new ideas of security such as protest management and surveillance.
“China is exporting these norms to Central Asia and we are seeing the civic space rapidly shrinking in countries like Kyrgyzstan, which traditionally has the best civil society in the region,” she told DW.
“This is a direct reflection of the fact that Central Asian countries have chosen to go down the path with Russia and China. At a time when Russia is not able to provide as much to Central Asia as they did before, China steps in and gives Central Asian leaders a lot of investment and reassurance,” Yau concluded.