China and Central Asian countries pave the way for a new stage of cooperation

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan welcome Central Asian leaders and their wives attending the China-Central Asia Summit in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, on May 18 (XINHUA)

Some 2,100 years ago, Zhang Qian, a diplomat of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), set off from Chang’an, now known as Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province in northwest China, to visit regions including parts of Central Asia as a royal envoy. His missions of peace and friendship opened the original Silk Road with Xi’an as the starting point, which later expanded into a network of East-West trade routes linking Europe with Asia.

The connection between Xi’an and Central Asia is growing even closer. It was in Xi’an that the China-Central Asia Summit took place on May 18-19. The event drew together Chinese President Xi Jinping, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov, marking the first in-person summit held by leaders of the six countries since establishing diplomatic ties more than three decades ago.

China and Central Asian countries have joined hands over the past decade to usher in a new era of their relations, Xi said in his keynote address at the summit on May 19. The world needs a Central Asia that is stable, prosperous, harmonious and well-connected, he added.

During the summit, the leaders exchanged views on China-Central Asia institution building and cooperation as well as major international and regional issues of common interest. It was also decided that the next summit between the six countries will be held in Kazakhstan in 2025.

The China-Central Asia Summit press center in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, on May 16 (XINHUA)

Highly anticipated

When the five Central Asian countries declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, China was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with them. China has established comprehensive strategic partnerships with all the five countries. The Central Asian region is China’s first neighboring cluster of strategic partners.

In 2020, the nations established the China+Central Asia (C+C5) mechanism for regular foreign ministers’ meetings, and in early 2022, they held a virtual summit to commemorate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations. In June of the same year, during the third C+C5 foreign ministers’ meeting, the six countries agreed to establish a meeting mechanism for the heads of state in the C+C5 format.

China proposed to establish meeting and dialogue mechanisms in areas including industrial development and investment to facilitate the all-around cooperation between China and Central Asian countries, Xi said, adding that the mechanisms will also cover agriculture, transportation, emergency management, education and political party affairs.

Serik Korzhumbayev, Editor in Chief of the Delovoy Kazakhstan newspaper, told Xinhua News Agency he believes the summit will enhance long-term cooperation and development across multiple fields between the six countries, adding that “a new format of cooperation will make it possible to involve the Central Asian region with China’s large market in close economic ties.”

In 2013, during a speech in Kazakhstan, Xi proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt. “Today, as I stand here and look back at that episode of history, I can almost hear the camel bells echoing in the mountains and see a wisp of smoke rising from the desert,” he said while speaking at Nazarbayev University.

The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, which was proposed by Xi in Indonesia later that same year, constitute the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to boost connectivity along and beyond the ancient Silk Road routes. China has signed Belt and Road cooperation documents with all the five Central Asian countries.

The strategic significance of Central Asia in jointly promoting cooperation under the BRI has become more prominent in recent years, and the five countries in the region are willing to further strengthen cooperation with China, Ding Xiaoxing, Director of the Institute of Eurasian Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told Beijing Review.

Shavkat Alimbekov, a researcher with the International Institute for Central Asia Studies of Uzbekistan, agreed with Ding’s assessment, saying he believes the summit will give new impetus to high-quality Belt and Road cooperation.

“One of the key aspects of this cooperation is the Green Silk Road program, which focuses on using green development strategies, innovative solutions and advanced technologies to achieve environmental efficiency and sustainability,” Alimbekov told Beijing Review, adding that given China’s tremendous experience in low-carbon transition, its joint efforts with the five Central Asian countries would be “a powerful catalyst for sharing best practices and establishing cooperation to create a future of sustainable green development in the region.”

China is ready to promote green innovation cooperation with Central Asian countries, according to Xi.

Flight attendants conduct safety inspections before the first passenger flight of the Xi’an-Urumqi-Ashgabat (capital of Turkmenistan) route took off in Xi’an on May 13 (XINHUA)

Closer cooperation

On April 26, a freight train carrying more than 260 new-energy vehicles left Xi’an for Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. There are now 17 railway routes connecting Xi’an with Central Asian countries and many other Asian and European destinations, with more than 1,100 train trips from the city made in the first quarter of this year.

As of the end of 2022, over 65,000 China-Europe freight trains had transported more than 6 million twenty-foot equivalent units of cargo worth $300 billion, according to Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China. Nearly 80 percent of these trips passed through Central Asia.

Trade volume between China and Central Asian countries registered a record of over $70 billion in 2022, official statistics showed. Quality agricultural products from these countries, including wheat, soybeans, beef and mutton, have been exported to China, contributing to the health and balance of bilateral trade.

“China has now become an important partner in trade and economic cooperation of the five countries,” Tursunali Kuziev, a professor of general education at the Journalism and Mass Communications University of Uzbekistan, told Xinhua, adding that innovation and exchange in agricultural sciences have constantly pushed forward common progress in this field.

Trade in agricultural products between China and the five countries increased from $175 million in 1992 to $1.07 billion in 2021, according to the General Administration of Customs of China. The import and export volume between China and Kazakhstan, coming in at $574 million, accounted for 53 percent of the total, followed by that between China and Uzbekistan, at $302 million or 28 percent.

Chinese capital, combined with new technologies and better solutions in agriculture, water management, industry, engineering, transport and other sectors, is of particular importance to the Central Asian countries, Alimbekov said.

The vast market, complete industrial chain and advanced technology of China are attractive to these countries, and their upholding the principle of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit has enabled bilateral cooperation to achieve sustained and stable growth, Ding said.

According to Ding, China’s participation in infrastructure construction projects in the region serves as a vivid demonstration of its genuine support for the development of the neighboring countries.

Over the years, a number of major projects have facilitated industrial upgrades and living standard improvements in Central Asia, including the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Highway and the Qamchiq Railway Tunnel in Uzbekistan. In addition, the China-Central Asia Natural Gas Pipeline runs from the border of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, passes through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and links up with China’s West-to-East Gas Pipeline in Khorgas, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

By the end of last year, China’s direct investment stock in the five Central Asian countries reached nearly $15 billion, covering fields such as oil and gas exploration, processing and manufacturing, connectivity and digital technologies, according to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

The countries have elevated their economic cooperation from mainly bilateral programs to a combination of bilateral and multilateral

undertakings, with trade in goods and services increasingly diversified, and the cooperation model being institutionalized, according to Lu Shanbing, Dean of the Central Asia Institute of Northwestern University in Xi’an.

In his keynote speech at the Xi’an summit, Xi called for efforts to fully unleash cooperation potential in traditional areas such as trade, industrial capacity, energy and transportation, and to foster new growth drivers in areas such as finance, agriculture, poverty reduction, low-carbon development, health and digital innovation.

A highway built by China Road and Bridge Corp. in Jalal-Abad Region, Kyrgyzstan, on November 10, 2021 (XINHUA)

For a better future

“China stands ready to work with Central Asian countries to build on the good momentum and strive shoulder-to-shoulder to build an even closer China-Central Asia community with a shared future,” Xi said at the virtual summit in 2022.

At the summit in Xi’an, the president further expounded on how to build such a community. China and Central Asian countries should deepen strategic mutual trust, and always offer clear and strong support for each other on issues of core interests such as those involving sovereignty, independence, national dignity and long-term development, Xi said.

He stressed the six countries should continue taking the lead in Belt and Road cooperation and promote the implementation of the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilizations Initiative, so as to achieve common development, as well as uphold universal security and everlasting friendship. The three initiatives, proposed by Xi in 2021, 2022

and 2023, are platforms to turn the vision of a community with a shared future for humanity into reality.

The six countries should resolutely oppose external interference in the internal affairs of regional countries and attempts to instigate “color revolutions,” and maintain a zero-tolerance stance against terrorism, separatism and extremism, Xi said.

The summit sends a signal to the world that, in the face of threats and challenges in the complex world situation, China and Central Asian countries will work together to tide over hardships, take China-Central Asia relations and cooperation to new heights, and upgrade their mechanisms for collaboration, Ding said.

In an interview with People’s Daily ahead of the summit, Turkmenistan’s Ambassador to China Parahat Durdyev said he hopes the meeting can be a new starting point for addressing urgent regional and global tasks. Amid a complicated international atmosphere, the summit demonstrated China and Central Asian countries’ determination and effort in strengthening regional and international safety and the push for regional prosperity, he added.

Sheradil Baktygulov, a foreign affairs consultant with the Kyrgyz National Institute for Strategic Studies, told Xinhua that China deserves great respect and support for contributing to relations of peace, friendship and cooperation in Central Asia and for advocating mutually beneficial cooperation and peaceful development among all countries. –The Daily Mail-Beijing Review news exchange item