President Xi tightens his grip on Central Asia

China’s relationship is often framed in terms of security and development but it also has a political side

As G7 leaders prepared for the Japan summit, China’s President Xi Jinping hosted his Central Asian counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Central Asia is critical to Beijing’s attempts to build an alternative to the US-led liberal order that is unquestionably dominated by China with Russia, at best, a junior partner.

In his opening address, Xi outlined his “vision of a China-Central Asia community with a shared future”. This will rest on four principles – mutual assistance, common development, universal security, and everlasting friendship.

While the relationship is often framed in terms of security and development, it also has a political side. This is evident in the initiatives to create more regional cooperation launched at the summit in Xi’an.

These propose links between Chinese ministries and government agencies and their counterparts in Central Asia, increasing educational and cultural exchanges with mechanisms such as the Central Asia-China Business Council.

All of these are likely to further consolidate China’s dominant regional role.

Territorial integrity

In return, Beijing will insulate mostly authoritarian leaders of Central Asia from Western economic and political pressure to move towards democracy and protect their sovereignty and territorial integrity against any Russian adventurism.

The summit resulted in a staggering 54 agreements, 19 new cooperation mechanisms and platforms, and nine multilateral documents, including the Xi’an declaration.

Even if one were to discount most of these as having uncertain prospects of actual implementation, there can be no doubt about China’s regional significance.

According to United Nations statistics, for example, the volume of trade in goods between China and the five countries of the region rose from a mere US$460 million three decades ago to more than $70 billion in 2022 – a 150-fold increase.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin has become a junior partner to Xi. Photo: Wikimedia

Historically, Russia was the main partner for central Asia, harking back to the Soviet period and the first decade after its break-up. But Moscow can no longer match Chinese investments and construction contracts in Central Asia, which now totals almost $70 billion since 2005.

A shift towards Beijing is also reflected in the declining importance of Moscow’s regional integration project – the Eurasian Economic Union – in comparison to China’s massive global Belt and Road Initiative.

This program of infrastructure investment was launched by Xi in Kazakhstan in 2013 and has since drawn the region closer to China not just economically but also politically.

These New Silk Roads featured prominently in the Xi’an declaration, explicitly linking it to national development strategies in Central Asia. Transport connections remain at its heart.

Nations at the summit recommitted to a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, as well as highways from China to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Trans-Caspian trade routes using seaports in Kazakhstan and in Turkmenistan were reaffirmed.

Trade routes

This focus on transport infrastructure across Central Asia highlights how important the region is for Beijing’s attempts to diversify trade routes to Europe away from Russia.

It also means that China, for now, will continue to use development projects and trade to recruit more partners for its alternative international order.

The Russian “northern corridor” is now largely closed as a result of Ukraine war-related sanctions. So the route often referred to as the middle corridor has regained importance not only for China but also, crucially, for the G7 countries.

Still, the middle corridor, which begins in Turkey and continues via Georgia and through central Asia, would be risky for Beijing as a sole alternative.

Its capacity is low, or just 5% of the northern corridor, because goods have to cross multiple borders and switch several times between road, rail and sea.

Pakistan’s deep sea port of Gwadar. Photo: Wikimedia

Another alternative – with similar geopolitical significance – is to transport through Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea via the Pakistani port of Gwadar. In the long term, a trans-Afghan route is in the interest of both China and Central Asia.

It would contribute to – but also depend on – stability and security in Afghanistan. And it would reduce Beijing’s exposure to the risks associated with the existing route along the China-Pakistan economic corridor from the ongoing Taliban insurgency.

In light of this, China and its Central Asian partners committed to developing the transport capabilities of the Uzbek city of Termez, on the border with Afghanistan.

Beijing also now has an official position on the Afghan issue and the country was name-checked by Xi in his summit speech. So more regional engagement there is to be expected.

Despite the obvious risks associated with Afghanistan, China is likely to include a trans-Afghan trade route in its plans. This is also evident from the fact that Beijing appears reluctant to engage with Russia and Iran on their international north–south transport corridor.

Anti-China sentiment

Both Moscow and Tehran face heavy international sanctions and recent tension between Iran and Azerbaijan cast further doubt on the long-term viability of this route.

The enthusiasm with which the five Central Asian presidents have welcomed these initiatives indicates the extent to which they are keen to embrace China.

Yet it remains to be seen how sustainable, or popular, an approach this is in light of the considerable and widespread anti-China sentiment in the region.

Stefan Wolff is a Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom,

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.