China Hosts Central Asia Summit

Last week, on the eve of the annual G7 meeting, China held a summit with a number of Central Asian countries, signalling their intent to increase Beijing’s influence in the region. China has already established a strong presence in Central Asia through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the summit looks to expand on their multilateral relations.

The China-Central Asia (CCA) summit was the first major diplomatic event China hosted this year. Kicking off last Thursday, China’s leader Xi Jinping engaged in two days of meetings with the heads of five Central Asian countries in Xian, a city that was historically key to the ancient Silk Road trade route.

The leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were present, meeting both one-on-one with Xi, and in group settings. Significantly, all five countries are former Soviet republics.

Of course, China has harboured ambitions of greater influence in Central Asia for a while now, as pointed out by analysts like Bradley Jardine. “I would say the Ukraine conflict is more an accelerant of pre-existing trends in the region,” Jardine told Al Jazeera,  “the largest of which is China pushing out Russia as the largest hegemon in the region.”

The Belt and Road Initiative is the clearest evidence that China’s interest in Central Asia isn’t new. Nicknamed the ‘New Silk Road’, the BRI is a massive infrastructure project created by Xi Jinping. It was originally designed to promote development and investment initiatives for infrastructure projects to connect East Asia to Europe – just like the old Silk Road.

This year’s CCA summit actually lines up with the BRI’s 10th anniversary, and since its inception, it’s expanded to encompass projects across Africa, Oceania, and Latin America. To date, 147 countries have expressed interest in projects under the BRI.

But Central Asia has been the crux of the BRI’s original focus – back in 2013, Xi chose to outline his plans for the BRI in Kazakhstan. And since then, the countries who attended last week’s summit have benefited from a significant number of BRI initiatives.

Today, two-way trade between China and the five Central Asian countries of the summit amounts to a record $70 billion for 2022. And last week, data released by Chinese officials showed their trade volume with the region in the first four months of this year reached $24.8 billion – an increase of 37.3% on the same period last year. The majority of China’s imports from Central Asia are energy products, like coal, crude oil and natural gas.

The CCA summit appears to have been largely a rhetorical tool – the only significant deliverables were a mechanism for the recurrence of the summit every two years, and a promise of $3.7 billion in funding for Chinese companies operating in Central Asia to ‘create more local jobs’. But the symbolic importance of the event shouldn’t be understated.

The majority of Central Asian states are authoritarian ones – just like China. And while this is a trait they also share with Russia, the Ukrainian war has consumed all of Moscow’s attention, leaving a gap in their diplomacy China is eager to fill.

The fact that the summit was scheduled right before the G7 meeting is also a clear message, especially given that addressing China’s growing assertiveness was a key topic on the G7 agenda. The CCA summit therefore gave China the opportunity to reiterate its position as a powerful alternative to the West and Russia, both as a model of governance, and a political and economic partner.

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