On May 18-19, China will be convening the leaders of the five Central Asian countries in Xi’an for a summit which is expected to mark a significant milestone in the relations between Beijing and the strategically located region.
This will be the first such event. Usually, Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Central Asian leaders either separately or within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as last year in Samarkand (Uzbekistan). The upcoming summit will no doubt be watched particularly closely by the Russian leadership.
We do not know much about what topics will be discussed during the summit. Yet China is setting the expectations high. In a congratulatory message to the Tajikistani President, Emomali Rahmon, Xi Jinping mentioned that Beijing was working on a “grandiose plan” to be unveiled in Xi’an.
Expectations run high in Central Asia as well. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the announcement of the massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which, should be noted, happened in 2013 in Kazakhstan, and Beijing is expected to demonstrate the staying power of its project by intensifying investments in Central Asia which serve as a gateway for reaching Western Asia and Europe. More specifically, Uzbekistan is particularly hopeful about the implementation of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) Railway and Line D of the Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline.
Yet, for China to implement a more successful Central Asian strategy, it needs to look at the region not in isolation but rather in tandem with the wider Black Sea space and the Caspian Sea. Even if Central Asia becomes a viable transit alternative to the ailing Russian corridor, it is still but a first geographic step for China to reach the EU market.
Since the war in Ukraine has changed trade routes and made the transit through Russia more difficult, the trans-Caspian and South Caucasus have become more attractive not just to China, but also Central Asia and the EU. This is reflected in the statement made by the Chinese ambassador to Georgia when he argued about the good chances of the Middle Corridor but also stressed the need for the participation of the EU and China.
Central Asian countries might also welcome China playing a more active political and security role in the region (especially after the Beijing-facilitated diplomatic coup between Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), if not in completely resolving political differences, then certainly in acting as a stabilizer. This is especially necessary in the case of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have vied for small, disputed territories along their common border.
Kyrgyzstan could well be interested in having China play a more active security role in the region especially after Bishkek was essentially abandoned by its CSTO ally, Russia, in September 2022 when Tajik forces inflicted significant losses on Kyrgyzstan along the common border.
In the increasingly congested geopolitical space of Central Asia, India, Japan, Iran and others vie for influence through promoting trade corridors and making investments in critical infrastructure to outplay other contenders. China is still well-positioned to make a difference – it has a lot of cash on hand and is a close geographic neighbor, with a lot of experience in engaging the region.
The timing of the summit is interesting as it comes amid Russia’s distraction with its protracted war effort against Ukraine. This has created a certain power vacuum in Central Asia and the five regional states clearly see an opportunity to test Moscow’s positions. When Tajikistan scored points against its neighbor Kyrgyzstan last year, with Russia virtually absent, the ailing nature of Kremlin’s regional standing was laid bare.
Kazakhstan too, traditionally weary of potential Russian military moves, has made a series of foreign policy gestures to solidify its ties with Turkey, the EU, and China, thus aiming to hedge against Moscow’s unpredictable behavior. Similar motives have driven Uzbekistan’s foreign policy as of late.
China has likewise seen an opportunity in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Increasingly beholden to Beijing, Moscow cannot openly oppose Chinese moves in Central Asia. Kremlin still continues to regard what is taking place within the context of regionalism – basic understanding between Russia and China that non-regional powers should be excluded from shaping the regional politics.
While this might still be the baseline for China’s and Russia’s interests, the balance of power between the two Eurasian actors is heavily tilting in China’s favor. The latter has made serious progress in expanding its security and economic footprint in the region, and with the upcoming summit, it has made tremendous efforts to do the same in the political area.
China’s decision to upgrade the level of the summit with the Central Asian states also coincides with the growing interest of other players in the region. Russia remains a powerful actor but there is also a host of others rushing to gain from Moscow’s weaknesses. Germany is among the latest examples. During Uzbek President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s visit to Germany in early May, an agreement was reached to launch Germany + C5 format similar to the Russian, American, Chinese, and the EU initiatives.
If for decades, China has been more focused on the economic side of the cooperation with Central Asia, over the last years and especially since 2022, the focus has notably shifted. Beijing’s interests have widened to include political area and the summit in Xi’an might well officially usher in a new stage of bilateral cooperation.
In the longer run, the geopolitical situation favors China. As Russia’s war in Ukraine is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, Beijing will be seeing increasingly larger space for its political and economic involvement across the heart of Eurasia. This is especially the case as other actors lack geographic outreach and economic potential to rival China in the region. A real test for Beijing therefore will be how to carefully navigate its engagement in the region so that it does not cause grievances among the fives Central Asian states and does not push them to seek alternatives by building closer ties with Russia, the EU and others.