On Thursday, leaders from Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — will stand next to President Xi Jinping in Xi’an for the China-Central Asia Summit. But one person, President Vladimir Putin, will be missing from the line-up. Xi will host the Central Asian countries from 18-19 May with the goal of drawing a ‘new blueprint for China-Central Asia relations’.
Though Xi has previously met with Central Asian leaders in their respective countries, it will be the first time the leaders will be coming to China.
Such a meeting would have required Putin’s presence in the past, but now China is confident enough to ignore the Russian President while hosting Central Asia leaders.
The C+C5 – China plus five Central Asian countries was launched in 2020 and held online until 2022. The decision to host the summit in Xi’an — the beginning of the Silk Road in China — hints at the country’s political ambition to revive the ancient trade route.
In 2022, the trade between China and the five Central Asia countries reached $70.2 billion, marking an increase of 40 per cent, according to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But this doesn’t mean Russia has been completely replaced as a major trading partner.
“Approximately 40 per cent of the food and clothing sold in Kazakhstan comes from Russia, while Moscow is the largest import partner of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s second largest import partner,” wrote Yunis Sharifli for Royal United Services Institute.
The Russia-Ukraine war led to the former increasing its imports from Central Asian countries after losing access to the European market.
But Beijing wants to slowly veer Central Asia away from Russia — tying the region into an interdependency.
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Belt and Road Initiative
Chinese state media have tried to convey the significance through authoritative op-eds.
“Three of the five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — share borders with China, extending as long as 3,000 km. The stability in Central Asia is crucial to maintaining the stability of China, especially in its northwest region,” reported Xinhua while explaining the profound significance of the summit.
The hashtag “China and Central Asia meet” was viewed 110 million times on Weibo. The news about the summit trended on all major Chinese platforms.
The search term ‘jointly build the Belt and Road’ was the number one trend on the search engine Baidu — among other topics — showing the summit’s importance for Beijing.
Central Asia has been an enthusiastic recipient of the Belt and Road Initiative since 2013. All the Central Asian countries have signed on to the BRI and helped Beijing connect with Europe via the freight train corridor.
Though Chinese state media have extensively covered the BRI projects in Central Asia over the past few days, we don’t know yet if new BRI projects are in the offering.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin has said that Xi will give an “important speech” and “jointly sign an important political document” during the summit.
We don’t know what this ‘important political document’ is, but China has been advocating to give its citizens visa-free access to Central Asia.
China and Central Asia have made significant progress in establishing a mutual visa-free regime. China and Kazakhstan plan to introduce a mutual visa-free regime allowing citizens to stay in each other’s countries for up to 30 days. The draft of the law, which has been approved by Astana, is likely to be signed in Xi’an at the summit.
China is giving sumptuous scholarships to students from Central Asian countries to create a new generation of elites from the region who look towards Beijing rather than Moscow.
“Xi said the students have witnessed and benefited from China-Central Asia relations and, more importantly, that they have helped boost China-Central Asia relations,” reported Xinhua.
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Education, language, politics
Almost 20,000 students from Central Asian countries study in China,
At Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, students from Central Asian countries get free tuition, free accommodation, a monthly stipend of 1,800 yuan/month (USD$258), and an international travel stipend. Prominent universities in Beijing offer even better scholarships.
Beijing hopes to promote Mandarin in the Central Asian region in a bid to replace the old ‘Russia fever’ with ‘China fever’.
“In Central Asia, ‘China fever’ and ‘Chinese language fever’ continue to heat up in various countries. There are now 13 Confucius Institutes and 24 Confucius Classrooms, and more than 20,000 students from Central Asian countries are studying in China,” said Xinhua in an authoritative op-ed ahead of the summit.
Besides the visa access agreements and student scholarships, we can expect the two sides to sign an agreement regarding politically heavyweight topics.
“China has provided strong backing for Central Asian countries against infiltration by the ‘three forces’, and Central Asian countries have become an important barrier for China to maintain security and stability in the West, forming an increasingly close community of security interests together,” said a Xinhua op-ed.
The ‘three evils’ are ‘terrorism, separatism and religious extremism’, which underpin China’s rhetoric on countering the Uyghur ‘separatism’ in Xinjiang. Beijing hopes that economic interdependences can completely uproot the cultural rationale behind residents of Xinjiang looking towards Central Asia for ideological support. Beijing wants to permanently shut the door on Xinjiang’s ‘otherness’ in the Chinese ‘national imaginary’.
China is still far from cementing its cultural and economic footprint in Central Asia as Russia has had for decades. But Beijing’s Central Asia play remains unchallenged in Moscow as Kremlin is occupied in Ukraine.
Only time will tell if ‘China fever’ in Central Asia turns out to be a joyful experience or simply a marriage of convenience.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He is currently a MOFA Taiwan Fellow based in Taipei and tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)