China’s Central Asia policies & priorities: A way forward | By Dr Mehmood-ul-Hassan Khan


China’s Central Asia policies & priorities: A way forward

THE rapidly changing socio-economic, geopolitical and geostrategic trends in the region have changed the chessboard of power politics.

The perpetual doctrine of end game has also drastically changed due to inclusion of new power brokers.

Moreover, the abrupt exit of the US and NATO forces from Afghanistan has opened a gate to China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, and Uzbekistan to pursue their own vested interests or pending dreams of greater regional connectivity and immense socio-economic integration.

Moreover, the Chinese One Belt & One Belt Initiative (BRI) and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has now become a connecting hub for achieving these goals.

In the last two decades, the Central Asia Republics (CARs) of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan hold an important status in the socio-economic spheres and geopolitical frameworks of China and its rivals.

In this regard, China has initiated a new wave of diplomatic engagements with the CARs after the announcement of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It seems that the foreign policy of China towards Eurasia will further expand in the coming years as China’s growing economic gravitas turned it into Central Asia’s largest trading partner and Beijing built a sprawling network of oil and gas pipelines across the region.

In this regard, bilateral and trilateral diplomatic ties and strategic partnerships accelerated in 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping selected the Kazakh capital, Astana now Nur-Sultan, to unveil the Silk Road Economic Belt, the overland component of the multibillion dollar infrastructure project that would become BRI.

China initiated a new ‘5+1’ dialogue arrangement with all five CARs in July 2020. China was late to work with the CARs in this new format, having only engaged with the countries at the bilateral and multilateral levels going back to 2004.

The first “5+1” meeting focused on COVID-19, trade and investment. China’s second meeting took place on 12 May 2021.

The meeting focused on cooperation, COVID-19, and adopting an inclusive political approach in engaging with Afghanistan.

In the same format, President Xi Jinping held a virtual summit with Central Asian leaders on 25 January 2022 seeking cooperation in combating terrorism and strengthening regional security.

More recently, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi attended the third China + Central Asia (C+C5) foreign ministers meeting in Kazakhstan.

During the 3rd China + Central Asia (C+C5) foreign ministers meeting, all parties agreed to hold regular top-level meetings within the C+C5 format, said Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a press briefing after the meeting.

According to Chinese Foreign minister Wang, “the most important mission of the meeting was to implement the agreements reached by the country leaders during the online summit earlier this year on the occasion of 30 years of establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Central Asian countries.

In this regard, a number of important agreements were reached for further cooperation among the six countries, including continuing to build the BRI jointly with high quality, making joint efforts to combat “the three forces” terrorism, extremism, and separatism and maintaining regional security and stability, and expanding settlements in national currencies.

Meanwhile, all the countries vowed to remain united in the fight against COVID-19, cooperate in vaccine and drug research and development, and establish a Traditional Chinese Medicine center in Central Asia.

Furthermore, the countries will coordinate on the situation in Afghanistan to promote peaceful reconstruction and maintain regional security and stability, the Chinese Foreign Minister said.

During the third C+C5 Foreign Ministers’ meeting, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi actively implemented the outcome of the virtual summit, and further deepen good neighborliness and mutually beneficial cooperation in various areas between China and the Central Asian countries for common development and common prosperity.

Wang stressed that China will continue to deepen political trust and mutually beneficial cooperation with its Central Asian partners and work together to build a closer China-Central Asia community of destiny.

In January this year, the virtual summit commemorating the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Five Central Asian Countries was successfully held.

President Xi Jinping and the leaders of the five countries jointly drew the blueprint for cooperation and announced to forge a China-Central Asia community with a shared future.

China has now become Central Asia’s leading external partner.Beijing has invested unthinkable sums of funds in the region and beyond.

Xi’s flagship foreign policy in Central Asia has increased investments of Chinese companies and banks to build roads, 5G networks, power plants, ports, railways, and fiber optic cables in the region and beyond.

Total Chinese investment in Central Asia was valued at $40 billion at the end of 2020, with over half having been funneled into Kazakhstan.

Uzbekistan reported a sharp increase in investment from Beijing beginning in 2018, with the total increasing steadily up to $9 billion by the end of 2021. In 2019, China invested a total of $301 million in Kyrgyzstan.

To conclude, the foreign ministers attending the 3rd “5+1” meeting in Kazakhstan stressed expansion of multidimensional cooperation between Central Asia and China is an important factor in sustainable socio-economic development, preservation of peace, stability, and security in the region.

The road map adopted at the meeting is an important step in fostering cooperation, as it covers strategic areas such as security, transport, and logistics, energy and industry, climate change, green economy, IT industry, health, education, culture, and tourism.

In their joint statement adopted at the end of the meeting, the ministers outlined the main objectives for the medium term.

“This demonstrates that the current format proposed by the Chinese side in 2020 has proven to be an effective mechanism for the development of inter-regional cooperation, capable of finding mutually acceptable approaches to solving urgent regional and international issues,” said the Kazakh Foreign Ministry.

On the other hand, Uzbekistan has been expanding its economic cooperation with China as it aims to connect to world transportation and trade routes.

In a recent meeting at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Beijing, Uzbekistan presented its “Development Strategy of New Uzbekistan for 2022-2026.

” The strategy, presented in the Chinese language, envisages Uzbekistan deepening its economic relations with China.

Russia is not explicitly mentioned. Uzbekistan’s economic engagement with China is mainly about infrastructure.

An important area of cooperation is the much anticipated China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project (commonly known as the CKU), a 4,380-kilometer multimodal railway that aims to connect the Chinese city of Lanzhou to Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent.

China’s foreign policy of the Central Asia Region is primarily based on economic integration, regional connectivity, food & energy security, infrastructural development, health, education, tourism and last but not least people-to-people cooperation.

Ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, NATO advancement in the region, the US proxies, instability in Afghanistan and imposition of unilateral sanctions against Russia has spillover ramifications which need to be resolved through joint efforts.

—The writer is Director, the Centre for South Asia & International Studies Islamabad & regional expert, China, CPEC & BRI.


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