M. K. BhadrakumarThe First China-Central Asia Summit took place in the Chinese city of Xi’an, hosted by President Xi Jinping, May 18-19, 2023
One of the pleasures of the post-Cold War strategic discourses is that geopolitics is back with a bang. Earlier, the former Soviet Union and Communist China used to be in denial mode, as geopolitics didn’t fit into their Marxist-Leninist lens — although, arguably, Marx might have adapted himself a long time ago already.
The China-Central Asia Summit, which took place recently in Xi’an on May 18-19 was every bit a geopolitical event as much as the G7 summit in Hiroshima that it overlapped. The symbolism was profound. China and Russia were the elephants in the room for both summits but the Xi’an summit distinguished itself as an inclusive affair, whereas, the G7 event was, regrettably, an exclusive gathering of wealthy countries of the western world dripping with cold war-era animosities, and it didn’t hide its intentions even in its choice of “special invitees” — one ASEAN country; two BRICS countries; one tiny African state; a Pacific island etc. — borne out of the old colonial mindset of “divide and rule.”
The biggest difference was that the Xi’an summit was substantive and focused on a positive agenda that is quantifiable, while the Hiroshima summit was largely prescriptive and partly declarative and only marginally tangible. This was because the China-Central Asia summit took place on native soil while the G7 has no habitation and name in Asia except that one of the seven member countries is of Asian origin and the summit itself was a thinly-veiled attempt to insert the alien Western agenda into the Asian setting. In fact, the criterion for selecting the special invitees was itself based on the credentials of those chosen few to perform potentially as a fifth column for western interests in an Asian Century.
The China-Central Asia Summit was motivated by the growing realisation that the countries of the Eurasian region must play a proactive role in the common task of pushing back the United States, the driving force of the G7, which they perceive to be attempting to destabilise the common neighbourhood of Russia and China in Central Asia. Simply put, the Xi’an summit tacitly signalled that Russia and China are unitedly circling the wagons for a common purpose — to borrow an idiom which was employed by the Americans in the 19th century to describe a defensive manoeuvre.
From a historical perspective, it is for the first time ever that Russia and China are explicitly joining hands to stabilise the Central Asian region — a momentous happening by itself — with Beijing assuming a leadership role, given Russia’s preoccupations in Ukraine. This paradigm shift belies the western propaganda that Russian and Chinese interests collide in the Central Asian region. There is a strategic convergence between Moscow and Beijing that stability in Central Asian region, which is vital for both capitals in their own interests, is best achieved through ensuring security, boosting economic development or international political backing.
A well-known Russian think tanker at the Kremlin-funded Valdai Club in Moscow, Timofei Bordachev wrote in Global Times in the run-up to the Xi’an summit: “China and Russia are equally interested in the stability of Central Asia simply because they are directly neighbouring most of the states located in this part of Eurasia. It is as simple as the fact that you would not put on fire your neighbor’s house in order to hurt another neighbor. But if a certain power is located thousands of miles away from the common neighbourhood of Russia and China in Central Asia, it may well be betting on destabilising that region.
“The common task of China and Russia is to prevent this and make their friends and neighbours in Central Asia stable and relatively prosperous in today’s turbulent times… Whoever says that China’s and Russia’s interests in Central Asia may conflict with each other is not a friend of China, Russia or the countries of the region themselves.”
Equally, there is a consensus among the five Central Asian states to work together in a “5+1” format, which means that all crucial decisions and initiatives will be coordinated with all Central Asian states at the same time. On their part, the Central Asian partners recognise that the overall economic development of their region could get better if they strengthen their cooperation with China. Russia has played a key role here to encourage the Central Asian states to move in such a direction and play a proactive role. This itself is a marked departure as the five “Stans” have not always been able to work together, opting instead to engage with the biggest global players individually.
The participants of the Xi’an summit, which Chinese President Xi Jinping who hosted the event called a “new era” in his country’s relations with the region, agreed to create a mechanism for communication between the heads of post-Soviet states of Central Asia and China. The meetings will be held alternately every two years in the format of Central Asia – China. The next meeting of the six leaders is scheduled for 2025 in Kazakhstan. The Xi’an Declaration released after the summit includes 15 points, divided into several blocks of issues: security, logistics, trade and economic cooperation, humanitarian cooperation and ecology.
What emerges is that Beijing’s interest lies primarily in security considerations against the backdrop of the activities of extremist groups such as the Islamic State (which continues to get covert support from the US) that are operating out of Afghanistan. China’s thesis is that security is best strengthened through economic development and for that reason, therefore, the region is important from the point of view of economic cooperation and regional development — although in aggregate terms, Central Asian economic resources are nowhere near sufficient for meeting China’s needs.
Suffice to say, terrorist threats emanating from the region, posing threat to Xinjiang, are China’s main concern and Beijing is willing to openly invest its resources in the security of the region and take part in the training of the anti–terrorist forces of the Central Asian states. Geographically, three out of the five Central Asian countries, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, share borders with China. As for Russia, it has long regarded the region as its traditional sphere of influence and a strategic buffer zone, and thus prioritised the security of its southern border. Therefore, a safe and secure Central Asia aligns with China and Russia’s respective national interests.
In the context of the Ukraine crisis, Central Asia has emerged as a frontline for the US strategy to contain and weaken Russia. However, although Central Asian countries have adopted a neutral stance on the Ukraine situation, Russia’s influence in the region remains strong and is unlikely to be largely disrupted. Three key factors are at work here. First, Russia is seen as the provider of security and Russia’s defence capabilities continue to play a crucial role in maintaining stability in the region. Second, Central Asian states heavily depend on Russia in regard of labor migration, market access, transportation, and energy resources, and no other outside power foots the bill. Third, do not underestimate that the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union continues to systematically build up regional economic integration.
The Xi’an Declaration talks about resisting religious extremism and attempts by external forces to impose their own rules on the region. President Xi said at the summit that Beijing is ready to help strengthen the capacity of law enforcement agencies and armed forces of the regional states, and promised to “support their independent efforts to ensure regional security and fight terrorism, as well as work with them to strengthen cybersecurity.” In addition, he said Beijing is working on the creation of a regional anti-terrorist centre in China to train the security forces of the Central Asian republics.
The Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta carried a report on the eve of the China-Central Asia summit at Xi’an titled “China is changing the format of cooperation with Central Asia.” It anticipated that the six heads of state gathering in Xi’an on May 18-19 would be discussing the “creation of a new mechanism for cooperation in various fields and sign important political documents.”
The report recalled that the Xi’an summit ought to be viewed in the context of a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and the five heads of Central Asian States in Moscow on May 9 (Russia’s Victory Day.) The daily flagged the expert opinion that “a new ‘5+2’ axis is being formed (Central Asia plus China and Russia).” Evidently, although Putin was not present at the event in Xi’an, Russia’s interests have been taken into account.
The new “5 Plus 2 axis” being formed will have its own mechanisms and projections, which differ from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) or the Belt and Road Initiative and the Eurasian Economic Union community. The Xi’an summit considered the possibility of institutionalising the Central Asia-China format through a Secretariat “in order to comprehensively promote cooperation… and the functioning of the relevant mechanisms.” Of course, given the top-down decision making characteristic of the Central Asian states, the mechanism of the Consultative Meetings of the Heads of State of the China-Central Asia format (to be held in alternate years) will be a key factor in ensuring security, stability and sustainable development of the region.
It is entirely conceivable that at a time when the SCO has tended to become more and more “abstract” after the induction of India into the grouping, and began meandering aimlessly, it stands to reason that China and the Central Asian states and Russia felt the need to create more effective mechanisms and plans in their common space so as to impart a new quality of cooperation, and supplement the SCO if need arises.
An element of rivalry has crept into the SCO’s functioning. India, in particular, needs to do some soul-searching here. Certainly, this was not what China and Russia had in mind in 2005 when they put together the Shanghai Five in 2005 (which later morphed into the SCO.) Consensus in decision-making was adopted as a core principle in the SCO’s functioning but lately, a competitive spirit to settle scores stemming out of bilateral differences and disputes crept in. The SCO foreign ministers meeting in Delhi recently witnessed an acrimonious India-Pakistan standoff that vitiated the “Shanghai Spirit,” even as the Central Asian states and Russia and China mutely watched.
There is the tragic example of SAARC which suffered a similar trauma during the recent decade that eventually rendered it a comatose ready for burial. But Russia and China cannot afford such a tragic fate visiting the SCO. The US’ double containment strategy toward Russia and China and the NATO’s imminent expansion to Asia make it critically important that a cohesive, motivated and well-coordinated regional cooperation process is available in their common space in Inner Asia.
So far, Russia was engaged in strengthening political integration, while China systematically and powerfully interacted with the governments of Central Asian countries for the development of energy and infrastructure projects within the framework of a full-fledged economic expansion. That division of labour worked rather well, but then, the regional security environment changed dramatically of late.
For example, it has become vital for Moscow in the context of the rupture of Russia’s energy ties with Europe to divert its oil and gas exports to the Chinese market, and that requires Central Asian infrastructure in transit mode — a novel idea altogether. Suffice to say, a high level of harmonisation and synchronisation of the national plans of the Central Asian countries is needed. Currently, there are no agreed common strategies in the Central Asian region, which has a population of 75 million. The Belt and Road project does not adequately take into account the interests of Russia and the interface with the Eurasian Economic Union projects cannot provide a sufficient level of interaction either, due to systemic weaknesses.
To be sure, in the run-up to the Xi’an summit, the heads of Central Asian countries carefully prepared for the event and have presented a significant package of proposals. Thus, the construction work on the highly strategic China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which will connect Xinjiang and Central Asia with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran is now poised to begin after a delay of some 20 years due to a squabble over the measurement of the width of rail tracks!
Unsurprisingly, aside regional security, the issue of connectivity was the one topic that received the greatest attention at the Xi’an summit, which involves improving the transport infrastructure along the China–Central Asia and China–Europe routes through Central Asia, as well as increasing the capacity of border checkpoints, all of which aim to create conditions for increasing cargo and passenger traffic.
A positive factor is that Kazakhstan’s engagement with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is deepening. China and Kazakhstan are effectively implementing a list of 52 BRI investment projects with a total amount of more than $21 billion, covering transportation and logistics, industry and agriculture, energy, tourism and other fields. Two of the six BRI corridors pass through Kazakhstan connecting China respectively to Europe and to Iran and West Asia. These BRI corridors are important for most of the Central Asian economies for whom China offers the closest sea port. That in turn makes Kazakhstan a potential hub for accessing Central Asia.
The summit at Xi’an also noted the importance of launching the Kazakh-Chinese railway Ayaguz – Tacheng and called for the accelerated construction of the fourth line of the Turkmenistan–China gas pipeline. There are many kinds of mineral resources and large reserves in Tacheng area — coal, granite, gold, copper, iron ore and other mineral resources in the area where the railway under construction crosses.
On the sideline of the Xi’an summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping held meetings with each of the five leaders of the Central Asian region. On the eve of the summit in Xi’an, Chinese media called Central Asia the “gateway” for the Belt and Road project, which Xi had originally unveiled from Kazakhstan in 2013. There has been a great deal of scare mongering over Belt and Road by the US and India in the information sphere but that doesn’t seem to have affected the Central Asian states. It is symbolic that Beijing took the initiative to hold the first China-Central Asia Summit on the 10th anniversary of Belt and Road Initiative.
Equally, China hopes to link Pakistan and Afghanistan with the BRI infrastructure projects in Central Asia. As a first step, China and Pakistan recently agreed to extend the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan. This has been the main achievement of the Pakistan-Afghanistan-China ministerial held in Islamabad on May 5, a fortnight before the China-Central Asia Summit in Xi’an. Quite obviously, the momentum of the China-Central Asia format will not be optimal unless China also doubles down on its engagement with the Taliban government in Kabul.