Milestone China-Central Asia ‘5+1’ summit pursues new blueprint for relations

Milestone China-Central Asia ‘5+1’ summit pursues new blueprint for relations
Chinese state TV covered the arrival of each of the Central Asian leaders for the summit with great fanfare. / CGTN, screenshot
By Ben Aris in Berlin May 18, 2023

In a significant first, all five of Central Asia’s presidents on May 18 convened in the Chinese city of Xi'an—once a crucial stop on the ancient Silk Road trade route—for a two-day summit with China’s President Xi Jinping. The objective? To thrash out a blueprint for their relations in Eurasia. Notably, Russia was not invited.

Xi met all the presidents: Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Never before had the leaders of the Stans all met in person with Xi in the “5+1” format (last year’s inaugural summit was an online affair that doesn’t really count in the same way).

Central Asia, unsure of what awaits big neighbour Russia given its entanglement in the Ukraine war and broken relations with the West, seems keen to have the red carpet treatment from its other big neighbour China.

The summit is “a clear message that China is open for business and that Central Asia is open to China,” Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, was cited as saying by RFE/RL on May 17. Despite the frustrating delays caused to investment by the pandemic, by the end of 2020, total Chinese investment in the region reached $40bn. The figure then grew to $70bn by the end of 2022.

Historically, meetings between Chinese presidents and their Central Asian counterparts have occurred either individually or with a Russian leader present, often within the context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). As well as China and Russia, the SCO includes all the Stans as members, apart from remote Turkmenistan.

The first China-Central Asia 5+1 meeting, held, as noted, online, signified a change in relations between China and Central Asia from largely economic to something more political in character.

Eurasia has found itself very much back in the spotlight thanks to the clash between East and West in the wake of Russia’s march into Ukraine. In its new foreign policy concept, Russia specifically highlights developing relations within Eurasia as a key goal, as the Kremlin re-orientates the country from West to East and South (in the South, Iran, India, Pakistan and Africa are among the alternative market economic targets for the Russians). One reason why Eurasia is a key region for China, meanwhile, is that Beijing is increasingly linking Asia with Europe by land.

Whether China’s hosting of the 5+1 summit is intended to undercut Russia’s influence in the region remains an open question.

Russia took over the chairmanship of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) at the start of this year and is looking to the trade club as one way to expanding its commerce, with the Western world increasingly cutting ties with Moscow. President Vladimir Putin invited all five of Central Asia’s leaders to the annual Victory Day parade on Red Square on May 9 and tellingly all five turned up to show some solidarity with Russia. How deep that solidarity goes was the question. Practically speaking, given what economic consequences would follow, not one of the Stans wants to see relations with Russia sour.

The China-Central Asia meeting can be seen as part of building a new BRICS+ geopolitical infrastructure that is entirely independent of the West. The emerging BRICS bloc can better collectively represent member countries’ interests in the face of the G7 hegemony.

China’s relations with Central Asia have been evolving since President Xi launched the overland portion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI or B&R and sometimes talked of in China as One Belt, One Road, or OBOR for short) in 2013 in a landmark speech in Kazakh capital Astana. They have grown markedly since then.

Notably, the China-Central Asia summit almost exactly coincides with the G7 summit hosted by Japan in Hiroshima from May 19-21.

In addition to the main summit, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will conduct state visits to China either before or after the event. Turkmenistan's Serdar Berdimuhamedov completed a state visit to China in the first week of this year.