Unveiling The Tapestry At The China-Central Asia Summit: Silk Road Reborn – Analysis


Context of the Summit 

The China-Central Asia Summit is the first in-person summit for Chinese and Central Asian leaders and the decision to have it in Xi’an is also loaded with symbolism. For thousands of years, the city has had links to Central Asia in terms of culture and commerce, and it was a major point on the old Silk Road. Contrary to Chinese government’s media acclaims, it is not a unique event. Russia and India have also convened such summits with Central Asian Republics (CARs) leaders. The first Russian-Central Asian summit took place in Astana on November 14, 2022, marking the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and the five Central Asian countries. 

However, Xi Jinping has taken the lead in organising such an event when on January 25, 2022, China’s president summoned an online congregation of five Central Asian leaders in order to commemorate 30 years of diplomatic ties. India also has been an active engager. On January 27, 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also held the first India-Central Asia Summit virtually with the heads of the states of the region. India adopted a more comprehensive understanding of and strategical approach that included a variety of bilateral and multilateral domains. (https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1793068#:~:text=Prime%20Minister%20Shri%20Narendra%20Modi,Turkmenistan%20and%20Republic%20of%20Uzbekistan. )

Economics is the Key for Unfolding the Region’s Secrets

During the Astana Summit, Russia also focused mainly on economic aspects citing the statistics that over the past five years, Russia’s trade turnover with the states of the region has doubled to U.S. $ 37.1 billion with a total of U.S. $ 5 billion investment. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69598. Similar to the Russian suit, during the last conclave, the Chinese leader had also expressed the goal of reaching $70 billion in trade volume between China and the region by 2030. By the end of 2020, China had put $40 billion and established 8000 businesses concerns.( https://news.cgtn.com/news/2023-05-18/China-Central-Asia-Summit-Shaping-the-future-of-cooperation-1jTUAz7Osp2/index.html). However, Beijing is pursuing a lopsided approach of economic growth without going for mutually beneficial multisectoral development. 

The Silk Route Dream: From Ancient Myth to Modern Reality  

The China-Central Asia Summit is being touted as a milestone event that will usher in a ‘new era of cooperation’ and strengthen China-Central Asia relations. While the summit carries significance, it is important to critically examine the underlying motivations behind, the President Xi Jinping’s vision for enhanced connectivity, railway logistics and joint energy development plans. 

Beijing’s still views Central Asia regions as a low-cost provider of raw materials. The Summit does not ensure fostering collaboration for development through technology transfer and sustainable models focused on diverse economic activities.

Nonetheless, the China-Central Asia Summit’s emphasis on simply signing policy documents hastily also raises concerns about transparency and inclusivity, (https://www.eurasian-research.org/publication/economic-cooperation-between-central-asia-and-china/ ) disregarding voices and concerns of the republics, prioritizing China’s agenda. The resentment is growing among ordinary people towards the leadership’s nexus and Chinese involvement is a notable trend. 52 percent of Tajikistan’s, 45 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s external borrowing is from China and they are depressed in servicing debt-interests.  China owes claim to 16.9 percent of Turkmenistan’s GDP, 16 percent of Uzbekistan’s GDP and 6.5 percent of Kazakhstan’s GDP. As a consequence, the Chinese businesses are gaining unfair access and might spiral the vicious circle of debt-trap. (Examining the opportunities and challenges of Central and South Asia, by K. Warikoo, India Quarterly, New Delhi, March, 2016, https://www.jstor.org/stable/48505479.)

An additional problem lies in the focus on constructing transportation and logistics-related infrastructure projects that have consequent nonrecoverable social, economic, and environmental costs. These projects are likely to destabilize the fragile mountainous ecology. 

A Fairer Playground of Potentialities and Hopes

Despite the perceived dominance of Chinese and Russian power in the CARs, the truth is much less distorted. As of 2022, the EU countries remain the leading investors in Central Asia, accounting for over 42 percent of the total FDI stock, while the U.S., Russia and China invested 14.2 percent, 6 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively, in Central Asia. https://news.cgtn.com/news/2022-05-02/Who-is-the-biggest-investor-in-Central-Asia-It-is-not-China-or-Russia-19HRnQhtnrO/index.html#:~:text=Summing%20up%20the%20above%20analysis, and%20Chinese%20around%203.7%20percent

The Netherlands is not just the largest investor in the region but also in its largest economy – Kazakhstan. Over the past 15 years the investments from Netherlands to Kazakhstan has exceeded $90 billion. (Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, The Netherlands, https://www.agroberichtenbuitenland.nl/actueel/nieuws/2020/02/11/the-netherlands-is-investor-number-one-in-kazakhstan

Filling the Void with a Long March of Strategy

The summit has the possibility of creating an opportunity to impose China’s already problematical Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in guise of, enhanced economic cooperation.

China seems ousting Russia to become the most influential power in Central Asia. While China’s economic presence in Central Asia is significant, Russia still maintains strong political, security, and cultural ties in the region. The two powers have complex partnerships and agreements to maintain stability in Central Asia. Despite, China’s ostentatious exponential rise in region, Russia is third largest trade partner with 18percentshare against China’s 21 percent.(https://www.coface.com/News-Publications/Publications/Central-Asia-is-the-menage-a-trois-with-China-and-Russia-sustainable.) Incongruous nature of relations of these two powers demands attentive endeavour from Central Asian Republics to preserve their independence and sovereignty. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/18/chinas-xi-hosts-central-asia-summit-as-russian-influence-wanes

China also aspires close relations with Central Asian nations due to her deep-seated suspicion of an insurrection of Islamic radicalization induced terrorism in Central Asia and its overflow into Xinjiang. China has already incarcerated one million Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang.(https://www.dw.com/en/what-is-chinas-strategy-for-central-asia/a-65637703.)  

The summit China also aims to disseminate the message that China has its own plan  to counter the U.S.-dominated world order, that Beijing says, is attempting to restrict and separate China.(https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/18/world/asia/china-central-asia-g7.html). It is also being opined that it is a desperate reply to the G-7 summit held in adjacent Japan’s Hiroshima.( https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/central-asia-leaders-converge-china-xi-touts-enduring-friendship-2023-05-18/)

In conclusion, while the China-Central Asia summit holds the promise of enhanced cooperation, a genuine and fair collaboration among member countries is absent. Central Asian countries should assert their objectives and concerns to ensure they are adequately reflected in the summit’s agenda, rather than being overshadowed by rhetoric and the pursuit of mutual economic development.

Narendra Kumar Arya, PhD is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, at Mahatma Gandhi Central University, Bihar (India).

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