Neighbourhood Diplomacy of China: The Visit of Central Asian Leaders to Beijing

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Before the G7 Summit was unveiled on 19th May in Japan, Chinese President Xi Jinping, on 18th May, inaugurated a summit with the leaders of the Central Asian countries in an effort to expand China’s regional clout. The leaders–Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon–met with Xi Jinping in Xi’an, China’s ancient capital, with a view to beginning an “enduring” friendship, that would likely result in a regional unity and long-term agreement with Beijing. The meeting took place in such a city which marks the eastern terminus of the ancient Silk Road that formerly connected China and Europe through the Central Asian countries. Marking the summit as a “milestone significance”, Xi expressed his immense contentment and exhibited his goal with an eye toward developing ties both geo-strategically and economically, and declared the summit to be ‘a complete success that is expected to kick off the next chapter of China-Central Asia cooperation.’

For a long time, China and Central Asian countries have been indispensable allies in the international arena. Beijing has invested billions in infrastructure and transportation in the area since launching its Belt and Road Initiative in Kazakhstan in 2013. Similarly, during the summit, China reiterated its commitment to help the countries with billions of loans. However, the partners preserve a robust trade relationship that has again been discerned in the last year when the volume reached worth $70 billion; notably, $31 billion of it was just with Kazakhstan, followed by Kyrgyzstan ($15.5B), Turkmenistan ($11.2B), Uzbekistan ($9.8B), and, Tajikistan ($2B). Moreover, this year, till now, China and the countries are also experiencing sound growth in economic rapport with over $24.8 billion in trade. In this complementary relationship, similar to how Beijing is reliant on Central Asia for critical resources such as oil and natural gas for running its big production market, the region also depends considerably on Chinese investment.

However, in this regard, for many analysts, China’s efforts to create a counter-order to the US-led liberal system to a considerable degree hinge on the politico-economic significance of the region of Central Asia. There is a political dimension to China’s relationship with Central Asia, despite the common emphasis on security and economic growth. China over the years is pursuing a strong ‘neighborhood diplomacy’ in which the region is gauged as an immutable facet. Therefore, the recent summit between China and the major participants of the region is considered a noteworthy motif in this regard which would bring about an impetus to China’s presence in world politics. This development while giving rise to a more solid alliance of China surrounding other partners such as Russia, it is also devised as a long-term strategy of China to counter the US dominance in the region and beyond from political as well as economic perspectives. Apart from that, China is gradually winning its foothold by bolstering the canopy of its neighbourhood diplomacy engaging more with the Central Asian countries.

Neighbourhood Diplomacy of China

The focus of China’s diplomacy has shifted in recent years, with an increasing emphasis on its relations with its immediate neighbours. China’s neighbourhood diplomacy focuses on fostering amicable ties and building solid relationships with its immediate regional neighbours in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia securing the principles of friendship, integrity, mutual advantage, and openness. China’s diplomacy with its neighboring countries centers on the notion of “peaceful development.” It is based on the idea that China’s internal progress and economic growth are dependent on a stable international setting of neighbours. In this respect, China lays high emphasis on evading military confrontation wherever possible, encouraging communication and negotiations, and respecting the sovereignty of other nations by giving zero heeds to their domestic affairs. Moreover, China is working to strengthen ties of trust and goodwill with its neighbours with a view to building lasting rapport with countries that are on equal footing and have similar goals and values.

In addition, under the neighbourhood diplomacy sketch, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is one such significant effort, with the stated goals of strengthening economic connections, boosting trade, and improving connectivity which China highly pursues in order to establish a system of mutually beneficial economic alliances. With regard to the discussion, terrorism, transnational crime, and territorial conflicts are also some of the common security issues that China strives to solve through continuing discussions, collaboration, and multilateral frameworks. To improve security cooperation and keep the peace in the area, China favours regional structures such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). China, to foster regional dialogues and economic integration, also takes part in regional organizations including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

However, from the perspective of One Belt One Road (OBOR), China places equal emphasis on diplomacy with both major world powers and its immediate neighbours. Xi Jinping’s administration believes that diplomacy with neighbours has greater room for growth than diplomacy with the United States. President Xi Jinping made it very clear during his visit to Singapore in 2015 that China’s diplomatic efforts would place a premium on its immediate neighbourhood and that China will shoulder the responsibility of fostering peace, stability, and prosperity in its neighbours. Xi also said that China’s neighbours will reap the benefits of OBOR and emerge as the country’s most important cooperating partners. Xi has also sent a message that China is eager to provide additional alternatives and common goods to its neighbours, particularly in the areas of security and the economy.

Central Asia’s Significance in China’s Neighborhood Diplomacy

For a long time, China has been maintaining a sound rapport with the Central Asian countries due to their huge economic as well as geopolitical significance. In the 30 years after Central Asia gained freedom in 1991, China’s ties with the region’s five independent states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—have flourished to a considerable extent. China immediately rushed to fix its boundaries with these Central Asian republics, as well as with the Russian Federation, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1996, once that goal was accomplished, the Shanghai Five (China, Russian Federation, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan) was formed to facilitate further collaboration between these nations. With Uzbekistan’s accession in 2002, this morphed into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which further bolstered China’s politico-economic rapport with the countries. Since Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan are rich in fossil fuels, China has always been eager to make investments in and import these resources. Over the last two decades, China has built a number of oil and gas pipelines to satisfy its ever-growing energy demands. In this regard, moreover, the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative has boosted Central Asia’s relevance to China which connects the region to Europe and the Middle East.

However, from a more economic outlook, China’s increasing presence in the region can be attributed to two critical factors: the country’s growing domestic energy demand, driven by its robust economy, and the growing world marketplace for finished goods. As a result, China has been strategically positioning itself to meet these demands and secure its foothold in the global market. China’s energy demands have surged dramatically since the 1990s. Over the past two decades, there has been a significant surge in the daily consumption of oil, with figures rising from 4.2 million barrels in 1998 to a staggering 10.8 million barrels in 2023. According to estimates, the consumption of natural gas is set to surge by almost 190% between 2020 and 2050, which, after the Russia-Ukraine war, has been swayed dramatically with more demands. As a result, for China to diversify and broaden its domestic energy balance and transportation route, the Central Asian nations with their enormous supplies of hydrocarbon minerals and fuels have become more crucial. However, although there are many backdrops due to China’s presence in the region, Central Asia has emerged as a new front for global connectivity and trade as a result of China’s fast progress into the region through Belt and Road-related investment projects.

A Key Dynamic to Bring New Impetus

Without any misgivings, the Xi-Central Asian Leaders Summit is one of the remarkable developments in regional politics that have many rooms to have emerged as a major event bringing diverse dynamics in the relationships of the stakeholders. During discussions with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan in the western Chinese city of Xian, President Xi Jinping has exhibited his willingness to push for greater economic cooperation and stronger security connections. In this regard, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a vast investment in infrastructure, technology, and construction to improve international commerce and energy connections, has continued to expand where the region has always been prioritized. However, Beijing has promised to back Kazakh enterprises operating in China and to boost the enormous number of tourists visiting the country after signing a pact for a new industrial transfer program with Kazakhstan. China and Kyrgyzstan are expanding their economic ties in a number of ways. Both countries have established a new investment fund.

Moreover, Kyrgyzstan has invited Chinese banks to set up bank branches in the country, while China added it to their list of locations to go to as tourists. There are a total of 28 items between China and Uzbekistan, 7 between China and Kazakhstan, 11 between China and Kyrgyzstan, and 18 between China and Tajikistan in the bilateral declarations issued after the Xi’an Summit. China has long preferred working bilaterally, but now it plans to open a C+C5 secretariat with the region in an effort to bind Central Asia’s outlook to China for future gains in the region. The eagerness with which the five presidents of Central Asia have embraced these measures demonstrates their desire to embrace China. In addition, with the members and participants of the region, the next Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit which is set to be hosted by India on July 3–4, is shaping up to be a defining event for the group, as it coincides with a time of unprecedented global difficulties and emerging tensions. Therefore, it can be argued that the Xi-Central Asian Leaders Summit will result in diverse policy formulations and outcomes for China regarding the immediate neighbours which will bring about not only economic dynamics but also new geopolitical experiences and shifts as well.

– Kawsar Uddin Mahmud is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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