As Russia's grip weakening, China turns it gaze to Central Asia
    Experts comment on results of Xi'an summit

    INTERVIEWS  22 May 2023 - 16:45

    Samir Ibrahimov

    Chinese President Xi Jinping made very interesting, telling statements to journalists. He said Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have signed the Xi'an Declaration of the China-Central Asia Summit. "We have approved a list of the outcomes of the meeting and outlined a plan for the future development of China-Central Asia relations," Xi Jinping was quoted as saying by China Central Television.

    The summit chaired by Xi Jinping was held in Xi'an, northwest China's Shaanxi province, on May 18-19. Presidents Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Sadyr Zhaparov, Emomali Rakhmon, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and Serdar Berdymukhamedov also attended the event.

    What strikes the eye in the final declaration of this big meeting between the Chinese leader and all the Central Asian presidents? The PRC leader noted that China and Central Asian partners will stand firmly by each other on issues of sovereignty, independence, security, and territorial integrity. In addition, the parties will respect each other's development paths chosen in accordance with the national conditions of each state and resolutely oppose any forceful interference in the internal affairs of the countries under any pretext.

    "We will resolutely fight all forms of terrorism, separatism, extremism, drug smuggling, and transnational organised crime. China is ready to help Central Asian countries strengthen their law enforcement capacity in security and defence, as well as support in efforts to maintain regional security and fight terrorism," Xi Jinping, quoted by Xinhua news agency, said.

    He also noted that China will continue to play a role in the coordination mechanism of Afghanistan's neighbours, and promote the peaceful reconstruction of the country. The Chinese leader added that the parties intend to respect the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, firmly uphold multilateralism, universally recognised international laws and norms of international relations, and uphold international justice.

    So, what can be seen at a glance, with the naked eye? First of all, behind these proclaimed intentions one may very easily suspect that Beijing is demonstratively indicating to Moscow that from now on China, not Russia, is the main influential power in this region. In other words, Central Asia is joining China's sphere of influence and Moscow has nothing else to do in these countries. Unless, with Beijing's permission, it can get involved in some projects. Xi speaks of China's readiness "to resolutely oppose any forcible intervention in the internal affairs of the Central Asian countries under any pretext". What more could be said than that? Can this summit be considered a watershed for Central Asia, Russia, and China in terms of the region's complete transition to a different political and economic power?

    Experts from Central Asian countries shared their opinion on this matter with Caliber.Az.

    Turkmen analyst Farid Tukhbatullin, director of the news agency Chronicle of Turkmenistan, believes it is necessary to say first of all that over the past decade, if not more, neither the CIS, nor the CSTO, nor other structures patronized by Russia have been able to prove their necessity to its members.

    "And now, given the situation in which Russia has thrust itself into, the prospects for these structures look quite ephemeral. China has over the years done a thorough and well-judged work on the inclusion of Central Asian countries in its orbit. The meeting in Xi'an with the signing of a declaration is the result of that work and at the same time a strategy for the development of Sino-CA relations. Russia is no longer a competitor for China in the region. Rather, Türkiye is a serious competitor here.

    As for the Xi'an Declaration itself, it covers virtually all areas of mutual relations, including the territorial integrity of countries, which is now very relevant to the post-Soviet space. Unfortunately, human rights are mentioned only in the context that the countries that signed the convention "are against attempts to politicise human rights issues", said the Turkmen expert.

    Askar Dzhakishev, a political scientist, Ph.D. in history, and professor at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University (Bishkek) said in turn that the Central Asian states are geographically located between the two largest powers on the Eurasian continent, namely Russia and China.

    "Hence, the Central Asian states face the task of maintaining an equilibrium balance between the aforementioned powers. A demonstration of this political balance was the participation of Central Asian heads of state in the May 9 celebrations in Moscow, bearing in mind that they were to meet in Xi'an on May 18-19 in China. All of the Central Asian states have, with greater or lesser success, pursued a multidirectional foreign policy. However, the Central Asian states take into account the political influence of both Russia and China, which has sharply stepped up its political and economic expansion in the international sphere over the last decade. Given the fact that Russia has to allocate huge financial and other resources to solve problems in Ukraine and therefore cannot properly participate in the implementation of economic projects in Central Asia, there is a window of opportunity for China to more actively explore the Central Asian direction in its policy, taking into account the mutual interest in the proposed Chinese projects for Central Asian countries", says the professor.

    According to him, if we turn to history, China is reviving one of the lost routes of the Great Silk Road, which is an alternative to the insecure sea route, where the risks of confrontation between the US-established military and political bloc AUCUS and India have now increased, and where both claim their rights to the Indian Ocean.

    "There is a trade route through Russia, but with the SMO and Western sanctions, this direction will not be able to function in the coming years. Besides, China does not want to be logistically linked to a large state like Russia. The smaller Central Asian states, which are more contractual due to their political and economic potential, are another matter. There is an important problem in which China needs coordinated action by the Central Asian states. And this matter is Afghanistan. It is a headache for Central and South Asia. Therefore, there is an urgent need for a common effort to establish social peace in Afghanistan and to incorporate it into the world order, which promises the entire region the laying of railways, roads, and pipelines in all directions through Afghanistan, as well as the development of rare earth metals, including lithium, a component for the production of electric batteries. Based on the foregoing, it seems to me that the Xi'an meeting has a mutual interest, and the CA countries, represented by China, gain additional support", said the Kyrgyz scholar.

    For his part, Kazakhstani political scientist Zhaksylyk Sabitov believes that initially, the declaration is general and aims to gain external recognition that Taiwan is part of China.

    "Earlier, President Tokayev of Kazakhstan has touched upon this issue, and now the leaders of all Central Asian countries have supported the UN Charter, according to which Taiwan is not an independent state, but an integral part of China. In my opinion, this is the main point that Beijing wanted to record.

    Secondly, of course, this is an attempt to somehow institutionalise the status quo, according to which, due to the war against Ukraine, Russia's role in Central Asia fell and China's role in the region increased," Sabitov said.


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