China Woos Central Asia as Ukraine War Weakens U.S. Influence

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is rolling out the red carpet for Central Asian nations this week as Beijing attempts to expand its reach into a region that has long been regarded as Russia’s sphere of influence.

The leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are gathering in the central Chinese city of Xi’an for a summit that began Thursday.

It is the first in-person meeting of the heads of state together with China since they established diplomatic relations after the fall of the Soviet Union, according to China’s state media, and comes as the region grapples with the knock-on economic effects of neighboring Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The two-day event is also a play from Beijing to expand its influence in Central Asia, where Russia – now distracted by its debilitating and unsuccessful invasion of Ukraine – has long been the dominant great power partner.

China has billed the meeting as the “first major diplomatic activity” its hosted this year and an opportunity to draw a “new blueprint” with the sprawling bloc of post-Soviet states that lie between between its western borders, Europe and the Middle East.

“The most important context of this summit is the Ukraine war and the region’s uncertainty with Russia’s future commitment, influence and role in the region,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.

“Central Asia is always seen as Russia’s backyard, and China has been expanding its influence in the region … and there are new aspirations and directions for China-Central Asia relations – opportunities that were not present or available in the past,” she said.

Visiting leaders include Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, Turkmenistan’s President Serdar Berdimuhamedov and President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, China has said.

The two day meeting overlaps with the start of the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Hiroshima, Japan, where United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Canada and Italy are expected to affirm their solidarity against Russia.

The gathering in Xi’an comes as China is seeking to craft a profile as a keeper of regional stability – including in a bid to act as a deal broker on the conflict in Ukraine, even as its has given no sign of abandoning its staunch Kremlin ties.

Economic priorities

For Beijing, the Central Asian states represent key potential allies in forums like the United Nations, fertile ground for China-financed railways, pipelines and transport routes into its borders or toward Europe – and a key buffer against what it has long seen as security threats from areas like Afghanistan.

Xi will present visiting Central Asian leaders with “a series of proposals” on the long-term development of ties and sign agreements, Chinese officials said this week.

Among those are likely to be new pledges for economic cooperation – now more needed than ever by the region, which is feeling the sting of Russia’s war.

“The war disrupted many links between Russia and Central Asia, especially trade, especially transportation, transit, investments, and migration,” said Azimzhan Khitakhunov, a senior research fellow at the Eurasian Research Institute in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

It is “of great interest to Central Asia nowadays to cooperate with China as one of its important alternative markets,” he added.

However, Khitakhunov said, Central Asian leaders would be just as keen to have discussions about trade, investment and joint projects with Western players like the European Union.

Other major economies have sent high level officials to the region following the Russian invasion Ukraine.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan earlier this year, while European Council President Charles Michel made stops in those countries in October 2022.

But China is widely seen as having been more active in cultivating connections and influence in the region, where it first launched its expansive Belt and Road connectivity initiative nearly 10 years ago.

Security focus

The two-day summit in Xi’an will also likely see a push from China for more security cooperation.

Beijing holds longstanding concerns about unrest in Central Asia fueling potential militancy in its northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Chinese officials in recent years unleashed a campaign against Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang, which the United Nations’ top human rights office said constituted could amount to “crimes against humanity” – in the name of cracking down on perceived threats of extremism and terrorism.

When it comes to its rapport with Central Asia, “really what is driving China is security and stability,” said Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, a regional expert and director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh in the US, pointing in particular to its concerns about instability in Afghanistan spilling into China.

Previously Russia played a key role in security in Central Asia as part of regional cooperation. Beijing may now be concerned about how strong a role a “distracted Russia,” could play there, she added.

Observers say Beijing may not be interested in or welcome to take up Russia’s broader regional security role, but Chinese officials have stressed increasing cooperation in areas like countering “terrorism, separatism and extremism,” and strengthening coordination on Afghanistan, which shares a border with several Central Asian states.

Central Asian countries have also seen and cracked down on popular protests and unrest in recent years. Their leaders may be interested in accessing the surveillance technologies that Beijing uses to monitor its own public, Murtazashvili said.

War in Ukraine

The on-going war in Ukraine, and China’s perceived support of Russia, will also loom over the gathering.

Beijing has recently ramped up efforts to deflect criticism that it has not acted to help end the war, while lending diplomatic and economic support to Russia.

This week Beijing dispatched its Special Representative on Eurasian Affairs Li Hui on a tour to Ukraine, Russia and several European countries to promote peace talks.

It has also attempted to portray the US and its allies as fueling the conflict through their support of Ukraine, echoing the Kremlin’s own stance.

The summit is “a good opportunity for China (to try to) win support from these countries on China’s approach in terms of mediating the war between Russia and Ukraine,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor of international relations at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“Their support of China’s initiative would be quite significant,” according to Li amid China’s push to expand its international influence.

Like China, Central Asia leaders have typically avoided condemning Russia in forums like the UN, for example abstaining on major General Assembly resolutions calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops.

But there are concerns in the region about being the next target of Russia’s aggression, analysts say, given Ukraine is also a former Soviet state and has seen swathes of its territory annexed by Moscow’s forces.

But they may be hesitant to endorse any specific Chinese proposals on the conflict in Ukraine, beyond general calls for peace or targeted comments about its knock-on effects, analysts say.

Central Asian leaders may be open to signing on to allowing China more expansive economic access, inroads in the form of physical infrastructure, or technical security support.

“What would happen if these countries (endorse China as peacemaker on Ukraine) without the blessing of the West would be that they give away their ‘trump card,’” said regional expert Murtazashvili.

“The West (is) an important third party they can leverage against China and Russia in small ways … I don’t think they want to be seen … as towing China’s line on this.”

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