China and Central Asian States Hold First Joint Meeting as Chinese Presence Increases in the Region
On July 16, the Foreign Ministers of China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan convened via video conference in the “5+1” format. These senior officials discussed relations between China and the Central Asian states in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Key issues discussed in the meeting were economic and industrial growth, as well as the current political situation in Afghanistan. The Foreign Ministers additionally discussed the current border dispute between India and China, as well as China’s relationship with the United States and the European Union.
China organized the meeting with the goal of restoring Central Asia’s economies. This session is the latest manifestation of China’s growing political and economic influence in the greater Caspian region. Already one of the key investors in the region prior to the pandemic, China has significant interests in Central Asia. The collapse of the Central Asian economies, crucial to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), would damage Chinese business interests. In addition to protecting its existing interests in the region, China sees this as a moment to bolster its influence among the Central Asian states. According to analyst Umida Hashimova, this first regional meeting between China and the Central Asian states marks a turning point – transforming a hitherto solely economic relationship into a politico-economic relationship.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi led the online meeting. He focused on agricultural trade and cooperation, stating Chinese plans to purchase more agricultural products from the Central Asian states, offering a “green corridor” to do so. Wang also stressed continuous Chinese effort to promote its BRI, despite the pandemic. The BRI has increased China’s political and economic influence among all its partners. While primarily an economic initiative, China’s BRI has expanded Beijing’s political clout through this endeavor. The fact that Foreign Minister Wang discussed further expansion of the BRI at this meeting suggests that China intends to boost its political influence.
Responses from the Central Asian Foreign Ministers were supportive, seeking to increase political and economic cooperation with China. Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi thanked China for its humanitarian support in fighting COVID-19. Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Genghis Aidarbekov stated that implementing the China-KR-Ruuz railway project was more urgent than ever. Towards the end of the meeting, participants issued a joint statement, and stressed the importance of continuing similar meetings in the future.
This meeting occurred within the greater context of deteriorating Sino-U.S. relations. Hashimova posits that China needs reassurance the Central Asian states will support the Chinese government, rather than focus on the Uighurs and other Turkic and Islamic minorities the Chinese government oppresses. This meeting was more than an attempt to increase political and economic ties – it appears to have been part of a larger pattern to counter U.S. influence in the region.
Li Lifan, an analyst for the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, stated, “As the U.S. has more or less created a worldwide geopolitical encirclement of China, Beijing has no choice but to come up with a counter-strategy to avoid being further isolated. The harder Washington pushes, the more robust Beijing’s response is expected to be.” The Chinese government has framed its current political relationship with the United States as a personal attack, and is desperate to increase alliances to counter this. Rather than retreat from the Caspian region, the United States should enhance its economic and political connections with the Central Asian governments, if for no other reason than to counter China’s increasing presence.