Xi Jinping Affirms China’s Global Role Through Tour of Central Asia, Regional Summits
Chinese President Xi Jinping held the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in late April 2019, where he met and spoke with Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. Now, President Xi Jinping embarks on a tour of Kyrgyzstan (June 12-14) and Tajikistan (14-16). While in Kyrgyzstan, President Xi will attend the 19th meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), as well as strengthen bilateral relations with Kyrgyzstan in meetings with President Jeenbekov. In Tajikistan, President Xi will attend the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Members in Asia (CICA), as well as meet with President Rahmon to build on Sino-Tajik relations. In attending these summits, Beijing will not only strengthen bilateral ties with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan but affirm its global role through the multilateral SCO and CICA.
Central Asia’s Importance to China
China has viewed Central Asia, for centuries, as vital to Chinese security and prosperity. Beijing sees a peaceful Central Asia as vital to combatting the “Three Evils,” or “terrorism, separatism, and extremism” in Xinjiang. China believes that a region can be made stable if it is made prosperous. To this end, the BRI, announced by Xi Jinping in Nur-Sultan (then Astana) in 2013, is China’s way of combatting chaotic forces in Central Asia, while expanding Chinese influence at the same time. China’s interior and western provinces stand to benefit greatly from the BRI and the development of Central Asia. With China’s interior provinces’ economies showing serious slowdown — for example, the industrial activity in western China has fallen from 51 percent of GDP in 2011 to 41 percent of GDP in 2018. China’s leadership has made the development of this region a priority; President Xi himself stated that the central government remains committed to reducing the economic gap between the interior and the coast. Central Asia, sitting on the route to the European market, is thus vital to the development of Western China.
Kyrgyzstan has benefited from the influx of Chinese money into their economy as China’s sweeping Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) which has helped develop the country’s infrastructure. As of now, there are 51 BRI projects under way in Kyrgyzstan. Thanks to Chinese investment, a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan road has been constructed and put into use. Meanwhile, China has also supported Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the SCO presidency in June 2018. However, there is growing Sinophobia due to stories coming from Xinjiang. There are also fears that Kyrgyzstan will cede territory to China in order to pay off BRI debts, which has led the government to ask for grants, instead of loans. Another issue is that Chinese companies win BRI-related construction contracts, and it is Chinese workers, not Kyrgyz, who are hired.
China has sought to bolster Tajikistan through security cooperation and especially economic development, namely through the BRI. Currently, there are 67 BRI projects in Tajikistan. Additionally, China has supported Tajikistan chairing CICA. However, there is growing backlash over territory and mines being ceded to China to cover BRI-related debts, such as the 777 square mile, gold and uranium rich territory along the Wakhan Corridor on the Afghan border. Like Kyrgyzstan, Chinese companies win the contracts and Tajik workers are either paid less than Chinese workers, or not at all.
Expected Outcomes of President Xi Jinping’s Tour
According to Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Hanhui, Beijing will sign joint statements with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on developing Sino-Kyrgyz and Sino-Tajik strategic partnerships. Special focus will be given to the development of agricultural and husbandry fields. Part of the negotiations will also focus on broadening free-trade between the governments. The expected outcome of the bilateral meetings is to come up with new BRI plans. For President Xi, what will be important is maintaining the BRI’s benefit to China’s western provinces. The most likely outcome of the talks will be new infrastructure projects and no reworking of debt-repayment, utilization of local workers, or of the situation in Xinjiang. The message is clear, however: China is there to stay.