Xi Jinping courts Central Asia as Russian influence weakens

President Xi Jinping is stepping up efforts to boost China’s influence in Central Asia by hosting his first in-person regional summit dedicated to tightening ties with an area traditionally dominated by Russia.

With Moscow weakened and distracted by the war in Ukraine, the two-day summit that starts on Thursday is a chance for Beijing to push for stronger economic and political relationships with five strategically important former Soviet republics — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

“I don’t think China is going to replace the significance of Russia in Central Asia in a very short period of time but [competition for influence] has already started,” said Chienyu Shih, associate research fellow at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research. “They are in a kind of silent competition mode.”

China has played up the symbolism of the summit, which offers Xi a chance to showcase his skills as a statesman even as Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida prepares to host the G7 in Hiroshima this weekend.

China is holding the meeting in Xi’an, the ancient Chinese capital from where the Silk Road trade route once snaked through Central Asia on its way to Europe. This year also marks the 10th anniversary of Xi’s launch of his proposed modern-day Silk Road equivalent, the $1tn Belt and Road Initiative.

Flag-carrying police in front of snow-clad mountains
Chinese police patrol the border with Tajikistan © A Ran/Costfoto/Future Publishing/Getty Images

Beijing views Central Asia as critical to the security of its politically sensitive western Xinjiang region, where it is has been accused of suppressing the indigenous Muslim Uyghur population. The area is also an important source of energy and a conduit for land-based trade with Europe.

Russia has begun to lose influence across the former Soviet Union amid widespread disquiet over the war in Ukraine. Moscow has also lost its traditional peacekeeper role, being notably absent during border skirmishes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan last year.

Kazakhstan, one of Russia’s closest partners, has refused to support the invasion or recognise Moscow’s annexation of Ukrainian territory and last year even signed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Turkey, a member of the Nato alliance.

In a sign Russia wants to retain its sway, President Vladimir Putin invited all five Central Asian leaders to attend the annual Victory Day parade celebrations in Moscow last week — some at the last minute.

The hasty organisation indicated most of the leaders had “initially politely avoided the trip”, but that “when Putin called, it became not just difficult, but dangerous to say no”, Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Center, wrote in a column.

Vladimir Putin with the presidents of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at the Victory Day parade in Red Square
Vladimir Putin, second from left, with the presidents of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at the Victory Day parade in Red Square © Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Central Asia’s economies have boomed partly on an influx of investment from Russian individuals and companies following the outbreak of hostilities, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Some Central Asian countries are benefiting from increased remittances from migrant workers in Russia as labour becomes more scarce there.

Central Asian countries are caught “between two fires”, worried about being swept up in Putin’s war but unable to resist the economic benefits from remaining one of Russia’s few windows to the world, Umarov wrote.

“Anything that looks like the region is leaning one way or the other shouldn’t be taken as total support for Russia or a break with it,” he wrote.

The Xi’an summit is China’s third with the so-called C5 countries, but the previous meetings were held online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Beijing’s increased focus on Central Asia dates back to 2012, when Xi launched a “March West” strategy, according to Yang Jiang, senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. The following year, Xi launched the BRI in Kazakhstan.

China’s trade with the five countries totalled $70.2bn last year while nearly 80 per cent of China-Europe freight trains passed through the region, Chinese state media said.

China is the biggest buyer of Central Asian gas. The region also has reserves of rare earth metals, especially in Kazakhstan. “China can play a key role in the mining and extraction of these reserves,” said Yunis Sharifli, a research fellow at the Central Asia Barometer, a research body.

Analysts said China might offer to help the region with green energy projects, the building of 5G mobile networks and the expansion of road and rail links.

Another plan that could be discussed is a proposal for China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to build a $4.1bn rail link that would open up rail-only travel to Europe. This would avoid going through Russia, which is subject to western sanctions due to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the analysts said.

While China would not try to duplicate Russia’s military presence — Moscow retains bases in the region — analysts said Xi might use the summit to announce greater security co-operation.

China already co-operates with Tajikistan to prevent militants, weapons and drugs from crossing the border into Xinjiang. Xi could try to take this further with a proposal for a regional security plan as China did with Pacific islands last year, although that move ended in disappointment for Beijing.

“China has always been mindful of Russian sensitivities there and it will be interesting to see how far Xi goes,” said Elizabeth Wishnick, senior research scientist at CNA, a Washington think-tank.

Many Central Asians were also suspicious of China’s intentions and there was growing concern about increasing national indebtedness to Beijing, analysts said.

China’s standing in Central Asia was damaged last month when its ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, declared that “ex-Soviet Union countries do not have effective status under international law”. Beijing quickly backtracked on the comments, but the diplomat has not been fired.

“China’s problem is not about hard power but soft power,” said Sharifli. He said people in the region wanted China’s technology and investment but were “concerned about China’s presence”.

Russia was still the dominant and probably the preferred player in Central Asia, Wishnick said. “I wouldn’t say Xi can rest on his laurels with this conference.”

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga

2023-05-18 00:00:55