China’s Xi hosts Central Asian leaders in ‘milestone’ summit

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Chinese President Xi Jinping will host a Central Asian summit on Thursday, seeking to build regional influence as G7 leaders hold a rival gathering in Japan.

Held in the ancient Chinese city of Xi’an, the historic eastern end of the Silk Road that linked China to Europe through Central Asia, this week’s summit is of “milestone significance”, Beijing has said.

It is the first of its kind since the establishment of formal relations 31 years ago.

It comes as Beijing pushes to fill the vacuum left in former Soviet states by Russia’s war in Ukraine — and as Xi positions himself as a global statesman keen to expand China’s reach far beyond its borders.

“Xi will position himself as a leader that can promote global development and peace,” Zhiqun Zhu, a Professor of International Relations and Political Science at Bucknell University, told AFP.

The summit also takes place at the same time as a meeting of G7 in Hiroshima, which will likely focus on efforts to “push back China’s growing influence around the world”, Zhu said.

“The diplomatic and strategic significance cannot be underestimated,” he said.

Beijing says trade with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan reached $70 billion in 2022 and expanded 22 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2023.

Central Asia has also become key to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, a defining geopolitical project for President Xi Jinping.

China, the world’s second-largest energy consumer, has invested billions of dollars to tap natural gas reserves in Central Asia and rail links connecting China to Europe criss-cross the region.

And analysts told AFP this week’s summit is likely to see efforts to push ahead with vast transport links and pipelines, including a long-stalled $6 billion China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and an expansion of the Central Asia-to-China gas pipeline.

Speaking in a Wednesday meeting with Xi, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev hailed the “unique scope” of that project.

And in Thursday talks, Xi told Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov that China was “willing to work with Kyrgyzstan to build a community of good neighborliness, friendship, shared prosperity, and a shared future”.

He is set to meet with other regional leaders later on Thursday, before a welcoming ceremony in the evening.

A press event will then be held on Friday morning — expected to be attended by all six presidents — at which a joint statement is expected to be released.

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