Xi says China, Central Asia must ‘fully unleash’ potential

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Xi Jinping called on China and Central Asia to “fully unleash” their potential in trade, economic and infrastructure cooperation Friday, as he wrapped up a landmark summit with heads of state from the strategically vital region.

The Chinese leader is hosting the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan at a summit in Xi’an in northern China this week — a meeting Beijing has said is of “milestone” significance.

Beijing says trade with Central Asia reached $70 billion in 2022 and expanded 22 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2023.

The region is also a crucial link in China’s trillion-dollar global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative.

Speaking to regional leaders, Xi said the countries must “fully unleash the potential of traditional cooperation in economy, trade, industrial capacity, energy and transport,” according to a state media readout.

He also stressed the need to develop “new growth drivers… such as finance, agriculture, poverty reduction, low carbon, health, and digital innovation”.

“China and Central Asian countries should deepen strategic mutual trust, and always offer clear and strong support for each other on issues of core interests.”

Belt and Road is a defining geopolitical project for Xi, with Beijing keen to restart cooperation and fill the vacuum left in former Soviet states by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

On Friday, Xi said the region and China must “take the lead” in that project and “deepen strategic mutual trust”.

Beijing will aim to expand transport links with the region, he said, and work to speed up the expansion of the Central Asia-to-China gas pipeline.

Xi also pledged 26 billion yuan ($3.7 billion) in “financing support and free assistance” to the region.

And with a goal to “uphold everlasting friendship”, the Chinese leader said the leaders would aim to meet again in Kazakhstan in 2025.

“China is trying to convince Central Asian countries that there is this multipolar world that is in the making,” Niva Yau, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, told AFP.

“And there is Central Asian unity towards strong ties to China,” she said.

Xi’s speech also saw him call for expanding security cooperation on what Beijing dubbed the “three evils” in the region: separatism, terrorism and extremism.

“The six countries should resolutely oppose external interference in the internal affairs of regional countries and attempts to instigate ‘color revolutions’,” Xi said, a reference to unrest in former Soviet states that Moscow and others allege is backed by the West. 

Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has allowed China to carve out a greater role in Central Asia, leading many in the region to question their long-standing ties with Russia and seek economic, diplomatic and strategic assurances elsewhere.

“Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine has led to the imposition of sanctions by the West, which has weakened Russia’s power and led to a relative decline in its influence in Central Asia,” Lu Gang, director of Center for Central Asian Studies at East China Normal University, told AFP.

“This result has led Central Asian countries to place greater emphasis on economic cooperation and political support from China,” Lu said.

This week’s summit comes 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 coincides with a meeting of the G7 in Hiroshima that will likely focus on efforts to “push back China’s growing influence around the world”, Zhu noted.

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