Scaling new heights
By Tang Zhongchao  ·  2023-05-29  ·   Source: NO.22 JUNE 1, 2023
Chinese President Xi Jinping chairs the China-Central Asia Summit and delivers a keynote speech in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province, on May 19 (XINHUA)

The China-Central Asia Summit, held on May 18-19 in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province, was the first major diplomatic event China hosted in 2023. It was also the first in-person gathering among the heads of state of China and the five Central Asian countries since China established diplomatic relations with them 31 years ago.

The parties signed seven bilateral and multilateral documents, including the Xi'an Declaration, which was signed by the six presidents and released at the summit, as well as over 100 cooperation agreements in various fields. The declaration stressed that the six countries agreed to build a closer community with a shared future between China and Central Asian countries.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang said on May 19 that the China-Central Asia Summit is a new milestone in China-Central Asia relations.

Qin said the summit has written a new chapter in the building of a community with a shared future for humanity, built a new platform for expanding exchanges and cooperation in various fields, and also opened up new prospects for mutually beneficial cooperation, and is going to provide new impetus for deepening China-Central Asia relations.

The summit began a new era of China-Central Asia relationship and cooperation based on the mechanism. The establishment of a slew of new mechanisms and platforms will provide broader space and a more effective guarantee for expanding China-Central Asia exchanges at all levels and deepening all-around cooperation.

Closer community with a shared future

In 1992, China took the lead in establishing diplomatic relations with Central Asian countries, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Over the past 31 years China's relations with these countries have grown from good neighborliness to strategic partnership then on to becoming a community with a shared future. President Xi Jinping has visited Central Asia seven times in the last decade, establishing close working relations and personal friendships with the leaders of Central Asian countries.

In January 2022, China and the five countries held a video summit to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, pledging to build a China-Central Asia community with a shared future.

During President Xi's visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in September 2022 and Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov's visit to China in January, the three countries joined China in building a community with a shared future. At the Xi'an Summit, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also announced to build a community with a shared future at the bilateral level with China, marking the concept of a community with a shared future, first proposed by President Xi in 2013, has been fully implemented in the region, further demonstrating the will and determination of the six countries to carry out multilateral and bilateral cooperation at a higher level.

In his keynote speech at the summit, President Xi put forward four principles, or fundamental guidelines, for building the China-Central Asia community with a shared future, which are mutual assistance, common development, universal security and everlasting friendship.

Breakthrough achieved

Since the founding of diplomatic relations, China and the five Central Asian countries have established intergovernmental cooperation committees, regular high-level meetings and other mechanisms at the bilateral level, while having jointly built cooperation platforms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) at the multilateral level. These provide institutional guarantees for China-Central Asia cooperation.

In 2020, China held the first video conference with the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries and decided to establish a China plus Central Asia (C+C5) mechanism for regular foreign ministerial meetings, which is going to work alongside existing mechanisms to promote cooperation in the region. At present, the parties have formally established ministerial meeting mechanisms for diplomacy, economy and trade, customs affairs, among others. Since 2020, four meetings of foreign ministers, one meeting of economic and trade ministers and one meeting of customs directors general have been held under the mechanisms. Platforms such as an industrialists' committee, a think tank forum and a health industry alliance have also been established among the countries.

At the Xi'an Summit, the leaders of six countries agreed to take turns hosting the biennial summit, with the second one to be held in Kazakhstan in 2025. Meanwhile, the parties will accelerate the establishment of dialogue mechanisms in fields like industry and investment, transportation, agriculture, emergency management, education, customs and people-to-people exchanges. A permanent secretariat will be set up in China in the future.

New horizons for cooperation

In 2013, President Xi proposed building the Silk Road Economic Belt while visiting Kazakhstan. The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road are commonly known as the BRI. Central Asian countries have been actively participating in the initiative. All of them have signed documents for Belt and Road cooperation with China. Central Asia has become a demonstration area for high-quality Belt and Road cooperation.

At present, China is the largest trading partner and a major source of investment for the five Central Asian countries. In 2022, China's trade with these countries reached a record high of approximately $70.2 billion, an increase of about 40 percent year on year and about 100 times more than when diplomatic relations were established. By the end of 2022, China's direct investment stock in the five countries was nearly $15 billion. The parties have carried out many cooperation projects in oil and gas extraction, processing and manufacturing, digital technology and other fields, bringing tangible benefits to the people of all countries.

During the summit, the leaders of the six countries discussed plans for cooperation in new areas. President Xi put forward eight proposals, including institution building, green innovations, safeguarding peace in the region and dialogues between civilizations. He also announced major initiatives covering key areas such as expanding economic and trade cooperation, upgrading investment agreements, improving cross-border transportation volume, and establishing a China-Central Asia energy development partnership.

In a keynote speech delivered at the summit, President Xi announced China will provide Central Asian countries with a total of 26 billion yuan ($3.69 billion) in financing support and grants to achieve the goals agreed upon at the summit.

According to the summit press release, the heads of state of the five Central Asian nations said they will take the 10th anniversary of the BRI as an opportunity to further synergize their development strategies with the initiative, advance regional connectivity and deepen practical cooperation.

Other outcomes of the summit include, Kazakhstan becoming the first Central Asian country to have a mutual visa-free agreement with China, and Kyrgyzstan becoming the first to establish reciprocal cultural centers with China.

It is worth noting that China-Central Asia cooperation is based on common needs, the promotion of peace and the pursuit of development. It does not target at any third party, nor is it subjugated to or controlled by any third party. The cooperation is not for creating exclusive clubs, but for opposing group politics and cold war confrontation.

The author is an assistant researcher at the China Institute of International Studies 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

Comments to zhaowei@cicgamericas.com

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