Something is brewing in Central Asia and no one outside the secret conclaves of the Chinese Communist Party knows the detail.
But on May 18-19, China hosts the heads of the five Central Asian states in Xian for a summit expected to mark a significant shift in relations with the five countries of the strategically located region (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.) The gathering will be the first of its kind and Russia, with its extensive interests in Central Asia, will not be present.
There may be some hint of what’s happening from the venue. Xian is the terminus of the Silk Road. It’s a fine city, its heart enclosed by still-complete 14th-century walls and contains the terracotta army which guarded the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China.
There is little detail about the summit program, but China’s President Xi Jinping stated in a message to Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon that Beijing was working on a “grandiose plan” to be unveiled at the meeting. In Central Asia, expectations are high because this year marks the 10th anniversary of the massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Beijing is expected to demonstrate the initiative’s longevity by likely increasing investments in Central Asia. The meeting is also, unstated, a sign of Russian decline; the Kremlin’s grip on the former Soviet republic is weakening following its disastrous war against Ukraine. China has a lot to offer; Russia does not so much.
Each country expects benefits from an expanding China. Uzbekistan, in particular, is optimistic about the completion of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway and the long-delayed Line D of the Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline. Kyrgyzstan, worried over fracturing Russia-led multilateral initiatives such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), might be interested in having China play a bigger security role in the region and give some balance in its often-antagonistic relations with Tajikistan. The latter want investments to shore up its weak economy, while Kazakhstan seeks greater Chinese activism to counteract Russia’s potential aggression.
All countries expect that China, beyond its usual attention to infrastructure projects, will focus more on investing in local industries which would provide employment in mostly under-developed economies. Those industries include the automotive sector, especially in Uzbekistan, and the development of green energy in which Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are equally interested because of perennial gas shortages. During the winter of 2022-2023, both countries had to increase imports despite their gas wealth.
Russia is nervous. It has traditionally abstained from voicing concerns when it comes to China in Central Asia, but the very fact that Moscow insisted on having all Central Asian leaders in Moscow for its Victory Day festivities on May 9, signals that Kremlin is fretting over its shrinking regional influence, as the Xian summit demonstrates.
The meeting will be of a qualitatively different scale from other gatherings. For decades China has focused mostly on economic cooperation with Central Asia; since 2022, the focus has shifted. China has now widened its gaze to include the political, and the summit could officially usher in a new stage of bilateral cooperation.
China does not have to show any outward hostility to Russia to achieve its goals. The geopolitical situation is moving inexorably in its favor. The Kremlin’s expenditure of resources and its political focus on Ukraine means there is no other serious competitor to China. It will nonetheless be a real test for Beijing to carefully deploy influence in the region without generating grievances among the five Central Asian states. The European Union (EU) is interested in the region — not least for its plentiful energy resources — and might be useful as a counterbalance for the Central Asians.
But the direction of travel is clear. Seen from the world beyond Europe, the world is changing and that is only underlined by the focus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China now finds the way clear for a push into Central Asia, to become its dominant power and to set its primary strategic direction. It will not have to fire a shot in the process. Vladimir Putin has already done the hard work on Beijing’s behalf.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.