China’s Xi hosts Central Asia summit as Russian influence wanes

The leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are in Xian for a two-day meeting.

Chinese president Xi Jinping walking in front of Chinese and central Asian flags
Chinese President Xi Jinping is hosting the summit in the city of Xian [Florence Lo/Pool via Reuters]

China’s President Xi Jinping is in the central city of Xian where he is hosting his first-ever summit with the leaders of five Central Asian nations, underlining Beijing’s growing influence in a region that Russia has long considered its own back yard.

The two-day event brings together the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan whose countries are crucial to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

It is being held in Xian, the historic city that once marked the start of the fabled Silk Road.

“This is an opportunity to diversify economic prospects for many of them and for the region as a whole,” Al Jazeera’s Jessica Washington said reporting from Xian.

“China is already the largest trading partner, and they will be looking to expand upon opportunities – perhaps various visa initiatives and trade initiatives,” Washington added.

Yu Jun, deputy director-general of the Chinese foreign ministry’s Department of European-Central Asian Affairs, told a press briefing on Tuesday that the leaders will exchange their views on establishing a cooperation mechanism and on international and regional issues of concern. A number of agreements are expected to be signed, he said at a press briefing on Tuesday.

While the summit coincides with the high-profile G7 summit in Japan, analysts said the significance of the China Central Asia Summit was that it underlined the shifting patterns of influence in former Soviet states where Russia has long been influential.

“I would say the Ukraine conflict is more an accelerant of pre-existing trends in the region – the largest of which is China pushing out Russia as the largest hegemon in the region,” Bradley Jardine, the managing director of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs in Washington, DC told Al Jazeera.

“A lot of the regional governments are increasingly sceptical of Russia’s aims in the region and China has made attempts to reassure them over their sovereignty.”

China’s General Administration of Customs published data on Wednesday showing that China’s import and export volume with Central Asian countries amounted to 173.05 billion yuan ($24.8bn) in the first four months of 2023, an increase of 37.3 percent compared with the same period last year.

Some 55 percent of China’s imports were energy products such as coal, crude oil and natural gas, it said, according to state media.

Still, some analysts said China’s influence in the region did not mean Moscow was less important.

China and Russia agreed to a “no limits” partnership last February, less than three weeks before Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Xi Jinping was in Moscow in March where he met Russian President Vladimir Putin and signed an agreement to bring their ties into a “new era” of cooperation.

Li Yongquan, director of Eurasian research at China’s Development Research Center of the State Council, told the state-run Global Times on Thursday that “for 30 years, Central Asia has been situated in a complicated geopolitical atmosphere. One of the reasons why regional countries can thrive despite the multiple unstable factors is because China and Russia have cooperated on maintaining safety and stability in the region. China and Russia have a shared interest on this issue.”

Source: Al Jazeera