China's Xi hails 'new era' of ties with Central Asia at summit

By AFP   May 18, 2023 | 06:17 pm PT
China's Xi hails 'new era' of ties with Central Asia at summit
Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre-right) speaks to Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the China-Central Asia Summit in Xian, Shaanxi province on May 18, 2023. Photo by AFP/Mark Cristino
Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed a "new era" of ties with Central Asia on Thursday, kicking off a summit Beijing hopes will deepen relations with the strategically vital region.

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, Beijing has said this week's meeting is of "milestone significance".

And in a speech to the region's leaders at a welcoming banquet Thursday evening, Xi said strengthening ties was a "strategic choice".

"I am confident that with our joint efforts, tomorrow's summit will be a full success and will herald a new era of China-Central Asia relations," Xi was quoted as saying in a readout of the speech seen by AFP.

"Join us in opening up a bright future of China-Central Asia cooperation," he said.

This week's meeting is the first of its kind since the establishment of formal relations 31 years ago.

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 Xi, with Beijing keen to restart cooperation and fill the vacuum left in former Soviet states by Russia's war in Ukraine.

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

Analysts told AFP this week's summit is likely to see efforts to reach agreements to further expand that vast network, including a long-stalled $6 billion China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and an expansion of the Central Asia-to-China gas pipeline.

'Global economic leadership'

Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev hailed the "unique scope" of that project at a meeting with Xi ahead of the summit.

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

He then met with the leaders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, lauding the close ties between them and pledging to expand economic and cultural exchanges.

"Your policies will ensure the development and further prosperity of a modern socialist state, the strengthening of the authority and the global economic leadership of the country in the nearest future," Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev told Xi.

Xi and Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan greeted the heads of state at a grand welcoming ceremony in the evening, posing for a group photo in front of an old-style Chinese building lit by red lanterns.

Dozens of dancers then performed a musical show inspired by the Tang Dynasty, when relations between China and Central Asia were considered very strong.

A media event will be held on Friday morning, expected to be attended by all six presidents, at which a joint statement is likely to be released.

Growing influence

This week's summit also comes as Beijing works to replace Russia as Central Asian nations' preferred partner -- 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 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 said.

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

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