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Solidifying Connections

The first-ever China-Central Asia Summit aims to further diversify cooperation between China and the region, as well as improve communication and transportation

By Yu Xiaodong , Zheng Liying Updated Aug.1

Qamchiq Tunnel on the Angren-Pap Railway in Uzbekistan is completed on February 27, 2016. Constructed by the China Railway Tunnel Group, the railway connects the remote Ferghana region with capital Tashkent (Photo by Xinhua)

China hosted the historic first China-Central Asia Summit on May 18 and 19 in Xi’an, China’s ancient capital at the eastern end of the Silk Road. This landmark event, stemming from the China+Central Asia (C+C5) cooperation mechanism initiated in 2020, brought together leaders from the six participating countries for their first face-to-face collective meeting.  

During the summit, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his central Asian counterparts – President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, President Sadyr Japarov of Kyrgyzstan, President Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan and President Serdar Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan – signed several bilateral and multilateral documents as well as over 100 cooperation agreements.  

The leaders agreed to institutionalize the summit, which will be held every two years alternating between China and the Central Asian states. The next meeting will be held in Kazakhstan in 2025. 

Energy Cooperation 
China shares over 3,000 kilometers of border with three of the five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. After the former Soviet republics declared independence in 1991, China was one of the first countries to acknowledge their sovereignty and establish bilateral diplomatic relations. China began addressing border disputes with the three countries in the early 1990s, which were resolved by the end of 1999.  

Since the early 2000s, energy cooperation between China and Central Asia grew fast. In 2004, China and Kazakhstan started to build the China-Kazakhstan Crude Oil Pipeline. China’s first overland cross-border oil pipeline. The 2,798-kilometer project went online in 2006, substantially bolstering China’s energy security and laying the foundation for energy cooperation between China and Central Asia. As of the end of 2022, about 160 million cubic meters of crude oil had passed through the pipeline to China, according to Chinese media.  

Simultaneously, efforts were underway to develop the 1,833-kilometer Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline, the longest of its kind in the world, which starts at the border of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, traverses Kazakhstan before ending in Horgos, a land border port in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Construction of the pipeline commenced in the early 2000s and it was inaugurated in 2009. By May 19, 2023, the pipeline had supplied more than 430 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China. Currently, China relies on Central Asia for over two-thirds of its pipeline gas imports, underscoring the strategic importance of this energy partnership. In the summit’s joint declaration, the countries agreed to accelerate the ongoing construction of Line D of the China-Central Asia Gas Pipeline, which would increase the region’s annual supply of natural gas to China by more than half to reach 85 billion cubic meters.  

Yang Jin, Deputy Director of the Central Asia Research Office at the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, stressed that economic and trade cooperation between China and Central Asian countries is highly complementary. While Central Asian countries possess abundant energy resources and raw materials, China has a vast market, comprehensive industrial chains, advanced technologies and abundant financial resources, all of which are crucial for Central Asian countries to develop their economies. “China-Central Asia cooperation is built upon mutual respect and mutual benefits,” Yang told NewsChina.  

Yang’s view is echoed by Qian Feng, a researcher at the National Strategic Institute of Tsinghua University. The world’s largest inland geographical region, Central Asia ranks high in terms of reserves of oil, natural gas, coal and uranium, making it well-equipped to meet China’s energy demands for economic development, creating a natural complementary advantage for two sides in building a comprehensive energy industry chain collaboration, Qian said.  

Their energy cooperation is being upgraded. On the summit’s sidelines, China’s State-owned energy giant Sinopec and Kazakhstan’s KayMunayGaz agreed on key terms for potential investment in a polyethylene project in western Kazakhstan’s Atryau region. The investment decision is expected to be finalized in 2024. 

New Concept 
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the “Silk Road Economic Belt” concept in a keynote speech delivered in Kazakhstan, aimed at reviving the historical Silk Road that connected China to Europe. The proposal later evolved into China’s iconic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with Central Asian countries becoming pioneer participants.  

As the BRI substantially boosts infrastructure building in the region and fosters closer economic ties, bilateral trade between China and the five Central Asian countries has grown exponentially in recent years. In 2022, total trade between China and the region reached US$70.2 billion, marking a record high and a 40 percent year-on-year increase. Among the five countries, Kazakhstan took the lead with US$31 billion, followed by Kyrgyzstan (US$15.5b), Turkmenistan (US$11.2b), Uzbekistan (US$9.8b) and Tajikistan (US$2b).  

The momentum continued into the first four months of 2023, as trade between China and the five countries soared to 173.05 billion yuan (US$24.3b), reflecting a 37 percent increase over the same period in 2022.  

“The China-Central Asia Summit is the first to solely focus on the Central Asian region, providing a new platform for China and the region to upgrade and elevate cooperation,” Yang Jin told NewsChina.  

Qian said the China-Central Asia Summit provides an opportunity for both parties to go beyond traditional energy cooperation to explore new growth areas such as finance, agriculture, poverty reduction, green and low-carbon initiatives, healthcare and digital innovation.  

In the China-Central Asia Summit declaration, the six countries agreed to further boost road and flight connections and speed up the construction of cross-border railways connecting China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.  

The leaders also approved mechanisms to boost cooperation in areas such as renewable energy, education, science, tourism and healthcare. China agreed to increase imports of agricultural products from Central Asia and pledged to provide 26 billion yuan (US$3.8b) in grants and low-interest loans to Central Asian countries.  

China’s foreign direct investment into the five Central Asian countries was around US$15 billion by the end of 2022, involving oil and gas mining, manufacturing and digital technology, according to Wang Wentao, China’s Minister of Commerce, on April 18 during the trade ministers’ virtual meeting with his counterparts from the five Central Asian countries. China will continue to work with the region to develop digital trade and the green economy, Wang said. 
For Yu Zeyuan, a senior researcher at the Singapore-based newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, the biggest takeaway of the China-Central Asia Summit is the six countries’ consensus to intensify their efforts to strengthen the status of Central Asia as a trans-Eurasian transport hub.  

In the joint declaration, the six countries pledged to intensify the development of the China-Central Asia transport corridor toward the Middle East, Europe, South Asia and Iran. The statement specifically mentions accelerating the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway project.  

During the summit, China signed a memorandum of understanding on the CKU railway with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, signaling major progress on the project. China and Uzbekistan also announced the construction of another railway that could connect Central Asia with Afghanistan and Pakistan.  

As a major component of the southern route of the China-Europe Railway Express, the CKU would reduce the rail distance from China to the Middle East and southern Europe by about 900 kilometers.  

If the proposed railway projects can be effectively implemented, it will bring China closer to reviving the ancient Silk Road and connecting East Asia to Europe. 

‘Shared Future’ 
In 2001, China, together with Russia and four Central Asian countries (excluding Turkmenistan), initiated the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, with a focus on Central Asia. The organization plays a pivotal role in enhancing political trust, promoting economic integration and bolstering security cooperation among its member nations.  

The summit emphasized the importance of fostering ties in the security and strategic arenas. According to Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, the most important political achievement of the summit is that the two sides have agreed to “build a closer China-Central Asia community with a shared future.”  

Qin said that China reached agreements with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in building a “community with a shared future” at the bilateral level during the summit. With existing agreements with other Central Asian countries, it marks the first instance where all six nations have embraced this vision.  

Proposed under the presidency of Xi Jinping, the concept of “a community of a shared future” is presented as a vision for establishing a more just, inclusive and equitable global order. It stands in stark contrast to that of the US, which China criticized for sowing divisions, stoking confrontations and building blocs.  

In his keynote speech delivered during the summit, President Xi raised four principles in promoting the China-Central Asia community – mutual assistance, common development, universal security and everlasting friendship.  

As the summit coincided with a meeting of the Group of Seven leaders in Japan, where there was much talk about China’s alleged use of “economic coercion,” China positioned its cooperation with Central Asian countries as another example of the implementation of its Global Security initiative. China’s cooperation with Central Asia advocates “a new path to security featuring dialogue over confrontation, partnership over alliance and win-win over zero-sum,” the statement from China’s Foreign Ministry said.  

“China and Central Asian countries will work together to create a cooperation model that is profoundly complementary and highly win-win,” Qin Gang told media.  

According to Qian Feng, China’s Global Security Initiative has been well-received in Central Asia, especially after China played a significant role in the Saudi-Iran rapprochement. The establishment of the C+C5 summit will not only strengthen the security bonds between China and Central Asian countries, but also provide a new platform for collaborative efforts in addressing regional security challenges and mitigating common security risks faced by both sides.

The China-Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Local Economic and Trade Cooperation Demonstration Area, Qingdao, Shandong Province (Photo by VCG)

The oil terminal in Alashankou, 2.5 kilometers from Alashankou Port in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, receives crude oil from Kazakhstan (Photo by Xinhua)